Photographers Unknown, Our Kisses Are Petals
Times are lean,
the beans are burnt
to the bottom
of the battered pot.
Let’s make fierce love
on the over-stuffed,
We can burn it up, too.
will evaporate like-money.
I smell your lust,
not the pot burnt black
with tonight’s meager meal.
So we can’t buy flowers
for our table
Our kisses are petals,
our tongues caress the bloom.
Who dares to tell us
we are poor and powerless?
We keep treasure
any king would count as dear.
Come on, Pretty Baby.
Our souls can’t be crushed
like cats crossing streets too soon.
Let the beans burn all night long.
Our chipped water glasses are filled
with wine from our loving.
And the burnt black beans-
Essex Hemphill, Black Beans, Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry, 2000
Born in Chicago in April of 1957, Essex Hemphill was an openly gay American poet and activist known for his contributions to Washington D.C.’s art scene in the 1980s. In his early years, Hemphill moved with his family to Washington D.C. where he attended Ballou High School in Congress Heights. Already having written poetry since the age of fourteen, he enrolled at the University of Maryland to study journalism. Hemphill left the university after his freshman year and enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia, where he graduated with a degree in English. Throughout his college years, he interacted with the local art scene, gave spoken word performances, and began to publish poetry chapbooks.
Known for the political edge of his performances, Hemphill openly addressed the issues of race, identity, sexuality, HIV and AIDS, and the concept of family in his work, all issues central to the African American gay community. In 1979, he became a co-founder of the Nethula Journal of Contemporary Literature, a publication to showcase modern black artists. Through an arrangement by Nethula co-editor and educator Eugene Ethelbert Miller, Hemphill performed one of his first public readings, along with filmmaker Michella Parkerson, at Howard University’s Founder Library.
In 1982, Essex Hemphill, along with Larry Duckett and Wayson Jones, founded ”Cinque”, a spoken word group which performed in the Washington D. C. area. The following year he received a grant from the non-profit Washington Project for the Arts for “Murder on Glass”, an experimental poetry dramatization which he performed alongside Wayson Jones and Michelle Parkerson. Their work was later featured in two documentaries by filmmaker Marlon Riggs, the 1989 “Tongues Untied” and the 1994 “Black Is. . .Black Ain’t”, which won the Filmmakers’ Trophy at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival.
Hemphill’s first published poetry collections were two chapbooks, “Earth Life” in 1985 and “Conditions” in 1986. His work received additional attention with its inclusion in the 1986 anthology “In the Life”, a collection of poems from gay, black artists, compiled by Hemphill’s fellow author and lover, the gay rights activist Joseph F. Beam. Hemphill’s first full-length collection, entitled “Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry”, was published in 1992 and won the National Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual New Author Award. His editing credits include the 1991 anthology “Brother to Brother: New Writing by Black Gay Men”, which won the Lambda Literary Award.
Many of Essex Hemphill’s poetry and spoken word works were autobiographical and portrayed his experiences as a minority in both the African-American and LGBTQ communities. His pieces conveyed his frustrations about bigotry, the relationships among gay black men and non-gay black men, the effect of HIV/AIDS on the black community, and the meaning of one’s family, community and support.
In the decade of the 1990s, Hemphill rarely gave information on his health, only talking occasionally about being a person with AIDS. He did not write about his experience with the disease until his 1994 poem “Vital Signs”. Hemphill died the following year on the 4th of November, at the age of fifty-eight, of AIDS related complications. In June of 2019, he was one of the fifty inaugural American pioneers and heroes inducted on the National LBGTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument in New York City’s Stonewall Inn. It is the first United States national monument dedicated to LBGTQ rights and history.
Note: A suggested article is J. T. Roane’s 2017 “The Poetic Theology of Essex Hemphill”, which was published in the African American Intellectual History Society’s online publication “Black Perspectives”. The article is located at: https://www.aaihs.org/the-poetic-theology-of-essex-hemphill/