On Essex Hemphill
April 16, 2014 by Guest contributor
Post submitted by Charles Stephens
Several years ago, when I went to go work for AID Atlanta, I kept copies of Brother to Brother and Ceremonies on my desk. I positioned the books so that their titles were prominently displayed. When people walked by, I wanted them to see the books, see the tiles, see Essex Hemphill’s name. In that sense, I was a kind of missionary, handing out Watchtowers to the heathens. I was trying to convert folks to my cause.
In the midst of the trauma, the near collective extinction of the 1980s, where we were dropping like flies, these men including Essex were able to create beauty and magic. How were they able to do this? Able to collect themselves enough between funerals and hospital visits, funerals and hospital visits, to write such gorgeous poems, create such breathtaking films, write fiction, found organizations, edit anthologies, publish commentary, organize each other…how were they able to show up to life and create in this way? And they dared, dared, name themselves as black gay men. So that was why I displayed those books on my desk. They were a kind of Talisman for me. A shield and a charm.
Though Essex himself had little interest in working formally in nonprofit organizations or a "movement job," a different path than say fellow writer and activist Craig Harris, he provided, to reference a brilliant point made by my colleague Chanel Craft Tanner about the role of poets in activism, the lyrics for our movement. And movements need poetry, words, lyrics, music, and art. Though he was not the first, or only, black gay poet of his time, there was something about his particular work, his particular words, that resonated for the 1980s generation of black gay men, and even today.
When I facilitated workshops for black gay men, I would open with the stunning poem “For My Own Protection,” which I thought captured poetically what I was trying to do politically. Another poem I thought was critical was “Now We Think,” since it perfectly captured the ambivalence and anxiety of our desires in the context of AIDS.
So on Hemphill’s birthday I reflect on him, not to make him out to be some saint, I think if anything he was a very proud sinner, but as an exercise in collective memory. There is so much we still can learn from the power of his voice, the beauty of his words, the resilience of his spirit.
Charles Stephens is an Atlanta-based writer and activist.
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