Last Saturday night (or was it Sunday?), I was dining at B. Smith's Union Station with one of my favorite "peeps," Mr. Essex Hemphill. He's the late, renowned, groundbreaking African-American gay poet, editor and activist, you know. Since we hadn't laid eyes on each other in oh, 20 years or so, we were just kickin' back, leisurely savoring our sumptuous meals, and listening to some finger-poppin' live jazz.
We were catching up, chit-chatting about the '80s, when we first met. We discussed how much Washington, D.C. had changed--and hadn't.
Afterwards, flashing his broad, deliciously wicked grin, Essex asked, "'Wassup' with your personal life these days?"
Then, that sexy smile fully enveloped his face, holding it hostage. He grinned, "Is there a boyfriend? A 'huzzband?' An 'in-between?' What?"
I threw up my hands and chuckled, "Well, ya know...what can I say?" I played coy to keep the fun going.
Changing the subject, I laughed, "Hey, 'bruh'--it's all about you."
Suddenly, for whatever reason, stillness dropped squarely down on the both of us.
After a little more than a minute, I decided to break the loud quietness.
And then, I got serious.
I inquired, "Yo, 'Es'--is the afterlife, is heaven all it's cracked up to be?"
He said nary a word. His only response was his patented smile and that sly glint in his eye.
And then, I woke up. Alas, it was only a dream.
Recently, I've been thinking a lot about Essex, who would've turned 52 on April 16th. Despite a relatively brief literary career, Essex was arguably the most critically acclaimed and best-known contemporary openly gay African-American poet. Through his editing and writing, Essex helped shatter the silence surrounding Black gay experiences, and empowered other Black gay men to find their voices.
Essex and I met in April 1984 at the Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO). He was a graphics artist while I was a writer for that utility's corporate communications department.
Before I reminisce about the personal side of the man, allow me to share with you what made Essex such an undeniable force in shaping and popularizing modern GLBT literature as a whole. Born in Chicago on April 16, 1957, Essex grew up in Southeast Washington. He began writing poetry when he was 14. "I started writing about and addressing my homosexuality because it wasn't there in the black text," he recalled. "And I needed something to be there to validate that my experience was real for me."
Essex studied English at Maryland University but chose to complete his degree at the University of the District of Columbia. Believing that poetry should be heard, he regularly performed his work, often in collaboration with other D.C. African-American gay and lesbian artists. In 1983, he, Wayson Jones and Larry Duckette teamed up to create Cinque, a performance poetry group that combined cutting-edge political verse, vivid imagery about Black gay life, and tightly-woven harmonies. Quickly, the group developed a loyal following.
On a sweltering summer evening in 1985, I had the good fortune of attending one of his performances, which was absolutely mesmerizing. And full of sensuality. Not to mention raw sexuality. For me, that night got hotter.
Cinque's poetic style gained national attention after their group's work was featured in Marlon Rigg's much-acclaimed films Tongues Untied (1991) and Black Is...Black Ain't (1994). Essex's poetry also was included in Issac Julien's award-winning film, Looking For Langston (1989).
Today, "poetry slams" are mainstream. All the rage. Cool. But "back in the day," Essex was ahead of his time. He was introducing us to this art form in a profound way-- developing and fashioning it. He was giving it crucial visibility.
In the 1980s, there were very few publishers interested in the work of openly gay African-American writers. Essex didn't wait for them "to come around." Instead, he self-published his first two collections of poetry entitled Earth Life (1985) and Conditions (1986). After contributing to various anthologies including 1986's In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology by Joseph Beam, Essex became more widely known. His work appeared in publications including Essence, Advocate, Obsidian, and Gay Community News.
After his close friend Beam passed away from AIDS in 1988, Essex moved to Philadelphia to complete Beam's sequel to In the Life. Entitled Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, this anthology was published in 1991 and won a Lambda Literary Award, garnering widespread literary acclaim.
The next year, a major publisher released his Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry, which won the American Library Association's Gay and Lesbian Book Award in Literature. The poems and essays contained in Ceremonies provide powerful insights into the constructions of race, gender, and sexuality in America. The topics addressed include the sexual objectification of Black men in white gay culture; relationships between Black gay men and non-gay Black men; and HIV/AIDS in the African-American community.
Essex received four grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry in 1988. The year 1993 was a bonanza: he was awarded a Pew Charitable Trust Fellowship in the Arts, and the Emery S. Hetrick Award for community-based activism from the Hetrick-Martin Institute. And, he was a visiting scholar at Santa Monica, California's Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities.
After battling AIDS for several years, Essex died from AIDS-related complications on November 4, 1995, in Philadelphia. Essex was 38.
Now, what do I remember about the personal side of this engaging, complex, and uncommonly bright individual?
Well, the instant Es and I met, we had that "gaydar thang" goin' on. Instantly, we were attracted to one another.
But it was more than just that. We had much in common--a hunger for writing. A sense of free-spiritedness. Openness. Politics. A preference for The Artist Known as Prince over Michael Jackson. Disdain for PEPCO's racist, demoralizing regime.
And soon, we became good friends.
Es doggedly pushed back against the obstacles to overcome them. He was fiercely determined to turn his dreams into realities.
Although he was a sensitive, caring guy, Es took no crap. From anybody. The PEPCO regime worked overtime in attempts to subjugate him, but to no avail. He exited the company before I could.
Confident about and in who he was, Es was firmly grounded and rooted in his sexuality. He was unabashed about it. His affecting smile and that mischievous twinkle which danced in his eye--both "slightly corrupting" in a good kind of way, of course--could win you over in no time flat. The "bruh" had swagger, and exuded raw sexual appeal. If you weren't careful, this "total package" could be oh-so divinely intoxicating.
Unfortunately, Es and I lost touch after he moved to Philadelphia. His struggle with AIDS was a contracted, debilitating and agonizing one. However, I've been told that his spirit remained vibrant and strong.
In December 1990, Chuck Tarver interviewed Essex for the publication Network. The poet, editor and activist spoke about how the AIDS crisis was impacting the African-American GLBTI population. I think it's both poignant and fitting to share his comments on this issue, due to the current alarming and astronomically high incidence of HIV/AIDS within the Black GLBTI community.
Network: "A number of creative folks have succumbed to AIDS. What's your sense of the toll that AIDS has been taking on the Black gay creative community?"
E.H.: "It's just been cutting it to shreds. See, I think there was a fundamental mistake made in the early '80s. Because the initial deaths were largely White gay men, Black people didn't think they had anything to worry about. That was like sitting on the train tracks with the train bearing down on you and saying, 'I will not get hit by this train.' And that was crazy. We've been slow to awaken to the fact that this is moving through sex and we're all having sex. Surely it's going to affect our community as much as any other. But that was part of the initial myth that arose.
"I partly think that some of the issues of racism were played out in that as well. Because for some Black people, it was almost glee for them that it was white people who were dying and not Black people. It set into motion a certain inactivity that has proven to be very fatal. On the flip side of all of that, again considering the massive amount of homophobia and closetedness that the African-American community suffers from, there have been very important Black leaders who have died from AIDS in the past five years, whose survivors have stated they've died of rare blood diseases or some such nonsense. Because many of the people who have carried cultural weight and cultural identification have died in silence, we continue to miss those opportunities to galvanize the African-American community to care for itself and to be more concerned about this issue of AIDS."
Essex, you are sorely missed. You blazed a path for so many African-American gay authors and writers. Your amazing story and accomplishments infused within us the lionhearted courage, the steely resolve, and the undying strength to solider on.
Without you, would there be a James Earl Hardy? An E. Lynn Harris? Or even a
Wyatt O'Brian Evans?
Es, continue dancing in the afterlife. Keep that arresting smile--and that naughty little twinkle in your eye.