Yesterday my local library branch (in Mount Pleasant) had an event honoring the late Washington-based poet Essex Hemphill. Hemphill became famous for his incendiary political performance poetry which addressed issues of race, gender and sexuality. His work was featured such films as Tongues Untied and Looking for Langston.
Hemphill was also instrumental in my coming out process.
Back in the late 80s, I was a bit of a hermit in college. One Sunday I was holed up in the library when the head of the gay men’s organization invited me to hear Hemphill read. I went, and heard him. Hemphill exuded star power. He was funny, and invited people to participate in the performance. I recall him reading—really, perfuming—a poem about the Tuskegee Experiment, and performing another about the crack epidemic which was in full sway in DC. (I also recall that he mentioned that he was a Kate Bush fan; he mentioned her then new song Experiment IV in introducing the Tuskegee Experiment poem).
After his performance, I officially came out to everyone I knew.
Yesterday’s tribute feature both readings and heartfelt remembrances of this groundbreaking poet-activist.