1957 - 1995

“The Black homosexual is hard pressed to gain audience among his heterosexual brothers; even if he is more talented, he is inhibited by his silence or his admissions. This is what the race has depended on in being able to erase homosexuality from our recorded history. The ‘chosen’ history. But the sacred constructions of silence are futile exercises in denial. We will not go away with our issues of sexuality. We are coming home. It is not enough to tell us that one was a brilliant poet, scientist, educator, or rebel. Whom did he love? It makes a difference. I can't become a whole man simply on what is fed to me: watered-down versions of Black life in America. I need the ass-splitting truth to be told, so I will have something pure to emulate, a reason to remain loyal.”

- Essex Hemphill

Born in Chicago, Hemphill grew up in Washington, DC where he was at the heart of an African American gay and lesbian literary and performance renaissance during the 1980s and 90s. His poetry evoked the challenges of being black, gay and young in the midst of the AIDS epidemic – articulating the anger, despair, and commitment of his generation; his critiques of homophobia and heterosexism within the Black community, of sexism among black men and of racism among gay whites served as reminders that being oppressed does not mean one is unable to oppress others. Hemphill sought to examine how sexuality is impacted upon and influenced by racism, allowing neither his sexuality nor his race to define him. He argued that “…homo sex did not constitute a whole life nor did it negate my racial identity …” and challenged himself to “…integrate all of my identities into a functioning self, instead of accepting a dysfunctional existence as the consequence of my homosexual desires.” Probably the most profound and provocative thinker of his generation – he was prominently featured in the films Tongues Untied (1989), Looking for Langston (1988) and Black Is…Black Ain’t (1994) and the anthologies In The Life (1986) and Brother to Brother (1991) – Hemphill gave voice and metaphor to the lives of African American gay men. He died in 1995 due to AIDS-related illnesses.

Lesson Plan


Gender Male

Sexual Orientation Gay

Gender Identity Cisgender

Ethnicity African American Black

Nations Affiliated United States

Era/Epoch AIDS Era (1980-present) Information Age (1970-present) Post-Stonewall Era (1974-1980)

Field(s) of Contribution

Advocacy & Activism

Art, Music, Literature & Theater



Social Justice

Social Sciences

US History

Commemorations & Honors

Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men's Anthologies for Brother to Brother: New Writing By Black Gay Men (1991)

Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Literature Award (1993)

National Library Association's Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual New Author Award Recipient For Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (1993)

Pew Charitable Trust Fellowship in the Arts For Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (1993)

National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall National Monument Inductee (2019)


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Original Biography Author
Victor Salvo
Biography Edited By
Owen Keehnen
Resources Coordination
Carrie Maxwell