The panel of Essex Hemphill, stood out to me with the bold red lettering displayed on the panel. It is one of the darker panels on Block #05905 and the text centered in the panel is what drew me to know more. This panel is also one of the small number of panels that is displayed vertically rather than horizontally. Many of the other panels I’ve researched lay vertically and I’ve decided to research a panel with a different aesthetic.
The panel of Essex Hemphill is placed on the left side of the 12 x 12 block. Its 3 x 5 size is surrounded by a silk blue and gold pattern on the top and bottom of the panel. The sides have no border, and are simply touching the ends of the panel fabric near it.
The design of the silk border of this panel appears to have a cultural African mask made of gold lining, against a dark blue background. The base background of this panel is a navy blue cotton fabric. The name ‘Essex’ is spelled in bold red lettering going down the left side of the panel, and the last name ‘Hemphill’ is spelled in the same bold red lettering going down the opposite-right side of the panel.
In between these two alias’s lie a photograph of Mr. Hemphill as he is dresses in a black
turtleneck against a white backdrop. His expression appears serious, but has a pleasant tone. The
photograph is mounted by a silk dark and light blue checkerboard fabric.
Below the photograph of Hemphill lies a a quote by Mr. Essex Hemphill himself, in which he
speaks of the importance of the lives of black men being saved. He compares the life of black men to animals, with the fact there should be an organization for the lives of black men as there are for animals.
Take care of your blessings!”
“I want to start an organization to save my life. If whales, snails, dogs, cats, Chrysler and Nixon can be saved, the lives of Black men are priceless and can be saved. We should be able to save each other.” –Essex Hemphill, “For My Own Protection”, Ceremonies, 1992.
Underneath this quote lies the words “ACTIVIST”, in bold red lettering. Below, is the cover of Essex Hemphill’s novel “Ceremonies”. This book cover is mounted on a silk dark/light blue checkerboard fabric and has a black and white photograph of a black man, looking upward with his right arm extended out. This book cover has sections of the pan-African colors : black, red, and green.
Beside this book cover, is another novel cover, of a book written by Essex Hemphill titled “Brother to Brother: Writings By Black Gay Men”. This cover is a light brown, with the words written in white lettering. In the background of this cover sits what appears to be the hands of two black men, in fists – one atop the other. The book cover is also mounted on the same silk dark/light blue silk checkerboard fabric.
As one gets to the bottom the of the panel, the word “Poet” is spelled in an arc shape in the bold red lettering. The numbers 1957-1995 are at the bottom of the panel to represent the birth and death of Mr. Essex Hemphil.
The panel of Essex Hemphill is mostly composed of the colors red and blue. Originally my take on this would be perhaps blue to present masculinity, and the red to represented AIDS.
However, it is significant that there are only dark blue tones displayed in this panel. The dark blue, as displayed on this panel, is often used as a means to represent depth and stability. Dark blue also displays knowledge, integrity, and seriousness.
I find that color was perfect to represent Mr. Hemphill as he was very intelligent man. He was well educated on the factors that go along with black identity and basis of community struggles. As far as identity, Hemphill was intent on not allowing the disease to define him , as he did not necessarily speak much of it. This preserved his integrity in the way that he did not make his story about his affliction with AIDS, but instead was focused on black gay community activism as a whole.
The dark red on this panel is associated with leadership. There were not many people speaking up on the lives of the black gay community, but Hemphill stood up and used his art as a means of expression.
Upon further research, I found that Essex Hemphill was an openly gay male African American poet and activist. He is widely known for his contribution to the arts in Washington D.C. in the 1980s, as well as his open discussion about the topics relating to the African American gay community.
Hemphill was born in Illinois and always expressed himself through writing and art forms such as poetry, spoken word, and journals. He went on to perform some of his writing works at various showcases at Universities and programs.
As an outspoken writer and activist, Hemphill gained notoriety through his performances of his collections. He went on to have his essays and poetry widely published in journals having his essays appear in Black Scholar, and Essence. Hemphill received a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 1989 in he appeared in the film Looking for Langston, about the subject of poet Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. Hemphill also worked with Marlon Riggs on documentaries which looked further into the overlapping of black and queer identities. This is very significant as Hemphill was against the overlooking of gay black people, and their stories. Oftentimes, in media, black people are portrayed as a means of humor rather than their true life stories being told.
In 1992, Essex Hemphill published his largest collection of poetry and short stories titled Ceremonies:Prose and Poetry. This fine piece of work by Hemphill was awarded the National Library Associations’s Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual New Author Award.
The book Ceremonies offers provocative commentary and perspective on highly charged topics such as Mapplethorpe’s photographs of African American men, feminism among men, and AIDS in the black community
Brother to Brother
Hemphill completed the novel, Brother to Brother, after his good friend passed away. The novel is a collection of literary work by black gay male authors. “It tells a story that laughs and cries and sings and celebrates…it’s a conversation intimate friends share for hours. These are truly words mined syllable by syllable from the hearts of black gay men.” – Essex Hemphill
Hemphill and AIDS
Essex Hemphill never really spoke much about his diagnosis with AIDS. He was more so a voice of activism and reason for the gay black community and their stories. He would rarely give information about his health, and would occasionally reference being “a person with AIDS”. Through this many feel that Hemphill died too soon.
He wrote about his experiences in with AIDS in his poem titled “Vital Signs”.
At the age of thirty eight, in November 1995, Hemphill died due to AIDS related complications.
Essex Hemphill’s legacy lives on through the works that he’s left behind. These works serve as means of encouragement and motivation for the male gay black community and their stories.
“Brother to Brother.” RedBone Press, www.redbonepress.com/products/brother-to-brother-ed-by-essex-hemphill.
“Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry by Essex Hemphill.” Goodreads, Goodreads, 9 May 2000, www.goodreads.com/book/show/419167.Ceremonies.
“Essence.com.” Essence.com, www.essence.com/.
“Essex Hemphill.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/essex-hemphill.
“Hemphill, Essex 1957—.”. “Hemphill, Essex 1957-.” Contemporary Black Biography, Encyclopedia.com, 2018, www.encyclopedia.com/history/historians-and-chronicles/historians-miscellaneous-biographies/essex-hemphill.
“Journal of Black Studies and Research.” The Black Scholar, 14 Apr. 2018, www.theblackscholar.org/.
Kaplan, Sarah. “A Poet Who Spoke to the Black Gay Experience, and a Quest to Make Him Heard.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 3 Aug. 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/a-poet-who-spoke-to-the-black-gay-experience-and-a-quest-to-make-him-heard/2014/08/03/91307a2a-1ac6-11e4-9e3b-7f2f110c6265_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.9349d4c3da57.
“NEA.” NEA, www.arts.gov/.
Quilt , NAMES. “Exploring the Quilt .” AIDS Quilt Touch, aidsquilttouch.org/experience-quilt.