by Regie Cabico
Poetic Ancestors Issue, Volume 13:4, Fall 2012
I met Essex Hemphill at City University of New York reading in 1993. I scoured all of the poetry books at St. Marks Bookshop and found his collection of poetry and essays, Ceremonies. This was at the height of multicultural publishing and the beginning of the spoken word poetry slam movement. I was looking for every possible role model as a writer and when I saw Essex deliver his poetry with unabashed sexuality and sardonic wit, I was witnessing the wedding of social justice, verse & performance. Essex Hemphill advocated gay marriage rights in “American Wedding”:
I place my ring
on your cock
where it belongs.
no soldier of doom
will swoop in
and sweep us apart.
He wrote about the AIDS epidemic, religious homophobia, Mappelthorpe’s hyper-sexualized images of black men and the sordid red light district of 14th Street, NW. I stood before Essex trying to absorb as much of his fearless strength and conviction to be a proud gay male of color. He smiled at me and signed my copy of Ceremonies: “To Regie take care of your blessings 3.5.93.”
At that time, poets and artists had to make the decision whether or not to come out of the closet. Though I had many openly gay teachers and acquaintances, many of them kept their sexual identity private. Essex Hemphill was born in 1957, a little over a decade before me. Reading his works, I am still in awe at how daring and relevant his poetry and essays are. I also see just how influential he became as I found myself as a young poet performing at the Nuyorican Poets Café.
My early poem “gameboy” owes a debt to Hemphills confrontational tones to a lover. In “Pressing Flats,” Hemphill wrote:
You wanna sleep on my chest?
You wanna listen to my heart beat
all through the night?
Its the only jazz station
with a twenty-four-hour signal
if you wanna listen?
I adopted his brave model, writing:
you wanna play with me? you can
just quit orientalizin cuz I aint gonna change my cotton knit calvins
if I lose
Had Essex Hemphill wanted to, he would have done well in the poetry slam world but his voice found itself in arenas larger than any coffee house or bar.
Essex Hemphills trailblazing black gay identity was not just in editing Brother To Brother, an anthology of African American gay writing; he collaborated with Isaac Julien on the film, Looking for Langston. This work gives us the first film to depict black gay desire and assert the experience of black gay men into a sacred historic context, the Harlem Renaissance. The executor of Langston Hughes‘s estate refused permission for the use of Hughes’s work in Looking for Langston, which depicts the late Harlem Renaissance poet as being homosexual. Hemphill also worked on Tongues Untied, which shows the life of gay black men in song, verse, and drama; however the film was dropped by more than half of the public television stations scheduled to air it in 1991 because of objections to profane language used in the film. It was later screened as part of “POV,” an independent film series.
Essex Hemphill also demonstrated an uncompromising vision as artist. When the DC Commission for the Arts asked Essex Hemphill to take the word corruption out of his poem “Family Jewels” at the Mayors Arts Awards, Hemphill at first agreed, then went ahead and performed his poem in its entirety. Hemphill reminds me that poetry is dangerous and reminds me to assess the risk in my own work and to hold dear to my own convictions as a Catholic gay Filipino man living in the same capital city that other gay iconoclastic and quixotic poets have lived in, most notably, Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes.
After graduating from Ballou High School, a DC Public School, Hemphill went to the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia and proclaimed his gay identity during a poetry reading at the library of Howard University in 1980. His mother, Mantalene Hemphill, who held her church’s bigoted view of homosexuality, eventually came to accept it. However, that did not stop Hemphills literary colleagues from protecting his writings. In the final days of Essexs life, Chuck Tarver recounts in blackstripe.com:
My friend called in tears. He said that Essex was no longer able to speak, he could only point and a horrible rattle came from his throat. I asked him was it “the death rattle.” He said it was. He also put me on standby because he had not spoken with Hemphill’s family who is very religious and did not know if they would honor his wishes regarding his work. Essex had been working with Charles Nero to have his papers donated to the New York Public Library. The library had agreed to accept the papers but things were still in process. In the event that it appeared the papers were in jeopardy, my friend wanted me to drive to Philly with my minivan and get the works to a safe place.
It would take almost two decades for Hemphills work to be made available to the public after much resistance from his family members. Even in death, his writings remain controversial.
Hemphill passed away in 1995 at the age of 38. Chuck Tarver asked Hemphill what Take care of your blessings meant. Hemphill replied, “Some of us bake wonderfully, write, paint, do any number of things, have facilities with numbers that others don’t have. Those are your blessings. Some of us are very strong and candid and some of us are nurturers or combinations of all of those things. Just be aware of what your particular things are and nurture them and use them toward a positive way of living.”
Hemphill accomplished so much and connected to so many, during a time before social media and the internet. His words are inextricably linked to African-American gay life in DC and across the country. His poems and essays evoke the despair and joys of African-American gay life and his confidence and joy in himself and others is seminal in its influence on the community.
He wrote as the enraged African American male labeled as a sexualized Mandingo in the media, the headless black male in Mappelthorpe photographs. He was the face of AIDS and brazenly opened the sexual taboos and homophobia within the African American community, uniting black lesbians and gay men. He tackled his own spirituality and religious morals, in his essay “Loyalty”:
At other moments it is sacred communion, causing me to moan and tremble and cuss as the Holy Ghost fucks me. It is a knowledge of fire and beauty that I will carry beyond the grave. When I sit in Gods final judgment, I will wager this knowledge against my entrance into the Holy Kingdom.
Inspired by Hemphills “In The Life,” and upon battling my own Catholic upbringing, I wrote:
If you listen to my words you will never notice the absence of bridesmaids being serenaded by chords of rice or miss the sound of baby footsteps. If you listen, my words fall without the sound of stars like grace of your denial. Dont ever think that I am not your son or that I honor you any less. Here are my poems: love them.
Essex Hemphills writings have shadow-mentored me since I came back to Washington, DC. The 25th anniversary of the AIDS quilt and my recent participation in a poetry reading at the Smithsonian Folklife festival reminded me of the loss of gay artistic lineage. How stronger would I be if all the artists who died were back? As liberal as Washington, DC is, I still come up against audience members who find my work too edgy for the open mic community which has been littered with misogynistic and homophobic verses. As a literary curator and poet performer, I feel blessed to have Ceremonies as an artistic and political manifesto, a bible in a time of spoken word renaissance in DC.
Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry, 1992
Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, 1991 (editor, anthology)
Conditions: Poems, 1986
Earth Life, 1985
Diamonds Was in the Kitty, 1983 (chapbook)
Plums, 1982 (chapbook)
Work also included in anthologies
Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC, ed. Kim Roberts, 2010
Boys Like Us: Gay Writers Tell Their Coming Out Stories, ed. Patrick Merla, 1996
Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS, ed. Thomas Avena, 1993
Tongues Untied, ed. Martin Humphries, 1988
Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time, ed. Carl Morse and Joan Larkin, 1986
In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, ed. Joseph Beam, 1986
Black Is…Black Ain’t, 1994
Tongues Untied, 1989
Looking for Langston, 1989
An earlier version of this essay was first presented at the 2011 Associated Writers and Writing Programs Annual Conference in Washington, DC, in a panel entitled “Four by Four: Beltway Poetry Quarterly Celebrates the Poetic Lineage of the Capitol City.” The panel was moderated by Holly Bass, and the presenters, in addition to Cabico, were Brian Gilmore, Kim Roberts, and Dan Vera.
Regie Cabico is a spoken word pioneer, having won the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam in 1993 and taking top prizes in the 1993, 1994 and 1997 National Poetry Slams. As a theater artist, he received the 2006 New York Innovative Theater Award for Best Performance Art Production as part of the New York Neo-Futurist's production of Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. His solo shows have been presented at Dixon Place, Joe's Pub, The Public Theater, Seattle Fringe Festival, Contact Theater (Manchester, England) and The Humana Theater Festival. He is a teaching artist at The Kennedy Center and performs his work throughout North America and the UK. He received several fellowships from the DC Commission for the Arts & Humanities, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Television credits include NPR's Snap Judgement, and HBO's Def Poetry Jam. His latest solo play, Godiva Dates and One Night Stands, received critical acclaim at the 2013 Capital Fringe Festival. Cabico was a featured poet at the 2016 Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Cabico is co-editor of the anthologies Flicker and Spark: A Contemporary Queer Anthology of Spoken Word and Poetry (Lowbrow Press, 2013) and Poetry Nation: The North American Anthology of Fusion Poetry (Vehicule Press, 1998), and his work appears in the anthologies Short Fuse, Poetry Slam, The Spoken Word Revolution, and Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC. He is co-director of the Capturing Fire National Queer Poetry Slam And Summit. To read more by this author: Regie Cabico: Winter 2007; Regie Cabico's Intro to the Split This Rock Issue, Winter 2008; Regie Cabico: Audio Issue; Regie Cabico on DC Slam: Literary Organizations Issue; Regie Cabico: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue.
Essex Hemphill (April 16, 1957 - November 4, 1995) is the editor of Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, which won a Lambda Literary Award. His third book of poems, Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry, won the National Library Association's Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual New Author Award. He was a visiting scholar at The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities and a recipient of a Pew Fellowship for the Arts.