Essex Hemphill: “We keep treasure any king would count as dear”: Poems of lust, poems of tenderness

ZP_portrait by Rotimi Fani Kayode_Dennis Carney and Essex Hemphill in Brixton, London, 1988.  Hemphill is holding Carney and kissing the back of his neck.ZP_portrait by Rotimi Fani-Kayode_Dennis Carney and Essex Hemphill in Brixton, London, 1988.  Hemphill is holding Carney and kissing the back of his neck.


Essex Hemphill (1957-1995)

From: Ceremonies (1992)

Rights and Permissions”


Sometimes I hold

my warm seed

up to my mouth

very close

to my parched lips

and whisper

“I’m sorry,”

before I turn my head

over the toilet

and listen to the seed

splash into the water.


I rinse what remains

down the drain,

dry my hands –

they return

to their tasks

as if nothing

out of place

has occurred.


I go on being,

wearing my shirts

and trousers,

voting, praying,

paying rent,

pissing in public,

cussing cabs,

fussing with utilities.


What I learn

as age advances,

relentless pillager,

is that we shrink

inside our shirts

and trousers,

or we spread

beyond the seams.

The hair we cherished



Sometimes I hold

my warm seed

up to my mouth

and kiss it.

.     .     .

Object Lessons”


If I am comfortable

on the pedestal

you are looking at,

if I am indolent and content

to lay here on my stomach,

my determinations

indulged and glistening

in baby oil and sweat,

if I want to be here, a pet,

to be touched, a toy,

if I choose

to be liked in this way,

if I desire to be object,

to be sexualized

in this object way,

by one or two at a time,

for a night or a thousand days,

for money or power,

for the awesome orgasms

to be had, to be coveted,

or for my own selfish wantonness,

for the feeling of being

pleasure, being touched.

The pedestal was here,

so I climbed up.

I located myself.

I appropriated this context.

It was my fantasy,

my desire to do so

and lie here

on my stomach.

Why are you looking?

What do you wanna

do about it?

.     .     .

Invitations All Around”


If he is your lover,

never mind.

Perhaps, if we ask,

he will join us.

.     .     .

From: Earth Life (1985)


Black Beans”


Times are lean,

Pretty Baby,

the beans are burnt

to the bottom

of the battered pot.

Let’s make fierce love

on the overstuffed

hand-me-down sofa.

We can burn it up, too.

Our hungers

will evaporate like – money.

I smell your lust,

not the pot burnt black

with tonight’s meager meal.

So we can’t buy flowers for our table.

Our kisses are petals,

our tongues caress the bloom.

Who dares to tell us

we are poor and powerless?

We keep treasure

any king would count as dear.

Come on, Pretty Baby.

Our souls can’t be crushed

like cats crossing streets too soon.

Let the beans burn all night long.

Our chipped water glasses are filled

with wine from our loving.

And the burnt black beans –


.     .     .

Better Days”


In daytime hours,

guided by instincts

that never sleep,

the faintest signals

come to me

over vast spaces

of etiquette

and restraint.

Sometimes I give in

to the pressing

call of instince,

knowing the code of my kind

better than I know

the National Anthem

or “The Lord’s Prayer”.

I am so driven by my senses

to abandon restraint,

to seek pure pleasure

through every pore.

I want to smell the air

around me thickly scented

with a playboy’s freedom.

I want impractical relationships.

I want buddies and partners,

names I will forget by sunrise.

I only want to feel good.

I only want to freak sometimes.

There are no other considerations.

A false safety compels me

to think I will never need kindness,

so I don’t recognize

that need in someone else.


But it concerns me,

going off to sleep

and waking

throbbing with wants,

that I am being

consumed by want.

And I wonder

where stamina comes from

to search all night

until my footsteps ring

awake the sparrows,

and I go home, ghost walking,

driven indoors to rest

my hunter’s guise,

to love myself as fiercely

as I have in better days.

.     .     .

From: Conditions (1986)


Isn’t It Funny”


I don’t want to hear you beg.

I’m sick of beggars.

If you a man

take what you want from me

or what you can.

Even if you have me

like some woman across town

you think you love.


Look at me

standing here with my dick

as straight as yours.

What do you think this is?

The weathercock on a rooftop?


We sneak all over town

like two damn thieves,

whiskey on our breath,

no streetlights on the back roads,

just the stars above us

as ordinary as they should be.


We always have to work it out,

walk it through, talk it over,

drink and smoke our way into sodomy.

I could take you in my room

but you’re afraid the landlady

will recognize you.


I feel thankful I don’t love you.

I won’t have to suffer you later on.


But for now I say, Johnnie Walker,

have you had enough, Johnnie Walker?


Against the fogged car glass

do I look like your crosstown lover?

Do I look like Shirley?


When you reach to kiss her lips

they’re thick like mine.

Her hair is cut close, too,

like mine –

isn’t it?

.     .     .

Between Pathos and Seduction”

(For Larry)


Love potions

solve no mysteries,

provide no comment

on the unspoken.

Our lives tremble

between pathos and seduction.

Our inhibitions

force us to be equal.

We swallow hard

black love potions

from a golden glass.

New language beckons us.

Its dialect present.


Through my eyes

focused as pure, naked light,

fixed on you like magic,

clarity. I see risks.

Regrets? There will be none.

Let some wonder,

some worry, some accuse.

Let you and I know

the tenderness

only we can bear.

.     .     .

American Wedding”


In america,

I place my ring

on your cock

where it belongs.

No horsemen

bearing terror,

no soldiers of doom

will swoop in

and sweep us apart.

They’re too busy

looting the land

to watch us.

They don’t know

we need each other


They expect us to call in sick,

watch television all night,

die by our own hands.

They don’t know

we are becoming powerful.

Every time we kiss

we confirm the new world coming.


What the rose whispers

before blooming

I vow to you.

I give you my heart,

a safe house.

I give you promises other than

milk, honey, liberty.

I assume you will always

be a free man with a dream.

In america,

place your ring

on my cock

where it belongs.

Long may we live

to free this dream.

.     .     .

Essex Hemphill (1957 – 1995) was a poet and activist, as frank and raw – and as radical – as one can get.  Hemphill’s compañero (and hero) in activism was Joseph Fairchild Beam (1954 – 1988), writer, editor, Black-Gay civil-rights agitator for positive change.  In a 1984 essay Beam declared:  “The bottom line is this:  We are Black men who are proudly gay.  What we offer is our lives, our love, our visions.  We are rising to the love we all need.  We are coming home with our heads held up high.”

When Hemphill wrote “In america, place your ring on my cock where it belongs”  he was probably – though one cannot be sure – not talking about the symbolic ring of the traditional marriage rite as we all know it.   And yet…his fervent desire was for Black, Gay Americans to be meaningfully re-connected to their own communities, communities to which they felt a powerful yearning to belong – having never left them, deep down in their hearts.  We feature the following photographs because we feel that Hemphill – even though he called his black, gay world “this tribe of warriors and outlaws” – would get it.  To paraphrase the final line of his poem American WeddingLong may you live to free your dream.


ZP_Two women celebrate with friends and relatives after their outdoor marriage in Washington Square Park , New York City.ZP_Two women celebrate with friends and relatives after their outdoor marriage in Washington Square Park , New York City, 2011.

ZP_After 33 years together these two handsome septuagenarian New Yorkers married legally in 2011. Dignity and great pride are evident on their faces.ZP_After 33 years together these two handsome septuagenarian New Yorkers married legally in 2011. Dignity and great pride are evident on their faces.

ZP_2008 poster directed toward the fathers of young, black, gay men_Gay Men's Health Center, NYC_© photographer Ocean MorissetZP_2008 poster directed toward the fathers of young, black, gay men_Gay Men’s Health Center, NYC_© photographer Ocean Morisset_Essex Hemphill, were he alive today, would’ve been heartened by such an initiative, knowing full well that the blood, sweat and tears of many ordinary people – who are also activists who love their communities – made such progress possible.

.     .     .     .     .

“Baby, I’m for real”: Black-American Gay poets from a generation ago

ZP_BlackAmericanGay couple_around 1980

.     .     .

“I dream of Black men loving and supporting other Black men, and relieving Black women from the role of primary nurturers in our community.  I dream, too, that as we receive more of what we want from each other that our special anger reserved for Black women will disappear.  For too long we expected from Black women that which we could only obtain from other men.  I dare myself to dream.”

Joseph Fairchild Beam (1954 – 1988) from Brother to Brother: Words from the Heart, a passionate 1984 essay directed at all – not just gay – Black men

.     .     .

Lamont B. Steptoe (born 1949)

Maybelle’s boy”


I get from other men

what my daddy never gave

He just left me a house

full of lonesome rooms

and slipped on in his grave.



when muscled arms enfold me

A peace descends from above

Someone is holdin’ Maybelle’s boy

and whisperin’ words of love.

.     .     .

Don Charles (born 1960)



When you looked and

saw my Brown skin

Didn’t it make you

feel comfortable?


Didn’t you remember that

old blanket

You used to wrap up in

when the nights got cold?


Didn’t you think about that

maplewood table

Where you used to sit and

write letters to your daddy?


Didn’t you almost taste that

sweet gingerbread

Your granny used to make?

(And you know it was good.)


When you looked and

saw my Brown eyes

Didn’t they look just like


.     .     .

Don Charles



You better quit coming around here like that

with no shirt on

and them gold chains on your neck


In them tight shorts

halfway pushed down the back

and your jockstrap showing


Ass jerking from side to side

and your legs all sweaty and shining


Trying to talk dirty

with that Kangol hat cocked to one side


Some dude’s gonna grab you

yank them shorts right down

throw you ‘cross the hood of his car

and ram his dick up your little ass so hard

it’ll make you walk more funny than you do.


Couldn’t nobody blame him neither

the way you walk around

acting like you want something



I may be the one who jams you –

You just better quit coming around here.

.     .     .

Don Charles

“If he hadn’t kissed me”


And the fool said to me

as he humped my behind:

“You ought to try

fucking a woman some time.”


“Gotta have you some pussy

to be a real man,”

he said while I jacked him off

on my divan.


I wanted to ask him

to see if he knew:

“Why would I mess with

a jackass like you,

if pussy was what

I wanted to do?”


And if he hadn’t kissed me,

I would have, too.

.     .     .

David Warren Frechette (died 1991)

Non, Je ne regrette rien”

(for Keith Barrow and Larry McKeithan)

I had big fun if I don’t get well no more.

(“Going Down Slow”, as sung by Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland)


Sister Chitlin’, Brother NeckBone and

Several of their oxymoron minions

Circle round my sick room,

Swathed in paper surgical gowns.


Brandishing crosses, clutching bibles,

(God, please don’t let them sing hymns!)

Pestering me to recant the

Wicked ways that brought me here.


“Renounce your sins and return to Jesus!”

Shouts one of the zealous flock.

“The truth is I never left Him,”

I reply with a fingersnap.

“Don’t you wish you’d chosen a normal lifestyle?”

“Sister, for me, I’m sure I did.”


Let the congregation work overtime

For my eleventh-hour conversion.

Their futile efforts fortify

My unrepentant resolve.


Though my body be racked by

Capricious pains and fevers,

I’m not even about to yield to

Fashionable gay Black temptation.


Mother Piaf’s second greatest hit title

Is taped to the inside of my brain

And silently repeated like a mantra:

“Non, je ne regrette rien.”


I don’t regret the hot Latino boxer

I made love to on Riverside Drive

Prior to a Washington march.

I don’t regret wild Jersey nights

Spent in the arms of conflicted satyrs;

I don’t regret late night and early a.m.

Encounters with world-class insatiables.


My only regrets are being ill,

Bed-ridden and having no boyfriend

To pray over me.

And that now I’ll never see Europe

Or my African homeland except

In photos in a book or magazine.


Engrave on my tombstone:

“Here sleeps a happy Black faggot

Who lived to love and died

With no guilt.”


No, I regret nothing

Of the gay life I’ve led and

There’s no way in Heaven or Hell

I’ll let anyone make me.

.     .     .

David Warren Frechette

“The Real Deal”


Don’t want death to catch me crying and acting like I been bad.

Don’t want no hypocrites around my bedside making me feel sad.

When my man comes my way with His golden book and silver scythe,

Then says, “Come along now, David…it’s the end of your life!”

I’ll answer Him,

“I’m a natural fighter, I ain’t gonna go easy,

Although my breath is short, and my stomach quite queasy.”

If I must leave this world hunched over, I got this reliance

That death will have to find me – arms folded in defiance.

.     .     .

ZP_Donald W. Woods photographed in 1987 by Robert GiardZP_Donald W. Woods photographed in 1987 by Robert Giard


Donald W. Woods (1958 – 1992)

What do I do about you?


holy ghost of my heart

grinding my memory

humping my need


throw your head like the dinka

shake your arms like the maasai

a french whore flirting

lickin lips at strangers


been waiting for your lightbulb

to glow for me



to exchange hard ass love

calloused affection


slapping high fives

capable and competent

listless and lonely


turn the blaze up slow

so I can breathe your

mourning breath

wet my pillow

part your eyelids


I’m a typewriter

randy and selfish and wise

a sonnet

a beat box


serve the next line

in your salty metaphors

and smoked salmon humour


wet me with

the next line


the resounding refrain

of grown men in love.

.     .     .

Cary Alan Johnson



I used your letter to roll a joint

and as your lies burned

I inhaled them;

they made me laugh.

.     .     .

Cary Alan Johnson



Last night

I fell silently into your

black sea.

Hair everywhere, in my

mouth, deep inside me,

deep, deeper

than we’d ever

gone before.

Did you know this

time would come?

.     .     .

Djola Bernard Branner

“Red Bandanas”

(as rapped to 101 beats per minute minus-one)


red bandanas

mean fuck me

when worn

in the right

hip pocket

in the right crowd


on castro

or christopher



but mine is worn

around the neck.


it means that

i am remembering


who wiped

the sweat from his

brow onto it

or used it to catch

the contents of

a cough

or laundered it /

and wore it

around his neck.


red bandanas

mean fuck me

when worn

in the right

hip pocket

in the right crowd


on castro

or christopher



but mine is worn

around the neck.


it means that

i am remembering


who placed it

in the palm of

my hand /

and dried

the tears she

cried in it

’cause her

father died

with nothing

but his /


red bandanas

mean fuck me

when worn

in the right

hip pocket

in the right crowd


on castro

or christopher



but mine is worn

around the neck.

.     .     .

Steve Langley

“Tell Mama”


When I was 10 years old, I asked

my mama while she was making potato salad:

“Mama, what’s a homosexual?” She said:

“It’s a man who likes men.”

“What’s a lesbian?”

“It’s a woman who likes women.”

“What makes them like that?”

“I don’t know, son. Nobody knows.

It’s a freak of nature.”


When I was 14, I heard

her say to my stepfather:

“We can’t go nowhere

without you winkin’ and blinkin’

and makin’ advances at other men.

I see you.

I’ll never trust you as long as you got

a hole in your ass.”


When I was 17, I sat

with my mother on our front porch

as she shriveled from cancer.

We watched the stars, felt the breeze,

Tonight I would tell her,

tell her that I was like the men

she told me about,

that I was like my stepfather…

Ants gathered the words at my feet.

I felt them rise through my toes, my ankles,

and my legs. They were creeping through me,

at my waist, in my stomach, my chest.

My throat got thick, my tongue heavy.

I needed to tell her what she already knew.

I began,

But I couldn’t…..

.     .     .

Steve Langley



Build a wall

I’ll find a way to get over

Deal me a bad hand

Watch me change my luck

Turn up the heat

And I’ll make it colder

Do what you want

I’m never giving up.

.     .     .

Steve Langley



I see stains

on your sheets

and tell myself

it’s chicken grease.

.     .     .

Steve Langley



Say yes to love

Say no to sex

Say you, say me

Oh say can you see

We are afraid of each other

Say sister, say brother

Are you still messin’ ’round

Do you have a steady lover

Are you waitin’ for the cure

Are you sure

Are you savin’ yourself

Are you lovin’ yourself

Have you come yet

Are your dreams wet

Is your sex safe

Is it already too late?

ZP_Safe sex poster from 1985 produced by the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership ForumZP_Safe sex poster from 1985 produced by the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum


Steve Langley



i’m chocolate candy

a handful of cookies

the goodies you’re forbidden

to eat

i’m a piece of cake

a slice of pie

an ice-cream bar

that chills your teeth

think of me

as your favourite treat

a pan of popcorn kernels

waitin’ for the heat.

.     .     .

The poems we’ve gathered here were mostly originally published in chapbooks and literary journals between the years 1988 and 1992.  Then, along with short-stories, essays and interviews, some of them were anthologized in Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men (1991), edited by Essex Hemphill, conceived by Joseph Fairchild Beam, with the project being managed by Joseph’s mother, Dorothy Beam.  Others appeared in editor Assotto Saint’s Here to Dare: 10 Gay Black Poets (1992).

.     .     .     .     .

Saeed Jones: Cracking all of the “names” open

ZP_Gazelle copyright Fishyhylian

Saeed Jones (USA)

Sleeping Arrangement



I’ve decided to let you stay

under our bed, the floor –

not the space between

mattress and metal frame.

Take your hand out

from under my pillow, please.

And take your sheets too.

Drag them under. Make pretend ghosts.

I can’t have you rattling the bed springs

so keep still, keep quiet.

Mistake yourself for shadows.

Learn the lullabies of lint.


I will do right by you:

crumbs brushed off my sheets,

white chocolate chip, I think,

or the corners of crackers.

Count on the occasional dropped grape,

a peach pit with fine yellow hairs,

wet where my tongue has been,

a taste you might remember.

I’ve heard some men can survive

on dust mites alone for weeks at a time.

There’s a magnifying glass on the nightstand,

in case it comes to that.

.     .     .

Obviously, I was meant to be a gazelle


When grandpa growled at the dinner table, I wanted to leap into a sprint.

Gazelles did that sort of thing when startled. They leaped

into mid-air like sprung mousetraps, and then they were nothing

but brown blurs cutting across the plains.

Sometimes the gazelle in me would try to sprint in spite of myself,

but my bow legged and awkward bones kept me at a steady jog.

I would run back and forth across the backyard for hours.

This was Memphis. There were lions behind every oak and chain link fence.

One day, I was running around the backyard, alone as usual,

when a gun went off in the distance. The sound echoed off the house.

I stood in the middle of the yard, perfectly still,

still enough to blend into the grass. It was a rough neighborhood.

Guns seemed to be going off all the time.

When my grandma heard the shot, she rushed outside

and stopped on the porch. For a moment, she looked at me

as if I had been shot. I answered her stare by running off.

.     .     .

Saeed Jones grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and now lives in New York City.

He has an MFA from Rutgers University in New Jersey.

A 2011 nominee for the Pushcart Prize, Jones comments:

“The question of whether I’m a gay poet who happens to be black or a black poet who happens to be gay, or a poet who argues that such things as “blackness” and “gayness” need not proceed my nouns is just one that I — almost literally — enjoy dancing with. It troubles my waters;  it keeps me questioning my self/selves;  these days all I have are my questions…Or maybe it’s just easier to debate gay/black and black/gay poems rather than to write the poems themselves.  Or maybe I want to crack all of the “names” open!”

.     .     .     .     .