by Chuck Tarver
As I mentioned on glbpoc, a close friend of mine was one of Essex Hemphill's caregivers. I'd known how critical his condition was for quite some time and even had the chance to see him on two occasions toward the end of his life.
During the final months of his life he was hospitalized several times, confined to a wheel chair, suffered nerve damage and would often suffer from bleeding. Inspite of his weakened condition his spirit remained strong. On one occasion he traveled to Washington, DC by train to spend time with his family. On another he got himself aboard Philadelphia para-transit to go downtown and file a complaint against a former lover who had taken to harassing him.
Both times that I saw Essex, he spoke about his plans once he recovered. He planned to resume his writing. He also laughed at what he considered pre-mature rumors of his pending death. His caregivers were left with the dilemma of preparing him for transition and at the same time respecting his wish that they not make a big deal about death. His HIV/AIDS status was widely known. What was not widely know was that he was in critical condition.
In preparation for his transition, my friend asked if I knew of any place willing to accept Essex's papers and manuscripts. I put him in touch with my cousin Charles Nero who made contacts for Essex at the New York Public Library. Essex had begun the process of donating his works to the NYPL before his transition. I am unaware of the current status of the transaction.
At the request of his caregivers, I was asked to keep quiet about the situation. They felt that was Essex's wish. In spite of how I felt about the matter, I respected the request to remain silent. The feeling reminded me of a situation during college when a student committed suicide from the very building where the radio station was located on the evening that I was doing news. Even though I was an eye witness to the event, I was prohibited from giving details because the student's family had not yet been notified. EHTICS CAN INDEED BE PAINFUL.
As I saw on GLBPOC when I posted the message about his death, I knew there would have been a tremendous outpouring of love for Essex. It would have been nice for him to have seen that. Yet, if it is any consolation, I think he knew.
On the two occasions I saw Essex, he was in good humor and spirits. On the first occasion, he wanted fries and a milkshake from Checkers, a black-owned fast-food chain in Philly. My friend and I filled the order and visited with Essex for an hour or so. During that time Essex talked about his work, people in his life and inspite of what was obvious to me and my friend, how he would resume his work once he recovered. In a joking manner he talked about people in the community who he knew were talking about his demise.
The second and final time I saw him Saturday, October 28, 1995, the week before his death. My friend and I dropped by to deliver a Chicken pot pie from Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) Essex had seen a commercial for it on TV and wanted to try it. Again Essex was in good humor. He devoured the pie.
He had some errands to run around the neighborhood, so we helped him get dressed and into his wheel chair. Everywhere we went in West Philly people knew him and wished him well. He smiled and joked with so many people. It was a wonderful outpouring of love. The whole time we traveled he jokingly let us know we were lousy wheelchair handlers.
When we returned to his apartment my friend and I cut his hair and trimmed his beard (goatee) During the process Essex joked about how "the virus" had taken away his "Negritude". His hair no longer "kinked" so he had taken to shaving his head and keeping his goatee short.
We sat around laughing and joking for a short time after we cut his hair. Finally, he got himself ready for bed and we left.
The following week my friend and Essex's other caregivers, did their best to get friends in to see him. On Wednesday, I received a call from my friend telling me Essex had fallen and had been readmitted to the hospital. On Thursday, my friend called in tears. He said that Essex was no longer able to speak, he could only point and a horrible rattle came from his throat. I asked him was it "the death rattle". He said it was.
He also put me on standby because he had not spoken with Hemphill's family who is very religious and did not know if they would honor his wishes regarding his work. Essex had been working with Charles Nero to have his papers donated to the New York public library. The library had agreed to accept the papers but things were still in process. In the event that it appeared the papers were in jeopardy, my friend wanted me to drive to Philly with my minivan and get the works to a safe place. He called me at work on Friday and said the family had arrived and such a plan would not be necessary.
On Saturday, my friend told me that Essex had died and asked me to being letting folks know.
What follows is an interview I did with Hemphill five years ago just before the release of Brother to Brother. It was published in Network a now defunct Wilmington, DE black gay publication. I was pleased that Essex was generous enough with his time to talk with me at length for a piece that would only appear in a minor publication. It just goes to show what a "brother" he was.
by Chuck Tarver
Essex Hemphill is a writer, poet and performance artist currently living in Philadelphia. The second oldest of five, he was born in Chicago and raised in Washington, DC.
Hemphill is the author of Earth Life(1985) and Conditions (1986). In 1986 he received a fellowship for poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). His poems have appeared in Obsidian, Black Scholar, Callaloo, Mouth of the Dragon, Painted Bride Quarterly, and Essence. Hemphill contributed to In The Life(1986) the historic collection of literature by Black gay men, edited by Joseph Beam. He also contributed to Tongues Untied a collection of poems by Black gay men and to two films: Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied and Isaac Julien's" Looking for Langston.
Hemphill's work So Many Dreams a collection of monologues about African American gay life was recently performed by Larry Duckette, as part of "An Arts Festival on AIDS". He has just completed work on Brother to Brother the companion anthology to In The Life, which was begun by Joseph Beam, before his death in 1988. Hemphill was assisted in the project by Beam's parents Dorothy and Sun Beam. "The first time, that I'm aware of, where the parents of a Black gay man have worked to see his project completed," Hemphill said. Brother to Brother will be released by Alyson Publications in the Spring of 1991.
Network. How much of the book had Beam worked on before you took over the project?
Essex Hemphill. Joe had begun to send out notices to the press and he had begun to receive manuscripts. A few of them he had started reading, because some of them bore notes, queries, suggestions for changes, but the bulk of the project was carried out by me almost from scratch. I decided not to veer away from the title of the book, which is actually taken from his essay, Brother to Brother: Words from the Heart, which appears in In the Life. I also decided to follow through with some of the thematic areas that he was dealing with like: the family, responsibility, AIDS, etc. I think I've tried to maintain as much of the direction he started off with. I wanted to see that the book in and of itself would be worthy for use in the class room and in a companion fashion with In The Life. I think it's going to be a fine product when it hits.
N. In a word, tiring or fulfilling?
E. H. Oh very much fulfilling. Tiring only in the sense that any work that we undertake requires that we give of ourselves. Fulfilling in the sense that I've been introduced to a lot of writers, that I was not aware of prior to undertaking this project. I have a sense of some of the issues and concerns that Black gay men are facing. I'm just now understanding how important it was that this project be completed. It's the whole notion that when one of us falls, somebody should be there to finish up that work. Particularly when you're talking about cultural political projects.
N. In looking at some of your work I sense that your mom is an inspiration for you.
E.H. Well both of my parents are. My mother and I are very close. Closer than my father and I. But I exercise the same candor with my parents that I exercise with most people. It may be mitigated by the type of language that I use, (laugh) But both of them are very inspiring. Not to cast my mother in any kind of stereotype, but she is a very strong Black woman. I can say that the men and particularly the women in my family are strong. The circumstances of Black life in this country require that everyone be as strong as he or she can possibly be. So to the degree that inspiration has come from both my parents, to be honest, to tell the truth, it made it so much easier to come out to both of them.
N. The term "Tongues Untied" has been a recurring theme in your life. There was the 1987 anthology and also the film that you worked on with Marlon Riggs. What does the term mean to you?
E.H. Just as it sounds. The releasing of the tongue so that those truths that are knotting it up can be told. It's an interesting term, In the anthology they explain how the term was coined.
N. They relate it to a work by Michael Harper.
E.H. Exactly. For myself I just like the term (laugh). It's a functional term.
N. What was working with Marlon Riggs like?
E.H. Oh it was a wonderful experience. In fact it's a collaboration that I'm sure has not ended with the work on Tongues Untied. We both talked about various projects that we still want to engage in. He's presently working on some new pieces and I'm of course finishing off this work on Brother to Brother and some other projects. I think the window of opportunity will come around again sometime next year. He was very specific about what he wanted. In fact, working with Marlon and Isaac Julien, (Looking for Langston) I found that I can be very proud of saying that I worked with them. I felt honored that in both instances, they felt my work was a necessary part of the vision that they were putting on film.
N. Has Tongues Untied been shown in any mainstream Black settings such as an NAACP meeting?
E.H. I think it's been showing up in various arenas. Both of the films have been picking up awards left and right, particularly Tongues Untied. I don't think the fuel and the dynamism has really peaked yet. I know that it's gotten a tremendous amount of play in international film festivals and in gay and lesbian film festivals. I also know that it is beginning to play in mainstream settings like the type you're asking about. What that critique will be like remains to be seen.
N. You recently commented on the work of the late Robert Mapplethorpe (Does Your Mama Know About Me?). What has been the reaction of the larger gay community?
E.H. It's been real interesting because you run into a number of issues. Most images of Black gay men heretofore had been in third rate pornographic magazines, with bad color and bad focus. I began to ask questions as did other gay men like Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer (True Confessions: A Discourse on Images of Black Male Sexuality) about the whole notion of our representation, particularly in a gay contest. What we all began to realize is that the same objectification of the Black male and the same reduction of the Black male to a sexual stereotype was occurring in the images of Black males by Robert Mapplethorpe.
I restricted my critique to the depiction of Black men. White gay men however, reacted as if what I had said was sacrilegious. They also acted as if Black men had no right to critique Mapplethorpe. I was not the first to make these comments. I think that what happened here was that when I made my comments it was during the NEA controversy. So that's what heightened the effect of what I had to say. I don't have any problem with erotic art. In fact, I think much of it when rendered well can be very beautiful and very moving. I think that Mapplethorpe has an excellent eye and an excellent talent. But again that doesn't negate the question of why are the heads of some of his images missing? Why for example, the one piece that seems to really set people on edge, when I critique it, "The Man in the Polyester Suit", which I feel should have been called, "Black Dick in a Polyester Suit", because that's essentially what it is. It is about the dick. It is about that man's penis.
Even though that turned out to have been one of his lovers, who in a film interview said, that he didn't see anything wrong with the photograph. that's fine, he was in love. That's the context at which you have to look at his ability to see objectification. But being on the outside and looking at that image, for me it just continues to perpetuate this whole notion that we are beasts. Again the question still begs, why is the head missing? And why is the head missing from other photographs of Black men that Mapplethorpe had in his collection?
When it comes to the whole notion of who we are and how we're presented as black men in this country, regardless of sexuality, there' a lot of reworking, there's a lot of reclaiming of our identities that has to go on. Each and everyone of us is responsible for that.
N. To what would you attribute the invisibility of most Black gay men?
E.H. Silence. Largely silence.
N. There is an argument surfacing in the community asking people to make a distinction between Black gay men and gay Black men. Is there a need for such a distinction?
E.H. Well some people need to go through that. For my self, I always tell people I can be gay in only a few cities in this country, but I'm Black everywhere I go. So for that reason I think it's simple enough to understand that I'm a Black gay man. For me, my race even at the point of birth was more important than my sexuality. that's going to always be the case, at least within my lifetime. I don't see any major changes happening in the consciousness of this country around issues of race. I think that we will still have our confrontations. We will have our debates. We will have our theories and our statistics and our reports, but it's going to take something a little more dramatic than what we've seen thus far. It's a semantic debate with really no end.
When you look at gay, it is largely defined as being White male middle class. Which thus excludes all the women I know (laugh) and many of the men of color that I know. Some people find it necessary to debate, 'well which am I?' But for me, I love my race enough to know that I'm a Black man first and foremost and that my sexuality falls in line after that.
N. You jokingly said, you can be gay in only a few cities but that you're Black where ever you go. Is it more difficult for Black gay men in small communities to be open about their sexuality?
E.H. Let me put it like this, it's left up to the individual, what's important. For me, it's all hand-in-hand, it comes as one package. I can't just be Black and then just be gay. I'm all of these things and it's taken me a very long time to arrive at a love of myself that allows the integration to work. Each thing plays off of the other. Each part of me empowers me. So I can't say, well my left hand is gay and my right hand is Black.
I know men who live in rural Mississippi, who talk to me about the difficulty of coming out. I would cite that as an example that in those little towns, I would be dealt with most surely by people outside of my race as a Black man, before they would even deal with me as a homosexual. So it's left up to the individual what's important to you in terms of the people that are in your life and that empower you with their love. That are connected with you, be it through professional obligations, or family obligations or friendships.
You have to make the decision about what you want them to know about you. but then also if you maintain a sense of silence, you might have to stomach certain types of attitudes that rear up, like faggot jokes. then you have to ask yourself, how tolerant do I want to be of that, or how can I advocate for that kind of denigration to stop in my presence? Then of course, the question is going to be raised, 'why is that important to you?' Once you come out, frankly you never stop coming out. It's never over.
N. Your poem, For My Own Protection is a very general Black male survival poem. I'm surprised it hasn't been picked up beyond the Black gay movement. What are your thoughts about that?
E.H. What's been so interesting for me is that a lot of my recognition is attributable to support from the gay and lesbian community. Specifically support from Black gays and lesbians. Particularly support from lesbians. Which has been real interesting. The African-American community by and large, the literary and academic community is very homophobic. After a point, I got tired of trying to deal with getting work in their publications or even getting them to take an interest. I just made up my mind to go on and continue to create and who ever would pick up the work that's fine.
I haven't felt like there's been any loss for the poem, which was written in the very early '80s. I find it interesting that the concept of Black men as endangered is just now catching on.
N. 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 that 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.
N. Do you think the African-American community is still asleep on the issue of AIDS.
E.H. I still thinks so in a very large way. The community is still caught up in the myth that it's just something that gay men die of. There's also the element of shame. An excellent story dealing with that is Craig Harris' Cut Off From Among Their People which appeared in In The Life.
The African-American community suffers also from an inability to talk frankly about sexuality. And its so necessary for us to be able to do that, because that is an important element of our survival. You hear fellows say, 'I mess around'. Well what does that mean? What kind of mess are you creating in messing around? As opposed to specifically being able to state, that I do this, I do that, I'm engaged in this, I'm engaged in that. And knowing what the ramifications of what you're engaged in are. And knowing what your responsibilities are.
N. I've heard you say as a closing greeting to people, "Take care of your blessings," What do you mean by that?
E.H. Exactly as it sounds. Some of us bake wonderfully, write, paint, do any number of things, have facilities with numbers that others don't have. Those are your blessings. Some of us are very strong and candid and some of us are nurturers or combinations of all of those things. Just be aware of what your particular things are and nurture them and use them toward a positive way of living. That's simply what I mean. So, take care of your blessings.
Last updated: 08 January 1996 by Chuck Tarver