Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 11 • Fall 2004 • Featured Lodestar Writer • Prose

The Condition Of Essex Hemphill

David Bergman

In his 1926 essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," Langston Hughes poses the problem that has faced African American writers even today. To say "I want to be a poet" instantly is translated into "I want to write like a white poet" (148). "The Negro Artist" -- to use Hughes' terms -- must always insist on being a black artist. Yet that alone is problematic because, as Hughes recognized, "the serious black artist...receives almost no encouragement for his work from either white or colored people" (149). According to Hughes, the serious black artist "works against and undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from whites" (150). The black poet must ignore both the criticism and the bribes; according to Hughes, "an artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose" (151). In short, artists must be "free within themselves." But such freedom, as a writer like Virginia Woolf might argue, cannot be exercised in an atmosphere of self-conscious opposition. As soon as the artist is forced to become aware of his or her own resistance, the trance-like state in which the artist does the best work is shattered. Artists work under that paradox that they are only free when they can be released from the self-consciousness of their own freedom. A poet such as Essex Hemphill must climb not just the racial mountain but also the sexual mountain -- this sexual mountain Hughes may have been too self-conscious to mention. He must self-consciously confront the opposition to him as a first step in leaving such self-consciousness behind. What Hemphill placed before him was a long and difficult program, and if he failed to finish it, it is because he did not live long enough to achieve the freedom he could have so clearly used.

In speaking about a condition of intellectual and imaginative freedom, I do not mean that Hemphill desired art for art's sake, a fantasy world aesthetically removed from the real one, although he clearly understood fantasy's seductive power. His remarkable essay "To Be Real" about Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning shows the limitations of fantasy even as it remains sympathetic to the impulses that lead to it. In it, he honors the fact that drag develops among people who "have had everything taken away from [them], and yet...have all learned to survive," a world in which "illusion and signifying are valued precisely because they have the power to affirm and engender confidence and self-esteem" (Ceremonies 125). He desires everyone to have the opportunity to develop confidence and self-esteem especially since "the day-to-day realities of oppression have driven others to less creative survival options than dressing up and pretending to be someone other than who you are" (129). Yet he argues that the terms in which the illusions are constructed are highly constricted and militate against the very self-esteem that is their very purpose. Hemphill argues that the power that is imitated in the drag ball "remains almost exclusively defined in materialistic, Caucasian and consumer terms" (129). An emcee at one of the balls shouts at the performers, "O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E! OPULENCE! You own everything. Everything is YOURS!" But the opulence performed is a false one of phony money and fake possessions. If the drag ball only highlighted the wealth that was absent, it could be used as a tool for raising consciousness, but instead it reaffirms the value of material possessions. It elevates consumer excess as an ideal, and in so doing, Hemphill argues, the drag ball reaffirms the very forces from which the participants need to be freed. Drag artists, according to Hemphill, "want to be stars in a world that barely wants to see them alive and thriving. They want things in a world that has caused more than a few of them to not want themselves" (130). Hemphill insists that such "illusion" is not a declaration of self but an "erasure or silencing of identity," and although such erasure may be necessary for survival, it is also a sign of "a state of increasing desperation." There needs to be "full equality and a common privilege that America has yet to deliver...if any of us are truly to be real" (135). Intellectual and imaginative freedoms are not, therefore, to be found in an escapist illusion of reality but in the "common privilege" of being real.

Repeatedly, Hemphill alerts us to the way that what looks like freedom is far too often another form of ensnarement, that the people who most vocally espouse the cause of liberation are more often than not the most dangerous agents of repression. His special anger is reserved for Dr. Francis Cress Welsing, a black psychiatrist, whose views of sexuality "reinforce the rampant homophobia and heterosexism that have paralyzed the Black liberation struggle" (Ceremonies 67). Welsing argues that same-sex desire in blacks is a response to racism and a means by which whites can reduce the number of people of color and thus preserve their power in a world in which they are a small minority. Hemphill is not concerned with refuting Welsing's crackpot theories, her faulty science or her logical inconsistencies. He is concerned, however, with the appeal such prejudice has for the African American community because, as he quotes bell hooks in one of the two epigraphs at the beginning of the essay "[a]ny force which estranges and alienates us from one another serves the interests of racist domination" (57). Welsing's theories are particularly dangerous to Hemphill because she couches homophobia in the language of liberation. According to Hemphill, African Americans are attracted to such theories because "[e]ven among the oppressed there is a disturbing need for a convenient 'other' to vent anger against, to blame, to disparage, to denigrate." Hemphill understood that repressive forces could use homophobia as a wedge issue to divide African Americans and distract them from less emotional but more fundamental issues of equality.

But at the heart of Hemphill's anger, I think, is her argument that homosexual desire is a way of "adapting to oppression" (60, Hemphill's italics); whereas for Hemphill "sexual diversity, as created by nature, still remains irrevocable, uncontrollable" (62). Sexuality is the road to freedom because potentially in the anarchy of eros, one is brought in contact with one's own nature.

I want to lay stress on the word potentially. Hemphill is quite aware that although human beings are naturally sexually diverse -- or "polymorphous perverse" in Freudian terms -- in actual practice their sexuality is very much shaped by society. One of the appeals of Welsing's argument, Hemphill suggests, is that she has laid hold of a half-truth: she is correct to say that oppression affects sexual expression. Where Welsing is wrong is in arguing that "racism causes homosexuality" (64). By making such a simplistic move, Welsing can ignore the way that racism affects heterosexuality and especially how racism gives support to her vision of the hyper-masculine Black male and the super-submissive Black female. "The most we can do," Hemphill argues, "is examine how sexuality is impacted upon and influenced by racism, in the same way that we can examine the impact of capitalism, religion, or patriarchy on sexuality" (64). Indeed, Welsing would take away the freedom of people like Hemphill "to explore what my hetero-disguise and my masks allowed me to conceal" (58). "Imminent independence" includes the ability to explore homoerotic feelings.

Hemphill wishes to distinguish between those feelings that grow out of himself and those that are imposed on him -- what Adrienne Rich has called "compulsory heterosexuality." For Hemphill, Welsing's "compulsory heterosexuality" is not only evil in itself but also an instrument of the racism she would counterattack. Hemphill credits his attempts to free himself from homophobia as giving shape to his career as an artist and his development as a person. He writes:

During the course of the next sixteen years [after high school graduation] I would articulate and politicize my sexuality. I would discover that homo sex did not constitute a whole life nor did it negate my racial identity or constitute a substantive reason to be estranged from my family and Black culture. I discovered, too, that the work ahead for me included, most importantly, being able to integrate all of my identities into a functioning self, instead of accepting a dysfunctional existence as the consequence of my homosexual desires. (Ceremonies 58)

For Hemphill, identity politics -- although useful to empower people to resist oppression -- becomes dysfunctional when it becomes the sole means for people to understand themselves. Hemphill celebrates his efforts to "articulate and politicize" his sexuality, because only in making it a public issue can he free his feelings for expression. But he will not allow his sexuality to be his only defining feature, just as he will not allow race alone to define him. What he demands is the freedom not just to move across these various dimensions of self without checking his passport at the borders, but also to bring them together into a seamless whole. He frankly acknowledges that he has not achieved such an integrated and functioning self; it is the work ahead of him. But it is work that Welsing has made more difficult not only because she has set his sexuality and race in opposition to one another, but also because she has made him more self-conscious in his attempt to integrate them. As a psychiatrist, Welsing should be facilitating psychic healing instead of increasing the suffering of gay black men and women. She gives Hemphill no choice except to politicize his sexuality, robbing him -- as well as all African Americans -- of the imaginative freedom they need to be creative individuals.

Conditions, Hemphill's 1986 collection, lays particular stress on the freedom he desires and the freedom of his desires, yet it is the most conscious of the restrictions placed on him by African Americans and the homophobic culture reinforced by Welsing.

I want to court outside the race,
outside the class, outside the attitudes --
but love is a dangerous word
in this small town.
Those who seek it are sometimes found
facedown floating on their beds.
Those who find it protect it
or destroy it from within. (Ceremonies 166)

Love outside of the socially acceptable forms -- across gender, within one's class and race -- are dangerous not only because they can lead to physical violence, even death, but also because they can create an inner psychic violence that can "destroy [love] from within." The choice seems to be either protecting love through silence or destroying the need for love through some psychic extraction. The speaker of the poem stands outside of love; this is an aspect of Hemphill. He wants "to court" affection, but he also is incapable of the silence that would protect love. At the end of the poem he "longs for the past" when he was a teenager without any emotional commitments, content to engage in sex for "candy, five dollars, a ride." It is significant that the rhymes of this stanza -- town, facedown, and the half-rhyme found -- are hidden in the middle of the stanza as if such harmony although at the heart of what he wants needs to be hidden away, or at least not brought to attention.

Many of the poems point to a future tense. "In the Life" is a poem addressed to Hemphill's mother, and it concludes:

If one of these thick-lipped,
wet, black nights
while I'm out walking,
I find freedom in this village.
If I can take it with my tribe
I'll bring you here.
And you will never notice
the absence of rice
and bridesmaids. (186-87)

There are two conditional clauses. If in the future he can find the freedom to love a man, and if he can be free to form such a union within the African American community, then and only then will he include his mother in the celebration of that union. But more important than her appearance at the wedding is the fact that, under such conditions, she will not be self-conscious about her son's homosexuality; she will not notice "the absence of rice / and bridesmaids." Hemphill yearns for a time when the self-consciousness that impairs his relationship to other men and his mother's relationship to his gay son is removed. Yet the path to such a future is blocked by so many conditional clauses, so many ifs that it seems merely an impossible dream. Hemphill is a visionary out of necessity, out of a sense of reality. In the visionary mode, he can explore the possibility of acceptance and the feelings of freedom.

In essays on Robert Mapplethorpe and Prince, Edmund White has written about the need for gay artists and for African American artists to be "irresponsible" -- remaining blissfully unaware of the boundaries and proprieties that were erected to keep them out. This blissful unconsciousness won't be achieved by programmatic efforts to be iconoclastic, for the ideological justification in such a program only constructs new boundaries and new limits. White argues that only by being "irresponsible" -- forgetting about propriety; risking appearing shallow, trivial, and silly; mixing and matching without concern for the "integrity" of the outcome -- can artists (especially minority artists) find a mode that answers their needs. Although Hemphill would violently disagree with several of White's examples of "irresponsibility" (White daringly praises Mapplethorpe's photographs of black men for their irresponsibility), at other times Hemphill claims for himself a similar "irresponsibility," and he challenges the reader both to deny him his right and to join him in his transgression.

"Object Lessons" enjoys its stance of blithely transgressive irresponsibility. Hemphill understands -- indeed appreciates -- the feminist arguments about sexual objectification, and in other poems and essays he argues against the ways black men have been objectified. Yet he also wants to celebrate his own physicality and enjoy a sort of irresponsible pleasure in being reduced to merely a body capable of giving and receiving pleasure. The poem begins with several conditional clauses:

If I am comfortable
on the pedestal
you are looking at,
if I am indolent and content
to lay here on my stomach,
my determinations
indulged and glistening
in baby oil and sweat,
if I want to be here, a pet,
to be touched, a toy,
if I desire to be an object,
to be sexualized
in this object way,
by one or two at a time,
for a night or a thousand days,
for money or power,
for the awesome orgasms
to be had, to be coveted
of for my own selfish wantonness,
for the feeling of being
pleasure, being touched.

The sentence is a fragment made up of dependent clauses. Hemphill is unconcerned with grammar because the conclusion of the sentence is obvious: if he wants to do these things, then, it is understood, he is going to do them. He lays himself out like an odalisque -- raised up for our voyeuristic appreciation in a sumptuous, submissive pose. He lies on his stomach, slathered in baby oil, presumably in a bathhouse where he can be ogled and sexually used by "one or two at a time, / for a night or a thousand days." In any era, this would be provocative, and for a black man, the celebration of his passivity is especially provocative, but the poem is all the more irresponsible coming from a person with AIDS at the height of the AIDS epidemic when such "irresponsible" sexual behavior was especially frowned upon. He doesn't justify his defiance. The act -- at least the imaginative act of writing the poem -- is performed "for my own selfish wantonness." He insists, "It was my fantasy, / my desire to do so."

What makes the "irresponsible," imaginative act so liberating for Hemphill and White, is that it doesn't arise as a "response" to outside forces, outside obligations, or exterior conditions. It is an expression of the inner impulses of the individual. No one has asked him "to lie here / on my stomach"; it is Hemphill's desire and fantasy -- no one else's. For Hemphill, any theory, including Welsing's, that makes same-sex desire a product of cultural and historical forces injures because it robs people of their agency; such theories violate the autonomy of an individual's impulses. Welsing's theory makes such submission not Hemphill's fantasy or desire, but the desire of white patriarchy. Such theories -- whether Welsing's or Lacan's -- makes the subject more of an object than Hemphill's desire to be an object. In choosing to be a sex toy "for a night or a thousand days," he has control of his own desires and fantasies, and in so doing he is not entirely objectified. But if Hemphill is only responding to an ideological program of which he remains unconscious, he is always reduced to an object no matter what he chooses. "Object Lessons" ends with Hemphill asking the hypocritical reader -- "mon semblable, mon frère" to invoke Baudelaire -- two questions: "Why are you looking? / What do you wanna / do about it?" He urges the reader to declare his own desires and to act on them. And these are not merely questions; they are provocations, challenges, and seductions. The reader has been tricked into revealing fantasies because he has come to the poem's end and has thereby shown interest or curiosity. To be embarrassed is only to indicate one's unwillingness to claim one's desires as one's own.

"Object Lessons" is not the only poem in which Hemphill confronts the reader with his irresponsibility. Indeed, the longest poem in Ceremonies is filled with such provocations. He writes:

Occasionally I long
to fuck a dead man
I never slept with.
I pump up my temperature
imagining his touch
as I stroke my wishbone,
wanting to raise him up alive. (15)

Not quite necrophilia -- the act is performed to resurrect the dead -- it explores the erotic desires for the dead. The poem repeats Hemphill's challenging self-definition: "I'm an oversexed / well-hung / Black Queen / influenced / by phrases like 'Silence = death.'" To be oversexed in the Age of AIDS, "looking / for Giovanni's room / in this bathhouse," is to call down upon himself the wrath of all those morally responsible people who would demand sexual abstinence, particularly from those infected with HIV.

Another sign of Hemphill's growing freedom to explore without self-consciousness the inner workings of his imagination is in his increased use of dramatic monologues. On the surface such a claim may appear to be contradictory. Shouldn't the sign of psychic freedom be the ability to speak in the first person and not to "hide" behind the mask of a dramatic character? Isn't the very need to create such characters an indication of self-discomfort? To be sure, Hemphill is quite aware of the self-destructiveness of pretending he is someone he is not. But these disguises are borne out of the need to run away from who he is. The dramatic monologues that Hemphill develops are means of exploring the people he might be or approaching those aspects of himself that have taken on lives of their own. In such a way the dramatic monologue is a means of integrating "all of my identities into a functional self" (58).

"Homocide," in Hemphill's Earth Life (1985) and reprinted in Ceremonies, is an early example of his use of dramatic monologue. The speaker is a drag queen street walker named Star; she listens to the dreams and wishes of her johns. But although Star can be sassy -- "I demand pay for my kisses" -- the poem is an exploration of the grief that comes from isolation. In an extraordinary line, Star tells us, "I'm the only man who loves me," a declaration that asks for neither sympathy nor pity. The opening of the poem resonates against W.H. Auden's "The Wanderer," whether Hemphill realizes it or not. Hemphill begins his poem:

Grief is not apparel.
not like a dress, a wig
or my sister's high-heeled shoes.
It is darker than the man I love.

Auden begins "The Wanderer": "Doom is darker and deeper than any sea-dingle." Both poems deal with isolated wanderers. With Auden's wanderer, "[n]o cloud-soft hand can hold him, restraint of women." And both look for the coming or the returning of the beloved. But Auden's wanderer is ordained by doom, Hemphill's driven by grief. In both the speakers are less than heroic but something more than commonplace -- they give witness to the extremities to which people can be called by fate.

But in the poems that Hemphill first publishes in Ceremonies the number and variety of these monologues increase. The first section is dominated by three monologues: "Visiting Hours," "Civil Servant," and "Voices." "Voices" is the most Browningesque. Based on an actual incident reported in the Washington Post, the speaker is Erica Mendell Dayel, a psychotic black woman who dismembered her five-year-old son and preserved his body parts in her freezer in an attempt to save him from demons (Ceremonies 190-191). But like Browning or Thom Gunn, whose sequence "Troubadour" gives voice to the mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, Hemphill isn't interested in the gothic horror of the situation, but in the psychological pathos of how such barbarity can be performed in the name of love. Hemphill is not so much interested in judging Dayel as in understanding her, and that means a kind of imaginative freedom to explore the irresponsible.

A more interesting poem is "Visiting Hours," which was published originally in Earth Life, but given a new prominence in Ceremonies. The speaker of "Visiting Hours" sketches the scene developed so vividly in Isaac Julien's The Attendant (1993). In Hemphill's poem we hear the night watchman of the east wing of the National Gallery aware of the irony that he, an underpaid black Vietnam veteran, is "expected to die, if necessary, / protecting European artwork / that robbed color and movement / from my life." He has been the victim of Euro-American desire to colonize:

I'm the ghost in the Capitol.
I did Vietnam.
My head is rigged with land mines,
but I keep cool,
waiting on every other Friday,
kissing the Rose,
catching some trim. (22-23)

The guard says that if he should finally go mad, he will "spray everything in sight / like a cat in heat." His erotic desires are what keep him going -- not the masterpieces of Western art -- and his impulses to destroy them will also come from a sexual impulse, which is uncontrollable because it is so closely tied to the natural.

The speaker in "Visiting Hours" surely gives voice to Hemphill's feeling of being oppressed by "European artwork," feelings that needed to be explored. But in "Heavy Breathing," he takes the opposite position.

I am an oversexed
Black Queen
by phrases like
"I am the love that dare not
speak its name."
And you want me to sing
"We Shall Overcome"?
Do you daddy daddy
do you want me to coo
for your approval? (11)

In this passage, Hemphill insists that he is more aligned with European artwork -- "the Love that dare not speak its name" is, of course, the concluding line of Lord Alfred Douglas's poem "Two Loves" -- than with the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. Indeed the mocking, little girl voice that asks the reader if he wants Hemphill "to coo / for your approval" -- a passage that recalls Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" -- suggests a contempt for the solemnity and propriety of mainstream African American political action. The dramatic monologue allows Hemphill to explore both sides of his feelings about European culture and African American culture. It shows his ability not to take sides so much as to explore the complexity of his emotions and the ambivalence of his cultural inheritance.

"Visiting Hours" is written in the voice of a heterosexual male; it is followed by "Civil Servant," a poem written in the voice of a woman. "Civil Servant," more than any other poem, shows Hemphill's growing imaginative freedom to explore feelings and ideas. The poem is historical; the speaker Eunice Rivers, who served "as Special Scientific Assistant to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment" (190). In this position, she took care of men while "systematically withholding treatment from subjects...local Black men, most in the late stages of the disease" (190). Hemphill's attitude to Rivers is never clear. At the end of the poem she may seem particularly morally obtuse. She tells us:

I never thought my silence
a symptom of bad blood.
I never considered my care complicity.
I was a Colored nurse, a proud
graduate of Tuskegee Institute,
one of few, honored by my profession.
I had orders, important duties,
a government career. (27)

Rivers is more than unapologetic for her actions, she is proud of what she has done. She refuses to acknowledge her complicity in a program that was cruel, useless and ultimately deadly. But Hemphill is at pains to show she is not herself cruel. She weeps with the wives and families of the deceased. "I tried to care for everyone / including the women, / the old folks and children" (25). She even marries the son of one her patients, who she insists got better medical care than "[m]ost Colored folks in Macon / [who] went from cradle to grave / without ever visiting a doctor" (26). In short, the poem explores the emotional and moral complexity of a woman operating conscientiously within a corrupt system. The ability to explore moral and psychological ambiguity is one of those irresponsible acts that the free imagination can permit itself.

It seems to me that these works point in a direction which Hemphill did not live long enough to follow. They point to a greater unself-consciousness; a greater ease with different points of view; a greater willingness to explore the complexity, ambiguity and conflicts in himself and in his world. They point to a developing, maturing, more individual voice.

Some black gay poets -- Carl Phillips and Cyrus Cassells, to name the two most prominent -- have not felt compelled to confront the tensions between their race and their sexuality. They have allowed themselves to explore a world less tethered to the social realities of most black gay men. Essex Hemphill did not feel that he had that option, luxury, or privilege. He could not or would not escape the urban poetry that was everywhere around him. He is the poet who can find, in the argument of an older man and a Homeboy carried on in the crowded anonymity of the S2 bus in Washington, a language that needs preservation. Although he is frozen in his seat, a passive witness to the furor, he cannot help but admire the bravery and the music of a man who can announce to the world, "'I'm a 45-year-old-Black-gay-man who en-joys taking dick up his rectum!' SNAP! 'I'm not your bitch!' SNAP! 'Your bitch is at home with your kids!' SNAP! SNAP!" (85). It is a poetry of a certain time and place, and Hemphill knew to make the best of it. His poetry is our best record of that moment.

David Bergman

David Bergman is a professor of English at Towson State University, the author of Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Representation in American Literature, and the editor of Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality. Bergman has published poetry in The Paris Review, The New Criterion, and The New Republic. He has edited a collection of Edmund White's essays entitled The Burning Library. His latest book is The Violet Hour: The Violet Quill and the Making of Gay Culture (Columbia University Press, 2004). He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

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