By DEB PRICE
HIS two most precious blessings arrived the same year.
Fourteen years old and growing up in a poor neighborhood in Washington, D.C., Essex Hemphill discovered his artistry and his sexuality.
''Tablets, journals, those became my confidants,'' the acclaimed poet recalls, reclining in an ocean-liner blue deck chair in his sprawling Philadelphia apartment.
For while his poetic gift drew praise from relatives and teachers, he instinctively hid his blossoming homosexual desire. To protect himself from classmates' wrath, Hemphill, who is black, secretly chose a white grocer as his first lover. ''I saw what they did to other kids they called 'faggot' at school,'' he explains.
A LITERARY LEADER
Fierce dedication catapulted Hemphill to the forefront of a new literary movement. What never had been suddenly flourished in the '80s: poetry, short stories, magazines and even films by and about black gay men. He contributed to the anthology In the Life. And his powerful poetry punctuated two documentaries, Looking for Langston and Tongues Untied.
''I started writing about and addressing my homosexuality because it wasn't there in the black text,'' Hemphill, 37, says. ''And I needed something to be there to validate that my experience was real for me.''
When his dear friend Joseph Beam died of AIDS, Hemphill took over his unfinished work and produced ''Brother to Brother,'' a sequel anthology, in 1991.
In his life and his writing, Hemphill strips away gay masks that deceive, hurt, squander precious human connections. His collected poems and essays, ''Ceremonies,'' demonstrate his commitment to constructively addressing other serious social issues as well: racism within the predominantly white gay community, black-on-black violence, sexism, the sad tendency of oppressed people to scapegoat others.
His latest and most ambitious poem, ''Vital Signs,'' which appears in the newly released ''Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS,'' pulls together his myriad themes, ultimately revealing his HIV-positive status:
Once upon a time
I was black and fertile,
. . . straining leashes,
. . . Now I ponder defenses:
how to save my life,
how to avoid CMV, pneumocystis, TB.
Yet, never one to concede defeat, to be pulled under by
adversity, he proudly notes:
I have spent
all these years
trying to live
ways of being
I've seldom seen.
Hemphill not only tries to live those seldom seen ways but works to ensure that others can share the journey, the hope and the possibility. That means struggling to make visible what has too long been invisible.
Chiding Langston Hughes' estate for censoring that poet's work from the gay documentary ''Looking for Langston,'' Hemphill declares:
''The silence surrounding black gay and lesbian lives is being meticulously dismantled. . . . Every closet is coming down -- none are sacred . . . those closets are ancestral burial sites that we rightfully claim and exhume.''
Now Hemphill pours his waning energy into three projects: ''Standing in the Gap,'' a novel in which a mother challenges a preacher's condemnation of her gay son, who has AIDS; ''Bedside Companions,'' a collection of short stories by black gay men; and his favorite, ''The Evidence of Being,'' narratives of older black gay men.
Although always reaching for new possibilities, Hemphill never fails to appreciate the gifts he has been given. ''Our blessings,'' he explains, ''are only as good to us as we are to them.''