A poet and performer known for his political edge, Essex Hemphill openly addressed race, identity, sexuality, HIV/AIDS, and the family in his work, voicing issues central to the African American gay community. His first collections of poems were the self-published chapbooks Earth Life (1985) and Conditions (1986). His first full-length collection, Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (1992), won the National Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual New Author Award. His work is included in the anthologies Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time (1986) and Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS (1993).
Hemphill studied English at the University of Maryland; in 1978, with a fellow student, he helped found and run the Nethula Journal of Contemporary Literature. His later editing credits include the anthology Brother to Brother: New Writing by Black Gay Men (1991), which won the Lambda Literary Award.
In 1983, Hemphill participated in the performance poetry group Cinque with Wayson Jones and Larry Duckette; their work was later featured in the documentaries Tongues Untied (1989) and Black Is … Black Ain’t (1994). Hemphill’s poetry was also included in the film Looking for Langston (1989).
Hemphill received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and grants from the Pew Charitable Trust Fellowship in the Arts and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. He was a visiting scholar at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in 1993 in Santa Monica, California.
Hemphill died of complications from AIDS in 1995.