Blackipedia is a weekly CASSIUS feature that takes a fun approach to exploring Black history, slang, and culture. For the month of April (#NationalPoetryMonth), we’re honoring legendary Black wordsmiths. Get ready to learn something—and tell a friend!
[es-iks hemp hil]
- A poet, editor, and activist, Essex Hemphill (born April 16, 1957) was known for his fearless advocacy for the Black gay community and his provocative social commentary. After self-publishing Earth Life in 1985 and Conditions in 1986, he went on to edit Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men in 1991. A year later, his first full-length essay and poetry collection—Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry—took home the National Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual New Author Award.
- As a member of performance poetry group Cinque, Hemphill’s work was featured in Tongues Untied (1989), Black Is … Black Ain’t (1994), and Looking for Langston (1989). “He had this intensity,” Wayson Jones, a friend and fellow Cinque member told The Washington Post in 2014. “And the audiences, he really had not just their attention but their whole energy.” Jones added that “what he was doing was something people were hungry for,” citing the “fierce” and “lyrical” charisma he brought to D.C.’s art scene.
- Hemphill’s charisma can be witnessed in a clip from Aishah Shahidah Simmons NO! The Rape Documentary, in which Hemphill recites the powerful “To Some Supposed Brothers” five months before his death. “When we filmed Essex, he was very ill,” Simmons recently told CASSIUS. “Despite his illness, he miraculously pushed through the filming during that emotionally intense day…. Essex was razor sharp in his clarity about the critical need for our communities to address and end homophobia and sexual violence in our communities.” Hemphill died on November 4, 1995, from AIDS-related complications.
To Learn More:
A Poet Who Spoke to the Black Gay Experience, and a Quest to Make Him Heard (The Washington Post)
Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (Essex Hemphill)