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27 December 2008, 4:00 pm One Comment

Uncategorized: Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies

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TNG is taking a much needed break from Dec 19-Jan 4. TNG will return with new content on Jan 5. Until then, please enjoy this post from the past year. Original publish date: 11/10/08

Hidden History is my Monday afternoon column for The New Gay. Each week, I’ll cover a different nook or cranny in gay and lesbian history.

In relation to TNG reader Jamie Starstar’s comment on the “Black Homophobia and Proposition 8” post, TNG’s Michael e-mailed me on Friday. “Philip,” he asked me, “do you know of this Essex Hemphill?” As I told Michael: heck, yes! I’ve been recommending Essex to nearly everyone I know for years, and he suggested that maybe I should share that recommendation with the TNG community. This week’s Hidden History is my response to that suggestion. In short: why isn’t more of Essex’s work in print?

Essex Hemphill was a D.C. native who came to attention for his searing poetry and incisive essays about being black and gay. I first read his writing when I was in high school. After finding a few of his poems in the Carl Morse and Joan Larkin anthology Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time, I discovered that my public library in Arlington had a copy of Essex’s collection Ceremonies (first published by Dutton/Plume in 1992, before Essex’s death from AIDS, and reprinted in 2000 by lesbian-owned and –operated Cleis Press). While the poetry-and-essay collection Ceremonies is now, obscenely, out-of-print, copies are not too hard to find, and anyone who cares in the slightest about the intersection of race and sexuality is ill-informed if they have not read his work.

Below the fold, I’m going to include a review of Ceremonies that was first written for my brief-lived “Clark on Classics” column. It was originally published in the April-May 2005 (13.9-10) issue of Lambda Book Report. I feel that parts are a bit stilted, but I’ve mostly left it untouched, besides updating the “availability” section. There’s also a Hemphill publications list for anyone who wants to try to track down his difficult-to-find chapbooks and those pieces that are in-print through anthologies.

Essex Hemphill Publications List (major works):

Plums (chapbook; self-published limited edition)

Diamonds Was in the Kitty (chapbook; self-published limited edition)

Earth Life (Be Bop Books, 1985) (poetry chapbook)

Conditions (Be Bop Books, 1986) (poetry chapbook)

Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men (Alyson Books, 1991; reprinted in 2007 by local lesbian-run black gay Redbone Press. Hemphill edited this companion volume to the late Joseph Beam’s In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology; that anthology is also in-print from Redbone Press)

Ceremonies (1992/2000) (poetry and essays)

Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS (Mercury House, 1994) (This contains the longest Hemphill poem of which I am aware, “Vital Signs.”)

Boys Like Us: Gay Writers Tell Their Coming Out Stories (Avon Books, 1996; edited by Patrick Merla) (Hemphill has an essay in this book that was published after his death)

Standing in the Gap (Dutton, 1999; I’ve found traces on the Internet that this unpublished novel of Hemphill’s was to be released by Dutton, but I can find no evidence that it ever was. I’ll have to research this.)

Review of Ceremonies:

My friend Jason and I took a class together at the College of William and Mary about the literature of the formation of male homosexual identity (the complex academic title for a course all the students simply called “Gay Lit 101”). It quickly became clear that I, a textbook-case literature fag, had very little patience for the theoretical end of the course, while Jason, a politically motivated queer theorist, had very little patience for the literature. He talked me through the vagaries of Michel Foucault (jargon makes my skin crawl), I summarized the important ideas from E.M. Forster’s Maurice for him (he couldn’t will himself through it). A symbiotic relationship all around.

To cut a long story short(er), when I tried to loan Jason a copy of Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies, which I had read in high school, I was not surprised when he refused to read it. “What’s in it?” he asked suspiciously. “It’s mostly poetry,” I replied. Jason looked at me like I’d proposed he perform a particularly outré sexual act and quickly changed the subject.

Well, did I eventually beat down Jason’s defenses? Of course I did. True, he came back raving in large part about Hemphill’s powerful essays, but he even grudgingly admitted that some of the poetry had lit a fire under him, too.

Just as Essex Hemphill was, Jason is hyperaware of the joys and difficulties of life as a black gay man. It’s a shame that there’s so much marginalization of minority literature within our own particular GLBT minority, though. I fear that too many readers may ignore the late Hemphill’s writing precisely because of his double minority status. It’s a loss for all humanity if the ideas advanced in Ceremonies go forgotten and undiscussed.

Hemphill inveighs against those who would attack black and/or gay people, but his poetry and essays avoid being strident, the great danger of political writing. The poems deal with such current issues as racial profiling (“Family Jewels”), the poverty and danger encircling young black men in inner city neighborhoods (“For My Own Protection”), gay marriage (“American Wedding”), and the sexual objectification of black men (“Black Machismo”) and black women (“To Some Supposed Brothers”).

Consistent use of fresh language and surprising comparisons helps to make Hemphill’s work memorable. “American Wedding” turns the placement of a cock ring on one’s lover into a powerful act of union. “Black Machismo” pulls no punches as it addresses the issue of the sexual objectification of black men: “Metaphorically speaking / his black dick is so big / when it stands up erect / it silences / the sound of his voice.” Even Hemphill’s less political, more romantic poems have memorable rhythms and images, as in “Black Beans,” where one lover tells another that “Times are lean, Pretty Baby, / the
beans are burnt / to the bottom / of the battered pot,” but still “Our souls can’t be crushed / like cats crossing streets too soon.” The poems in Ceremonies defy the odds: they are both topical and current, crafted and accessible, highly specific to the black, gay experience, yet universal in their concerns.

One way or the other, the essays concern themselves with black gay survival. Whether he focuses on the drag queens featured in Jenny Livingston’s film Paris is Burning (from the essay “To Be Real”) or the homophobia contained in the work of the influential and controversial Dr. Frances Cress Welsing (“If Freud Had Been a Neurotic Colored Woman”), Hemphill ensures his audience remains acutely aware how dangerous it can be “to be a homosexual in my Black neighborhood and in society.” He says in the poem “For My Own Protection” that he wants “to start / an organization / to save my life.” The essays are further calls for this sort of organization, on a personal and a societal level. He does not, however, call for survival at any cost. In essays such as “Does Your Mama Know About Me?” and “Miss Emily’s Grandson Won’t Hush His Mouth,” Hemphill decries passive acceptance of prejudice as a means of survival. Whether attacking Robert Mapplethorpe’s objectifying images of black men or refusing to censor himself to pull down grant money or please his family, Hemphill acknowledges that mere survival is not worth being forced into silence.

If not for Cleis Press’s re-release of Ceremonies in 2000, though, Essex Hemphill’s voice may have been silenced. His early chapbooks, Earth Life and Conditions, were published in small numbers and are now virtually impossible to find (trust me, I’ve looked). And, as Charles I. Nero notes in his introduction to the Cleis edition, the papers that Hemphill wanted donated to the New York Public Library never made it there, and “efforts to contact his family for the papers…failed.” That alone should be enough to make anyone rush to find a copy of Ceremonies.

Availability: Unfortunately, Ceremonies is no longer available from Cleis Press. Fortunately, ABEBooks lists 23 copies available starting at $1.28 plus shipping. Bookfinder.com does even better, showing 82 copies in varying condition from a wide number of sellers.

For Hidden History, I’ll write more about pornographers and poets, furies and faggots, books and bootleggers, singers and scandals. If you’ve got suggestions about people, places, and ideas I should cover, particularly if they have a D.C. connection, shoot me an e-mail: philipclark@hotmail.com.

Next week: Lesbians! Lesbians! Lesbians!

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