NAME: Essex Hemphill
Friday, November 10, 1995 New York Times
Essex Charles Hemphill, a poet and performance artist whose work focused on life as a black homosexual, died on Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. He was 38 and lived in Philadelphia.
The cause was complications from AIDS, said Wayson R. Jones, a friend.
Mr. Hemphill was born in Chicago and grew up in Washington. He attended the University of Maryland.
His poetry was published in more than a dozen periodicals and several anthologies. He also appeared in films by the director Marlon Riggs, including "Tongues Untied" and "Black Is . . . Black Ain't," in which he recited what Stephen Holden of The New York Times described as "spare, intense verses that affirm both his black and gay identities."
Producers included Mr. Hemphill in the "Culture Wars" episode of "The Question of Equality," a four-part television series. The episode is to be broadcast on Sunday on PBS.
He is survived by his mother, Mantalene Clark Hemphill, of Clinton, Md.; his father, Warren A. Hemphill Sr., of Fort Washington, Md.; three sisters, Tywan Hemphill and Lois Holmes, both of Washington, and Sandra Littlejohn of Lawrenceville, Ga., and a brother, Warren A. Hemphill Jr. of High Point, N.C.
Born April 16, 1957, Essex Hemphill began writing at age 14. Mr. Hemphill's writing explores dangerous territories -- estrangement, isolation, homophobia, denial, fear itself. His bold, assertive poems call to be read aloud and it is little surprise that he once observed, "...that poetry doesn't solely live on the page. Poetry is meant to be heard." His poems reflect upon the intersection of eroticism and athleticism; or self-acceptance and racial denial; or even the banal ubiquity of Barbie doll propaganda in youngsters' lives. In each example, an object or gesture becomes a container that strains to hold the emotion and intensity that Mr. Hemphill would pour inside. Considering a stack of family photos and how they cannot represent a whole experience of life, he writes, "My arms are empty/ in those photos, too,/ so empty they would break/ around a lover." In his writing Mr. Hemphill sometimes sways but now and again urgently lurches between a melodically liquid language that leads the reader away in loops and a calculated use of repetition which lends structure to dark emotion. These poems openly challenge darkness, as Mr. Hemphill pointed out by indicating his, "poetry primarily concerns itself with illuminating the experience of multi-consciousness present in the lives of Black gay men." He performed readings and lectured at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Los Angeles, the Folger Shakespeare Library, The National Black Arts Festival at the Whitney Museum, and many other institutions. He was recognized with the Lambda Literary Award for Excellence, four grants from the District of Columbia Commission for the Arts, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. In 1993, he was a visiting scholar at The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in Santa Monica. Mr. Hemphill's poems appear in anthologies including The Poet Upstairs: Natives, Tourists and Other Mysteries; Art Against Apartheid// and his own collected works in the volume //Ceremonies. In his poetry, Essex Hemphill challenges us to ask "why is the world always easier to fix/ than our own homes?" He died November 4, 1995 from complications relating to AIDS.
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Date of Birth: 4/16/1957
Date of Death (delete if non-applicable): 11/4/1995
Age at Death (delete if non-applicable): 38
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