The Poetic Theology of Essex Hemphill

Essex Hemphill. Photo: Poetry Foundation.
Essex Hemphill. Photo: Poetry Foundation.

Facing the innumerable deaths of friends and loved ones, as well as the likelihood of his own untimely passing, Washington, DC poet Essex Hemphill composed “The Tomb of Sorrow” in 1989. Hemphill was characteristically irreverent in relation to social conventions when he wrote in the second section of the poem, “My witnesses / will have to answer / to go-go music. / Dancing and sweat / will be required / at my funeral.” Hemphill replaces the somber rituals of funerals with the sweaty vitality and motion of a party. He reimagines his funeral as a GoGo—a dance party themed by the sound and choreography of the percussive music that provided much of the soundtrack for Black working-class culture in the region around Washington, DC, especially between the 1970s and 2000s.

Given the centrality of funerals in Black culture, Hemphill’s embrace of the sound and motion of GoGo for his own foreshadowed funeral is significant. While funerals are unwelcome in all their regularity and seriality, they have also marked one of the primary sites of Black cultural reproduction for Black communities in Washington and beyond. They compose a principal site in which Black communities share, edit, and reproduce cosmological and social relations and elaborate the grammars of Black insurgent social life. Conscious, as an artist, of the role of funerals as a dense site in which Black communities create and reimagine matters of culture and social life, Hemphill queers the final rites by bringing elements of what was viewed as the disreputable culture of the GoGo into a sanctified space. Police and politicians in Washington characterized GoGo as the disreputable sound of the city’s poor in the 1980s and 1990s, yet Hemphill infuses “the end” with a frenetic social life felt, heard, touched, and entered through the energy of GoGo’s percussion.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "Funeral of nineteen year old Negro saw mill worker in Heard County, Georgia, May 1941." New York Public Library Digital Collections.
“Funeral of nineteen year old Negro saw mill worker in Heard County, Georgia, May 1941.” Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Critically, Hemphill’s poetic transgression of the boundary between the disreputable and the holy provides an entrée into the contours of a wider Black queer theology. In the same section of “The Tomb of Sorrow,” Hemphill refits heaven with tall stunning “Black Drag Queens.” According to Hemphill, these stunning figures shimmer because of the sequins they wear as he greets them with a deep kiss upon his entry through the pearly gates. In this symbolic reconfiguration of the heavenly realm, Hemphill dethrones the normative white god the father and replaces the dominant symbol of Western theology with the despised figure of a Black faggot.

Here Hemphill brings to the fore the stakes of Black peoples’ alternative figurations of the cosmos through poetry and other retainers of heterodox epistemologies. While queer does name explicit connections to non-normative sexuality in Hemphill’s case, it also signifies more broadly a tense social relation counter to processes of normalization. Black queer theology is a critical engagement with matters of the relations between people and divinity on the part of those relegated to the margins of societal hierarchies of race, gender, class, and sexuality. It is a form of insurgent theology whose practitioners, including Hemphill, have sought to reimagine the very basis of social-cosmological order from within the shadow cast by white civil society.

While it is common in Black and other insurgent theologies to displace the Western white god the father with socially despised figures, Hemphill’s queering of god and the heavenly coterie of angels is particularly pointed. It raises fundamental challenges to the theology used to justify and make compulsory social and biological reproduction along the lines of dominion and heteropatriarchy. As Wende Marshall and Delores Williams demonstrate, dominion is an ideology of domination based on an exegesis of the bible that suggests the predominance of (white) man over all the resources of the planet. Western Europeans and settlers have mobilized variations of this vision of stewardship through control and domination since at least the colonization of the Americas to justify the commodification and destruction of the biosphere as well as the domination of Black and indigenous people (as well as other beings considered of a lower order). Dominion is indictable for its denaturing effects and sustained threat to the planet’s life.

A central tenet of the divinely ordained mandate of total control and exploitation that justifies the US settler state is compulsory patriarchal-biological reproduction—the imperative found in the same passages of Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply.” This clause of the theology of dominion has resurged in larger measure due to the mainstreaming of evangelical theology, especially in the wake of HIV-AIDS. This has had particularly damning effects on Black queer people living as outsiders marginalized for not leading lives deemed worthy and acceptable by what Black gay Philadelphia writer and anthologist Joseph Beam in 1985 called “the purveyors of decency”—the state and other agencies seeking to neutralize and excise subversives and insurgents from the social fabric.1 As certain forms of white gay and trans life have become mainstream and tacitly tolerated, Black trans and other Black queer people have experienced a spiral of violence in the hands of the state and vigilantes. The “agents of decency” have remained steadfast in their reinforcement of white supremacy, compulsory gender, and forced heteronormative reproduction.

Hemphill’s poetry cleverly draws on the much longer history of Black communities politicizing funerary rites and the afterlife to critique that governing order and to provide insight into a different kind of future up and out from the site of the body’s interment to the wider cosmos. If, from the vantage of dominant Western theology, especially as interpreted within the evangelical tradition, god continues to ordain a social order grounded in marriage and compulsory biological reproduction and predicated on expansion and dominion, then the indications of Hemphill’s reformulation of god as a Black queer (or at the very least as someone willing to be in the company of Black drag queens) is a poetic and prophetic reordering of the entire basis of social-biological connection. Hemphill creates the opening for a theology beyond dominion and the imperative of human proliferation.

For me, Hemphill’s poetry also begs another important theological query: if god created the world in their image, and god is a Black queer (or a similarly positioned outsider) and therefore part of a group against whom normative reproduction is historically defined, then what is the new basis for the social-cosmological order and integrity? Although “The Tomb of Sorrow” does not explicitly answer this query, the loving letters and notes Hemphill exchanged with Joseph Beam before Beam’s death in 1988 reveal glimpses of Hemphill’s vision for a different basis for social and cosmological wholeness. Hemphill did not entirely explode the features of monogamous union; however, his riffing on these normative forms makes his poetry that much more powerful in its renegotiations of social relations. Hemphill and other members of his generation of Black queer thinkers and writers were in the heart of the process of figuring out alternative bases of social order even as many of them confronted their own untimely passing.

In a letter dated December 5, 1985 Hemphill wrote about his longing and desire for some of the aspects of monogamous romantic partnership: “I too sleep nights and all I dream are tall blue trees with strong torsos and muscular thighs. And I too, miss the domestic repetition of beauty that is found in caring for and being cared for by a lover.” In the same letter, Hemphill also reworked the bonds of intimacy and love in ways that reflect his poetic displacement of the white hetero god the father and patriarch by a Black queer. As Hemphill stated, this “is a letter actually to wish you well and to tell you, quite frankly, I love you, for the man you are, which is why I believe our friendship will be forever, a friendship tied to waffles in a diner. A friendship tied to concerns that when galvanized will save us all.”2 Here Hemphill outlines a prospective for the future in which everyone might survive or “be saved,” not through the imperatives of dominion or biological reproduction as in the dominant Western tradition, but rather through the bonds of Black queer friendship. Hemphill stages this loving Black queer communion not in the normative home, but of all places in a diner over waffles.

  1.  Joseph Beam papers, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Box 8, Folder 1.
  2. This quote and the previous are from the Joseph Beam Papers, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Box 4, Folder 2. Thank you to archivist Steven Fullwood for helping me to navigate Beam’s papers at the Schomburg.
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J. T. Roane

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of Africana Studies in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.