(Ceremonies offers provocative commentary on highly charge...)
Ceremonies offers provocative commentary on highly charged topics such as Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of African-American men, feminism among men, and AIDS in the black community.
Early in his life, Essex moved to Washington D.C. where he attended Ballou High School. After graduation, he enrolled at the University of Maryland in 1975 to study journalism. Though he left college after his freshman year, he continued to interact with the D.C. art scene: performing spoken word, working on journals, and beginning to publish his first poetry chapbooks. He would go on to achieve his degree in English at the University of the District of Columbia.
In 1979, Hemphill and his colleagues started the Nethula Journal of Contemporary Literature, a publication aimed at showcasing the works of modern black artists. He also performed at institutions, including Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, and University of California at Los Angeles to name a few.
Hemphill also began publishing his own collections of poetry during this time, beginning with "Diamonds Was in the Kitty" and "Some of the People We Love", and followed by the more favorably reviewed "Earth Life" and "Conditions."
Essex Hemphill also made appearances in a number of documentaries between 1989 and 1992. In 1989, he appeared in Looking for Langston, a film directed by Isaac Julien that was the subject of poet Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. Hemphill also worked with Emmy award-winning filmmaker Marlon Riggs on two documentaries: "Tongues Untied", which looked into the complex overlapping of black and queer identities, and "Black is... Black Ain't", which discussed what exactly constitutes "blackness." The second manuscript was published in 1991 under the title "Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men."
In 1992, Hemphill published his largest collection of poetry and short stories, entitled "Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry", which included recent work, but also selection from his earlier poetry collections, "Earth Life and Conditions."
“I moved away from black nationalism,” Hemphill writes in Ceremonies, “as being too narrow a politic for the interests that reside in me.” But he also found that a narrowly defined lesbian and gay political ideology could not adequately accommodate his personal vision, and went on to develop his own political and literary ideas.
Essex criticized both the institutionalized patriarchy, and dominant gender identities within society. As an open gay, he struggled for the broadening of the lesbian and gay political ideology and theit human rights.
Quotations: My sexual curiosity would have blossomed in any context, but in Southeast Washington, where I grew up, I had to carefully allow my Petals to unfold. If I had revealed them too soon they would have been snatched away, brutalized, and scattered down alleys. I was already alert enough to know what happened to the flamboyant boys at the school who were called ‘sissies’ and ‘faggots. I could not have endured then the violence and indignities they often suffered.
Essex was an open gay activist.