Feb 25, 2016

Essex Hemphill’s “Ceremonies”

Charles I. Nero

Tiona McClodden, *Af·fixing Ceremony: Four Movements for Essex*, production still (2015)

Tiona McClodden, Af·fixing Ceremony: Four Movements for Essex, production still, 2015.

In my introduction to Essex Hemphill’s landmark Ceremonies, I compared the collection to the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved.[1] Following the insights of the late black feminist literary critic Barbara Christian, I argued that in Ceremonies Hemphill created a work, as Morrison had done in Beloved, to address our communal silence about the Middle Passage. Christian noted that Morrison dedicated her novel to the “Sixty Million and more” who endured, suffered, and/or died in this holocaust, yet we barely whisper about this traumatic event in our culture.[2] For Hemphill, the silences about the extent to which AIDS has wreaked havoc in black communities worldwide recall the holocaust of the Middle Passage. Christian asserts that Morrison’s Beloved is a “fixing ceremony” whose purpose is not merely that of remembrance for the sake of remembrance, but remembrance as the only way to begin the process of healing that psychic wound, which continues to have grave effects on the present. Christian identifies Beloved as part of a project of communal healing helping us to make peace with those “Sixty Million and more” so that “Those whose names we can no longer specifically call know that we have not forgotten them that they are our ‘Beloved.’” Much of Ceremonies addressed our queer “beloved” from the life before the AIDS devastation. Hemphill recorded what it is and was like to be black, gay, and sexually active, with the skill of an anthropologist and the beauty of the talented poet he was in life. Hemphill insisted that we remember this life and the people who lived it.

Acknowledging our erotic desires was a prominent theme in Hemphill’s work. He challenged popular culture’s incessantly repetitive focus on respectability politics and the idea that “erotic variety is dangerous, unhealthy, depraved, and a menace to everything from small children to national security,” as pioneer queer theorist Gayle Rubin put it.[3] In “Without Comment,” one of the most well-known of his essays, Hemphill evoked a sexualized landscape that was a meeting place for men interested in queer sex with other black men. In the autobiographical title essay “Ceremonies,”Hemphill put us into morally murky ground when he revealed his initiation into sex at age fourteen with George, a white man who ran a neighborhood butcher shop. As Hemphill realized that he was not the only boy in his neighborhood having sex with this white man, Hemphill realized his own queerness because, unlike the other boys who cursed George, blackmailed him, or otherwise resented their orgasms with him, Hemphill concluded that what they really resented “was the recognition of their own homo sexual desire.” In the poem “Under Certain Circumstances,” Hemphill directly addressed the need to challenge respectability politics as well as the potentially dangerous consequences of violating it:

I want to court outside the race

Outside the class, outside the attitudes—

but love is a dangerous word

in this small town.

Those who seek it are sometimes found

Face down floating on their beds.

Those who find it protect it

or destroy it from within.

His essay “If Freud Had Been a Neurotic Colored Woman: Reading Dr. Frances Cress Welsing” is one of the most important critiques of the homophobic and heterosexist politics of cultural black nationalism. Welsing, a general and child psychiatrist, belonged to a profession that had historically oppressed queer people. Welsing brought a keen awareness of racism to her antipathy toward black queer people in her argument that black homosexuality was a dysfunctional behavioral adaptation to white supremacy. Hemphill revealed Welsing’s thinly disguised homophobia when he noted her intellectually fraudulent belief that “racism causes homosexuality” and that “Black liberation will somehow eradicate Black homosexuality.” Hemphill’s essay is particularly relevant now in light of the recent passing of Dr. Welsing and the amount of vituperation in social media that has been heaped upon those queers of color who have acknowledged her anti-racism work as important, but who have also reminded us of her belief that we—black and queer people—will someday cease to exist.

Hemphill imagined an ancestral home in the poem “Tomb of Sorrow”:

I rummage through

ancestral memories

in search of the

original tribes

that fathered us.

I want to remember

the exact practices

of civility

we agreed upon.

I want us to remember

the nobility of decency.

To recover and “remember” the “exact practices of civility” and the “the nobility of decency” are images of Africa associated with a pre-enslavement ideal. I would argue that this image of Africa in “Tomb of Sorrow” suggests freedom, dialogue, and desire—ideas that challenge narrowly defined respectability politics.

It is fitting that Tiona McClodden has created Four Movements for Essex, a project that is its own “fixing ceremony.” Her use of the Haitian veve as the figure for entry into the project is instructive. The veve figures prominently in rituals of the African Diaspora, especially in voudoun ceremonies in which loas or divinities of the ancestors descend through them onto the material world where they enter and inhabit our being. In using the veve as the point of entry into the work, McClodden reminds us that Hemphill was indeed an artist in the global African Diaspora, and he is our revered ancestor.

Charles I. Nero is Professor of Rhetoric, African American Studies, and American Cultural Studies at Bates College. Nero is a pioneer in black queer studies and wrote the introduction for the Cleis edition of Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies.

[1] All references are Essex Hemphill, Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry, Introduction by Charles I. Nero (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2000).

[2] Barbara Christian, “Fixing Methodologies: Beloved,”in Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism,” eds. Elizabeth Abel, Barbara Christian, and Helene Moglen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

[3] Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, eds. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993): 12.

Funding for NOTES has been provided by the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation.