“I Want to start an organization.” A Tribute to Essex Hemphill. by Crunch.

* a piece I wrote for the blog belonging to the dope art collective that im apart of: The Corner Collective.

Last week I spoke with a young man, I intended on fucking, about the virus growing inside of him and the confusion that led to that particular moment in time. There we lay- both infected- seeking some solace in fleshy relations, small talk, and blunts. He was scared for but not terrified of his future. There we lay- two Black boys with HIV- attempting to understand the movings of tie and space that brought us here. Emotions danced about: fear, anger, love, shame, pride, and so on . . . I meant to give him a poem that began like this:

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.”

I drifted off before being able to recite these words to him and the next morning was too filled with cereal, haziness, bus tickets, touching and toothaches, to remember. The poet who breathed that truth, Essex Hemphill, is an unending source of power for me. He spoke for, in his own words, “the thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of men who live and die in the shadows of secrets, unable to speak of the love that helps them endure and contribute to their race.”

This week The Corner Collective celebrates Essex Hemphill as our “Revolutionary Artist of the Week”, and honors the thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of muted tongues that he spoke for.

Black men like me are dying everyday. We are dying from bullets, viruses, and loneliness. Essex understood this condition. He knew what made us risk humiliation- even death at times- was the promise of an intimacy not granted to men, especially Black men, by the larger society. He knew of that longing to be held and accepted as we are. He knew of the contradiction that our culture makes out of Black queer men- the vast dissonance. He lived it himself as a Black Queer male. And a piece about Essex will no doubtly include the standard musings of “brilliant”, “bold”, “black”, and “queer”. But what most will leave out, or say even less, is that Essex Hemphill was a revolutionary artist. The spirit of his words- the fire and pain- holds the greatest significance because it has brought untold amounts of healing to my life and the lives of countless others. It helped to save the lives of Black men like him- like me- who’s are in danger of being left incomplete.

He speaks to me, not only because of the wealth of similarities we have, but also because his words channel a higher truth. Patriarchy socializes men to disavow part of themselves- to create a spiritual chasm where love and sadness and all other “soft” emotions die. We become creatures of power and rage.  Black men, eternally denied of the ability to completely access this false sense of “manhood” or “maleness”, have an added antagonism – their Blackness. The Black body has been a subject of exploitation and abuse, both in sex and labor, since this nation’s inception. And as a result, our conditioning as a community has been unhealthy in some instances. Black men are policed by the outside world as Black men- a scourge to the white world, treated with contempt and disgust. Within our communities, however, there is continual policing- identities and thought. I’ve lain with many of my brothers who were filled with fear and suffering and self-loathing stemming from their inability to be themselves.

Essex speaks to our pain. – In love and race. The alienation that makes us turn from loving one another:

“I wanted to give you

my sweet man pussy,

but you grunted me away

and all other Black men

who tried to be near you.

Instead you chose blonde,

milk toned creatures to bed.

But you were still one of us,

dark like us, despised like us.”

( Heavy Breathing )

He speaks to our exploitation:

“Metephorically speaking

his black dick is so big

when it stands erect

it silences

the sound of his own voice. 

It obscures his view

of the territory, his history,

the cosmology of his identity

is rendered invisible.  “

( Black Machismo )

To our frustration with one another. The dissonance from within and hatred  from without that limits our relations. Distorts our love and vision of one another. Reduces it to flesh and fear:

“We always have to work it out,

walk if through, talk it over,

drink and smoke our way into sodomy.

I could take you in my room

but you’re afraid he landlady

will recognize you.

I feel thankful I don’t love you. I won’t have to suffer you later on.”

( “Isn’t It Funny” )

But what makes a revolutionary artist is not just their ability to creatively convey plight. They hold up the mirror and challenge us. Inspire and move us to do more.

Essex spoke our warrior’s songs

“When I stand

on the front lines now,

cussing the lack of truth,

the absence of willful change

and strategic coalitions,

I realize sewing quilts

Will not bring you back

nor save us.


It’s too soon

to make monuments

for all we are losing,

for the lack of truth

as to why we are dying,

who wants us dead,

what purpose does it serve?


When my brother fell

I picked up his weapons.

I didn’t question

whether I could aim

or be as precise as he.

A needle and thread

were not among

his things

I found.”

( When My Brother Fell. For Joseph Beam )

He spoke to our need for one another:

“Don’t let it be loneliness

that kills us

if we must die

on the front line

let us die men

loved by  both sexes.


Don’t let it be envy

that drives us

to suck our thumbs

or shoot each other dead

over snake eyes.


Let us not be dancing

with the wind

on heavy corners

tattered by doom.


Let us not accept

partial justice.

If we believe our lives

are priceless

we cannot be conquered.


If we must die

on the front line

don’t let loneliness

kill us”

( Heavy Corners)

Our fierceness:

“But grief is darker

it is a wig.

that does not rest gently

on my head.”

( Homocide )

“ I am a 45-year-old-Black-gay-man, who enjoys taking dick in his rectum.” SNAP! “I am not you bitch!” SNAP! “Your bitch is at home with your kids!” SNAP! SNAP!

( Without Comment )

And to our healing and movement:

“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.

I don’t want to wait

for the Heritage Foundation

to release a study

stating Black men

are almost extinct.

I don’t want to be

the living dead

pacified with drugs

and sex.


If a human chain

can be formed

around missile sites,

then surely Black men

can form human chains

around Anacostia, Harlem,

South Africa, Wall Street,

Hollywood, each other.

If we have to take tomorrow

with our blood are we ready?

Do our S curls,

dreadlocks, and Phillies

make us any more ready

than a bush or conkaline?


I’m not concerned

about the attire of a soldier.

All I want to know

for my own protection

is are we capable

of whatever,


( For My Own Protection )

Essex is a revolutionary Black artist in the most righteous of ways. Like Zora, like Langston, like Thurman and Baldwin and Nugent and Beam and Riggs and Badu and LaBeija and Ninja and Nina and Miles and Fela. His words were for his people, their upliftment and their salvation. And I honor him for the passion to elevate the space. Job well done brother.


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