By Kevin Tarver
Essex Hemphill was a critically acclaimed gay African-American poet. Through his writing, initiated necessary narratives about sexuality, race, and brotherly love that needed to be discussed during a critical period of time for African-Americans. Cited as an inspiration for many Black gay artists and activists, his work continues to be influential to this day.
Standing in the tradition with Essex, you can see his influence in the work of The Counter Narrative Project as the organization openly serves to amplify the dialogues of Black gay men. In honor of , held an event in celebrationhis birthday.
Born on April 16th, 1957, would’ve been 59 years old. Though no longer with s spirit lives on along with the spirits of other gay Black poets, such as Joseph F. Beam, Marlon Riggs, and Atlanta’s most revered community organizers within the Black LGBT community, Tony Daniels. Through a tireless social media campaign presented by CNP, an audience witnessed the power of solidarity and art during the event, For Our Brother Essex: A Celebration and Reading.
The event took place on April 16th, 2016, at Charis Books & More, located in Atlanta’s Little 5 Points district. The venue alone was full of rich history as it celebrated 42 years as the oldest independent eminist bookstore in the country. Charis was a befitting venue because of its history and support of the Atlanta LGBT community, selling the books of many gay Black authors and poets, like l.
Inside the lilac-colored house of books, the setting was intimate. An eager crowd of spectators filled the open-floor space in anticipation. The crowd was thick, reducing the venue to standing room only for those unlucky to to grab a seat in time.
The audience faced the window-sided area near the decorated fireplace where the readings would take place. I sat next to a bookshelf awaiting the semicircle of chairs that seated Black gay men from different walks of life, from students to doctors, young and mature. Guests included:
Daniel Driffin, Researcher at the UConn
David Malbranche, Author; Physician; Activist
Justin Smith, PhD, studying Behavioral Sciences and Health Education at Emory University
Craig Washington, Prevention Programs Manager at AID Atlanta
Tim’m West, Artist; Activist; Teacher
Bummah Ndeh, Senior student at Morehouse College
Before the show began, I could tell that this event was important to each reader in some way. I overheard their chatter as they expressed their love for ; hugs and smiles shared and exchanged among them. I could feel that love and camaraderie permeate through the room.
That unity was solidified by all the readers and some supporters wearing CNP’s Tony Daniels hoodies. A picture of Tony in black and white printed on the hoodies, followed by the statement, “We Are Here,” the first three words from Tony’siconic lines, “We are here! We are proud Black gay men, standing tall with our heads held high!” Those words truer than ever in those moments.
Johnnie Kornegay, III, Program Consultant and Director of Digital Strategy for CNP, served as the host and moderator for the show. He opened up the show by reading Now We Think by Essex Hemphill. Johnnie’s reading served as an example of what we were about to experience.
Each presenter would read a poem of their choice from Essex Hemphill’s works. Heavy Corners, Commitments, and American Wedding were some of the powerful poems recited. This night was not just a reading of selections, however. For Our Brother Essex, was a celebration of legacy. Not only were we treated to passionate recitations of poems, we were treated to their personal stories of how he touched their lives.
We were in the presence of readers who met and befriended Essex. With each reader, he touched their lives in person and through film. Most were first introduced to him through Tongues Untied (1989). Marlon Rigg’s 1989 documentary was a gateway to understanding what it meant to be Black and gay in America. This was the experience for Justin Smith, Daniel Driffin, David Malbranche, and Bummah Ndeh.
For Tim’m West and Craig Washington, both had the opportunity to personally meet Essex. Craig Washington, Essex Hemphill represented a generation of Black gay men who were direct and had a sense of urgency in combating the stigma of HIV in America.
There was a reason and purpose behind CNP’s social media campaign promoting the event. Each post by CNP was followed by the hashtag #generation1986. Many Black gay organizations were formed in response to HIV as declared by the ICTV in 1986.
Also, the Black gay narrative was taking shape through art. One of s self-published chapbooks, Conditions (1986) was released. would go on to contribute to Joseph Beam's critically acclaimed In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology (1986). From that point forward, Hemphill became a household name within gay Black America, writing and editing, and appearing in documentaries that continued to amplify the narratives of Black gay men up until his death in 1995.
Johnnie Kornegay, III, concluded the evening, and powerful group discussion followed thereafter. The energy in the room was electric. There were tears, joy, and history lessons provided by the readers, and special guest, Duncan Teague, senior member ADODI Muse. Duncan dazzled he regaled us with stories about Tony Daniels and Essex Hemphill.
For Our Brother Essex: A Celebration and Reading was an experience I was happy to have. I Ieft Charis Books with a sense of pride. Through artistry and openness, my acceptance as a gay Black man from the South is important. Essex Hemphill was a monarch who audaciously challenged and spoke to the demonizing stigmas that has come with the Black gay experience.
In many ways, Essex lives on in each of us. We cannot be silent, and because of our brother, Essex Hemphill, I understand it more than ever. Our stories must continue to be shared.
Kevin L. Tarver is a freelance writer, gay activist, and content creator for BamaBoiBlues.com. Established on July 15th, 2010, BamaBoiBlues.com documents many experiences that often go undiscussed within Gay Culture, especially within the African American Gay Community.