Charles Stephens: On Essex Hemphill and my black gay identity

When I was about 19 or 20 and starting coming out publicly, or rather politically, I began to doubt the path I had taken. I had been doing interviews in the local press. Going to conferences. Sitting on panels. Arguing with white folks. Arguing with straight folks. Even writing about my newly politicized black gay identity. Things like that.

What did it all mean? What if being an openly gay black man lessened my future possibilities? These thoughts haunted me constantly. As a working-class black boy who had been indoctrinated since I could string a sentence or two together to join the professional classes, I carried considerable angst about rejecting that path. It was clear that I could be gay, or some version of gay; my models for this were the often tortured characters in E. Lynn Harris novels. But could I be who I was, and have my voice, and still have a sustainable life?

One Saturday morning I went over to Wilson Mill Park, a little neighborhood park in Adamsville near where I grew up, and took my copy of “Brother to Brother” with me. “Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men” is an anthology of black gay men’s writings published in 1991 and edited by Essex Hemphill. I had read the book before, but I wanted to revisit it to help me think through my feelings. As I read the beautiful introduction Hemphill wrote, it became clear to me in that moment that I had a responsibility. There was something about the way he spoke about his own developing voice, what black gay writing meant for him, that told me what I needed to hear: that this was not only important work, but necessary work, and it would be my destiny. The urgency of his words cleared the path for me.

Essex Hemphill was a poet, essayist, and activist. He was one of the most celebrated writers of the black gay arts movement, the period from 1986 until about 1994 when there was unprecedented cultural production and political activity by black gay men. His poems, like “Now We Think,” and “For My Own Protection,” are anthems to black gay men everywhere. Still are. He died in 1995.

When I sat on the bench reading his words I recognized I had a responsibility. Men like Essex Hemphill made me possible.

In my first year at Georgia State University, I took a course called African-American LGBT Activism. It was taught by Dr. Layli Maparyan (then Dr. Layli Phillips), who was on faculty in the women’s studies department. It was through this course that I recognized my appreciation for Essex Hemphill could also be a part of my own intellectual and artistic work.

In the course we watched “Tongues Untied” and read “Brother to Brother,” and for the first time I had the opportunity to read the text and discuss it in a classroom setting. I was transformed.

A year or two later, upon the death of my friend Keiron, a very important black gay activist in Atlanta and at Morehouse College, I recall us reading the Essex Hemphill poem, “When My Brother Fell.” This is the poem that many of us look to when one of our comrades dies, and we find inspiration and power in Hemphill’s words. And boy did we need it.

The work of Essex Hemphill has informed my writing and activism for over a decade. In my early activist life, as a student, and through the deaths of friends like Keiron and others, his work has been a constant light in my life.

Charles Stephens is a writer and activist. He is the founder of Counter Narrative and co-editor of the anthology “Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call.”