Thursday, 8 October 2015


Today is the UK’s National Poetry Day. To celebrate I’m going to look at a trio of black lgbt poets.

One of the most famous black poets is Langston Hughes (1902-1967). A leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s Langston has become an icon of black American literature. He began writing during his high school years in Ohio and later moved to Harlem, New York.

He was a prolific writer, producing work in most literary genres right up to the time of his death. His works concentrated on black American identity and issues of racism and economic struggles. The issue of gay men in black society is just as important even if he never mentioned it. Black American society could not accept that there were gay black men in their community, so many, like Langston Hughes, hid it from the wider community. Among his friends of the Harlem Renaissance, of whom there were many openly lgbt black members, Langston’s sexuality was known and kept private.
There have been few Poet Laureate who have been lgbt and black. Only one has also been female, and that is Audre Lorde (1934-1992), who was officially appointed 3rd Poet Laureate of New York State in 1991.

Audre began writing poetry before she was a teenager. Like Langston Hughes she wrote about black identity in society. She also introduced discussion of lgbt identity into her work. She wasn’t the first poet to do this but, added to her activism and advocacy of discussion between the various identities, Audre believed a better society would develop.

In 1968 Audre entered the world of academia when she accepted the position of lecturer in creative writing at City College, New York, and at the Herbert H. Lehman College. She later became Associate Professor of English at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Through these positions she was able to inspire and influence later writers.

Following her death the Audre Lorde Project was created to work with black community groups and non-violent activism for lgbt African-Americans in New York.

More recent black lgbt poets have embraced performance as part of their work. One of the most well-known of these from the Washington DC area was Essex Hemphill (1957-1995).

Essex was at the fore-front of what has been called the second Harlem Renaissance that began to emerge. The work of gay black poets came to the attention of the wider public in 1986 with the publication of “In the Life”, edited by Joseph Bean. Essex Hemphill contributed to this anthology and edited the follow-up volume “Brother to Brother: New Writings of Black Gay Men” in 1971.

But Essex is also remembered for his performance and readings of his own poems. A charismatic figure, Essex drew audiences to places as varied at small coffee houses to bit theatres and gained an international reputation.

Writing poetry became a means of refuge from his poor childhood. By retreating from this hardship he empowered himself. His poetry readings, often accompanied by his performance partner Wayson James, gave a confidence he never had as a youngster coping with his sexuality in a homophobic society.

It’s sad that Essex’s life coincided with the rise of the AIDS crisis. In some ways the crisis overshadowed everything else in the lgbt community. Essex himself died of AIDS-related causes at the height of his career. In recent years Essex Hemphill has been recognised as one of the greatest gay black poets of the post-Stonewall era. Most of his work, out of print for many years, is being prepared for re-publication and the profile of Essex Hemphill will, hopefully, resume itself in the world of black gay poetry as is did at his death.

However you celebrate National Poetry Day search out more works by today’s Poet-Trio and discover for yourself how their work is still very much poetry of our time.

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