Essex Hemphill first took to poetry as a Washington, D.C., teenager and didn't stop. In 1985 and 1986, Hemphill self-published his first books, but truly gained national attention when he appeared in the seminal anthology In The Life, a collection of writing by black, gay men in 1986. Thereafter, his poems were featured in two award-winning documentaries, Tongues Untied and Looking for Langston. Hemphill became known for his no-holds-barred handling of HIV/AIDS, race, and identity. He went on to win Lambda Literary Awards, and he was named a visiting scholar for the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in 1993. In the midst of a conservative Congress cracking down on publicly funded arts programs, he was named a fellow for the National Endowment for the Arts and received grants from the Pew Charitable Trust. In 1995, Hemphill died due to complications from AIDS.
Billy Strayhorn weathered a tumultuous childhood with the help of music. A diminutive teenager with a passion and honed ear for music, Strayhorn was the only black musician in his high school's 25-member orchestra. He started a Cole Porter-esque musical review with skits and music. By age 23, he impressed Duke Ellington so much that he decided to hire him on the spot, despite not having a position for him in his orchestra. Within months, however, Strayhorn was writing arrangements and pushing Ellington's orchestra to perform its best—while living as an openly gay man. Strayhorn's 29-year collaborative partnership with Ellington birthed several major songs including "Take The 'A' Train," the groundbreaking, audacious musical Jump For Joy, and the 43-mnute jazz piece Black Brown and Beige performed at Carnegie Hall. Strayhorn broke out on his own, while also becoming an influential activist, working along with Martin Luther King Jr.