Brash, bold, provocative, and edgy. These are just some of the many words that were used to describe the poet and performer Essex Hemphill who was known for his outspoken, direct, and often confrontational poems and articles. Hemphill was also unapologetic about his open homosexuality. The oldest of five children, Hemphill was born on April 16, 1957 in Chicago, Illinois to parents Mantalene and Warren Hemphill. Although he was born in the Midwest, he was raised in Washington, D.C during his formative years. During his early teens, Hemphill began to write poetry.
In the fall of 1975, Hemphill enrolled at the University of Maryland at College Park where he studied English. While an undergraduate student at the university, he began to further explore and cultivate his literary curiosity and talents. In 1978, he and fellow student Kathy Elaine Anderson founded a journal entitled Nethula Journal of Contemporary Literature. It was during a poetry reading at Howard University in 1980 that he proclaimed his homosexuality. After his tenure at Maryland, Hemphill joined the performance poetry group, Cinque, in the early 1980s. His partners in this effort were Wayson Jones and Larry Duckett.
Although the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) epidemic had already ravished the gay community for some time, by the mid-1980s the majority of Americans were now aware of its devastation. Hemphill’s first books, Earth Life (1985) and Conditions (1986), both addressed the impact of AIDS on both the black community and the larger gay community. His critically acclaimed anthology, In the Life, which also appeared in 1986, brought Hemphill his first significant national recognition. In the Life, one of the first collections of writings by gay black men, opened to the general public the topic of homosexuality in African America. Hemphill’s Brother to Brother (1988), a collection of essays written by gay black men, was also considered groundbreaking at the time.
In 1989, Hemphill starred in the Marlon Riggs film Tongues