Remembering Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill and the Battlefield of AIDS

Meticulously researched and evocatively told, Hold Tight Gently is this celebrated historian's poignant memorial to those lost to AIDS and to two of the great unsung heroes of the early years of the epidemic. This is an exclusive excerpt.

BY Martin Duberman

March 20 2014 11:28 AM ET

And not just those in New York. The appearance of other, seemingly anomalous symptoms among young gay men was beginning to puzzle physicians elsewhere. The most perplexing were Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), typically associated with the suppression of the immune system; and the appearance of purplish spots on the skin. Sonnabend was among the first to recognize that the spots were indicative of lymphatic tumors, a rare cancer known as Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) that was traditionally associated with elderly men of Mediterranean origin. Mystified, doctors began to compare notes with colleagues around the country.

Washington, D.C., in 1973 became the first large U.S. city officially to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment, and public accommodations. The catch, of course, was that black and Latino/a gay men and lesbians still remained subject to the prevailing racist mind-set among whites — and the prevailing homophobia among heterosexual people of color. It’s possible to argue — though the argument is far from conclusive — that within gay circles discrimination against blacks and Latinos was less pronounced in D.C. than within straight ones.

During a three-day conference at the University of Houston to plan for the 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, for example, the organizers set aside 25 percent of all leadership and policy positions for Third World delegates, and the black D.C. Coalition, led by Billy Jones, actively participated. The day before the march, the conference agenda included three panels on racial issues, and both Marion Barry and the well-known writer Audre Lorde spoke at the event itself. Judging by numbers alone — estimates vary but are generally upwards of 150,000 attendees — the march was counted a great success.

Above: Essex, 1991 (photo by Jim Marks)

Yet as Essex and other black gay people well knew, social and cultural circles in D.C. were mostly divided along racial grounds. One of the best-known hangouts for black gay artists was (Valerie) Papaya Mann’s brownstone in Northeast D.C. — a salon-like setting reminiscent of 1920s Harlem Renaissance gathering spots in New York City, of which A’Lelia Walker’s and Carl Van Vechten’s were probably the most famous. Papaya herself had come out in the mid '70s and immediately gotten involved in D.C. lesbian and gay life, organizing a variety of social events and becoming a central figure in Sapphire Sapphos, Washington’s first organization for African American lesbians. It was at Papaya’s that Essex first met his future good friends Chris Prince and Garth Tate and then, through them, any number of other black gay singers, writers, painters, and filmmakers.

One of the early (1979–80) products of these gatherings was the publication of the short-lived but handsomely produced bimonthly Nethula Journal of Contemporary Literature (the name “Nethula” had come to Essex in a dream). He co-founded Nethula with two young women, Kathy Anderson, whom he’d known at the University of Maryland, and Cynthia Lou Williams. Essex served not only as the journal’s publisher, but also as its graphic designer — he’d learned offset printing and typesetting at one of his part-time jobs, and showed a striking gift for it. With wonderful paper stock, stunning cover design, and challenging content, both poetry and prose, Nethula was a state-of-the-art publication devoted largely to the work of the newest generation of black artists. Both Sterling Brown and E. Ethelbert Miller of the older group of black writers were among the journal’s five contributing editors. Miller especially — a poet on staff at the Howard University library — served as an important bridge between the generations.

Poster from an early Hemphill gig at D.C. space (courtesy of Michelle Parkerson)

In 1980, Miller arranged for Essex and the black lesbian poet and filmmaker Michelle Parkerson to share a bill together at the citywide Ascension Poetry Reading Series at Howard University’s Founders Library, which Miller coordinated. Michelle had graduated from Temple University, was then working at the local NBC television affiliate, and had just completed her first film, But Then, She’s Betty Carter. The two had never met before and the connection proved immediate and consequential for both. As Michelle recalls the evening of their joint reading, “I was just struck by this young brother, whose poems were incredible . . . beautifully sensual and homoerotically brave, which was right where I was at with my own work.” After the event concluded, Michelle approached Essex: “Hey, where you been all my life?” she laughingly asked, and told him how much she loved his work. Essex felt the same about hers and the two became fast friends.

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