- Loneliness:Black Gay Longing in the Work of Essex Hemphill
Do you think I could walk pleasantlyand well suited toward annihilation?with a scrotal sack full of primordial lonelinessswinging between my legslike solid bells?—Essex Hemphill
Black gay poet, essayist, and performer Essex Hemphill was, arguably, the most prominent of the black gay intellectuals of the 1980s and early 1990s. His work addresses the psychological, social, and political struggles of urban black communities, and often maps the psychological, social, and political location of black gay men onto the black urban landscape. In "Heavy Breathing," Hemphill takes the reader on a city bus ride through 1980s black Washington, DC. The speaker of the poem rides the "X2, the bus I call a slave ship," with the "majority of its riders Black" (lines 65–66). The speaker defines the "X2" as a "risky ride," with its "cargo of block boys, urban pirates" (71–72). The imagery of the city bus as "a slave ship" and the riders as "cargo" conjures the historical trauma of the Middle Passage, suggesting a continuity between the social death of antebellum slavery and the urban poverty and decay produced by neoliberal capitalism.
The speaker goes on to describe the spectacular forms of violence that emerged in Washington, DC, in the late '80s and '90s, as the line "the funerals of my brothers" alludes in part to how the nationwide crack epidemic greatly impacted crime in cities like Washington, DC, with a homicide rate so high in the late 1980s and early 1990s that it eventually earned DC the label of "murder capital."1 But the speaker attends these funerals only "at the end of heavy breathing" (63), signaling the climax of public sexual encounters with other men. It is in this same black urban [End Page 353] environment that the speaker negotiates the dangers and pleasures of same-sex desire. If read within this context, the speaker's "brothers" are also his same-sex-desiring brothers, and the "funerals" are also for those who have succumbed to homophobic violence and AIDS.
A range of black cultural studies scholars, most notably Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton, have also theorized a continuity between antebellum slavery and contemporary blackness.2 Drawing on Orlando Patterson's conceptualization of antebellum slavery as "social death" and Saidiya Hartman's conception of "slavery's afterlife," these theorists point out the specificity and ubiquity of antiblackness obscured by hegemonic discourses of multiculturalism and colorblindness in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries.3 Furthermore, Sexton defines the lived experience of blackness as a "social life of social death" and expresses a political refusal to distance himself from blackness "in a valorization of minor differences that bring one closer to health, life, or sociality."4
But these theories have yet to fully account for gender and sexual difference for the queer "brothers" of Hemphill's poem, who also negotiate their lives under the sign of blackness. In Wilderson's formulation, queerness, as a "human" ontological category, depends on the non-ontology of blackness for its coherence, and, thus, the gratuitous violence done to black queer and transgender bodies is subsumed under the structures of anti-blackness. But afro-pessimist theories fail to address how non-normative black genders and sexualities signify differently, and how these so-called "minor differences" oftentimes bring black gender and sexual minorities closer to illness, death, and social exclusion under regimes of antiblackness.
The line "funerals of my brothers" in Hemphill's poem conjures the ghostly presence of 1980s and 90s black gay intellectuals within contemporary theorizations of blackness fixed as pathology and as embodied subjectivity marked by (social) death. In addition to the racial retrenchment affecting urban black communities in the Reagan era, black gay artists, intellectuals, and activists in the 1980s and 90s also experienced amplified cultural stigma attached to homosexuality during the AIDS epidemic. Many of them carried in their bodies the literal pathology of AIDS and a consciousness shaped as much by everyday black life as it was by black (social) death. Though the literary communities that they formed could not prevent their deaths, nor could they alleviate the debilitating psychic and...