essex

This was a late entry to the “what is your favorite gay/queer themed book” MARY blog post:

My favorite gay/queer themed book is Ceremonies (prose and poetry) by Essex Hemphill. In the early 90′s, when I was searching high and low for my identity as a black gay young man. I desperately hungered for a face that looked like mine. In Oxford Books, located in Atlanta, GA, a reserved and bashful country boy discovered pages and pages of fire, life, joy and lessons contained in Essex’s book. Essex Hemphill is my hero. His work changed my life. His stories, poetry and his journey taught me how laugh out loud with my friends, to face the words faggot and sissy head on without fear or hastily fleeing, and finally to live and love freely.

-Eric Hall

I too loved Essex’s work.

Born in April 16, 1957, in Chicago, Illinois but primarily raised in the Southeast section of Washington, DC, Essex began to write poems as a teenager. Essex took on the endeavor of writing in the hopes of creating a narrative for a life that he was living, but had simply not read yet: the narrative of a contemporary black gay man. During his brief literary career he published over three books of poetry/prose/essays and edited several more.

His style of poetry was based on the African-American literary tradition of “testimony”; the literary and oral convention of giving (preaching) a “proper” accounting of the Black experience, via the use of rousing, highly stylized/dramatic language.

I know some of us have been testimonied to death by the onslaught of fair to middling poetry slams in the 90’s, but Hemphill skillfully circumvented the trap of “slam poetry clichés.” His work was neither unintelligible rants, nor boring expressions of narcissism.

Mr. Hemphill’s work was a moving, sustained attempt to reveal higher truths, both personal and political. The enhancing powers of the erotic. The love and loveless relations blacks have with one another. The dynamism of black sissies. The objectification of the black male body in white gay culture. The power of finding your own voice. Hemphill scrutinized topics that affected him, with an intelligent, poetic candor.

His inward wonderings were often used to beautifully uncover complex outer-truths; which in the end makes his work more art than rhetoric.

Essex died from AIDS related complications in 1995.

Heavy Breathing
I wanted to give you
my sweet man pussy,
but you grunted me away
and all other Black men
who tried to be near you.
Our beautiful nigga lips and limbs
stirred no desire in you.
Instead you chose blonde,
milk-toned creatures to bed.
but you were still one of us,
dark like us, despised like us.

-Essex Hemphill (From Ceremonies)

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