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Essex Hemphill (April 16, 1957 – November 4, 1995) was a poet and activist. He is known for his contributions to the Washington D.C. art scene in the 1980s, and for openly discussing the topics relevant to the African-American gay community.
Hemphill was born in Chicago and raised in Southeast Washington, “in poverty so deep I don’t even want to remember it", he once said. Poetry was his refuge, every night after dinner, Hemphill would hole up in his bedroom and work through his feelings about his race and sexuality by putting words on the page. By the time he started college at the University of Maryland in 1975, Hemphill readily identified as a writer, although he was not yet prepared to publicly call himself gay.
Hemphill left college after his freshman year and spent the following four years in Los Angeles. He returned to Washington, DC in 1981.
He began staging rigorously rehearsed performances of his poetry. These readings soon graduated from cramped coffeehouses to small, alternative theaters, then to the Kennedy Center, then to New York and London.
In 1986, Hemphill received a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Essex Hemphill died on November 4, 1995, of AIDS-related complications, he was 38 years-old.