Poet, editor, and activist Essex Hemphill was born April 16, 1957, in Chicago. He was raised in southeast Washington, D.C., and began to write poems at the age of fourteen. He was educated at the University of Maryland.
Hemphill’s first books were the self-published chapbooks Earth Life (1985) and Conditions (1986). He first gained national attention when his work appeared in Joseph Beam’s In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology (Alyson Publications, 1986), a seminal collection of writings by Black gay men. Hemphill was also featured in the award-winning documentaries Black Is/Black Ain’t (1995) and Tongues Untied (1989), both directed by Marlon Riggs, and Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989).
In 1991, Hemphill edited Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men (Alyson Publications), which won a Lambda Literary Award. In 1992, he released Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (Plume), which won the National Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual New Author Award. An expanded edition of the work was released in 2000 by Cleis Press. Hemphill’s work appeared in numerous other anthologies, including Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS (Mercury House, 1994) and Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time (St. Martin’s Press, 1988). He was a visiting scholar at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in 1993.
On November 4, 1995, Hemphill died from AIDS-related complications.