Essex Hemphill Comes Out Twice

In the tradition of the very brave, I am posting an (incomplete) draft of a conference paper. I’ll be working on it as I travel to State College, PA, for the Celebrating African American Literature conference. Like all good academics, I believe that plane trips are opportunities to complete conference papers. Given I’ll be flying for 16 hours, that should be plenty of time.

It was probably the fall of 1996. I was newly gay, and back in the States after a summer of outing myself in Nairobi. I didn’t know much about being gay and had yet to become a regular at the Pegasus in downtown Pittsburgh, where, in the following months, I would dutifully show up on Tuesdays and Thursdays for under 21 nights and use a fake ID to get in on Fridays and Saturdays. The internet was still being invented and while strangers from New York, Toronto, and St. Louis tried to teach me how to be gay on IRC (Internet Relay Chat), I knew that true knowledge could only be found in one place: books. And so I made my way to the Barnes & Noble in downtown Pittsburgh, somewhat excited because internet truths had told me about cruising in bookstores. I did not yet know the distinction between bookstores and bookstores. And because I knew the most important thing about being gay was being out, I picked up an anthology edited by Patrick Merla: Boys Like Us: Gay Writers tell their Coming Out Stories. It was there I first encountered Essex Hemphill.

In a remarkable narrative, “The Other Invisible Man,” Hemphill describes his entry into black gay masculinity at the hands of an older church deacon called George. The narrative can be read as an elegy, and this in two ways. “The Other Invisible Man” ends with Hemphill learning of George’s death—it is a coming out story and a eulogy, a twining I want to mark and whose implications I will return to. Published after Hemphill’s death, it is also a self-written eulogy, an attempt to remember the self Hemphill hoped to become. George, the black George, had mentored the young Hemphill, teaching him how to read, how to think, how to be as a black gay man. Curiously, in a narrative about “coming out,” the question of the black George being out never comes up, or is deemed irrelevant. I say this as a placeholder—I will return to it.

I have specified black George because those familiar with the title story of Hemphill’s collection Ceremonies know about the white George. In “Ceremonies,” a young teenage Hemphill is inaugurated into homo-sex and the black masculinity it subtends by a white shopkeeper called George. “Ceremonies” is remarkable, first, for how it envisions inter-generational relationships: this relationship, Hemphill insists, was not one of abuse, even though George was in his forties and Essex was barely 14. And, second, for how it envisions homo-sex with a white man as providing entry into black masculinity. White George, Hemphill suggests, had offered his mouth and ass to other young black men and they had taken it, learning about sex, masculinity, and race through the body of the shopkeeper they would later disavow. Indeed, white George becomes a disavowed secret, allowing black teenagers to boast that they are no longer virgins, enabling them to speak of being sucked and fucking, without having to name the sex of their partners. I abbreviate a much richer narrative and more complex argument about the erotic silences that subtend black masculinities. I do so because I want to consider the relationship between these two Georges and to return, eventually, if circuitously, to the relationship between coming out and the elegy, that is, to the curious way narratives of freedom, understood as forms of subjection, rub against narratives of death in black queer imaginings.

For many years, I wondered if the narrative of the black George was meant to write over that of the white George: the white George was a sexual outlet for a horny teenager, a summer cumdump, if you will. The black George was a Socratic mentor, intent on shaping Hemphill’s mind and nurturing his potential. For a long time, it was difficult not to read one as better than the other: black George beats white George.

Yet, this narrative of over-writing is complicated by publishing histories: the white George features in the title story of Ceremonies, Hemphill’s official anthology. “Ceremonies,” the story, demands that we enter the entangled spaces of inter-generational and inter-racial sex to encounter Essex Hemphill, black gay icon extraordinaire. And “Ceremonies,” the story,” also refuses or complicates our desires to read erotic acts as life trajectories: it’s never clear whether any of the other black boys who used white George as their gateway into sex and power subsequently described themselves as gay or queer or even on the dl. Sex is clearly neither destiny nor life narrative.

I have suggested, albeit obliquely, that the narrative of the white George is about an entrance into black masculinity, mediated by the sexpertise or at least sex-availability of the white male body while the narrative of the black George is about an entrance into a black gay masculinity, structured as a Socratic exchange (with sex). Put crudely, one is a story about sex and the other is a story about sexuality. But even this reading is not yet, not quite, and perhaps quite wrong.

So let me start again.

It is no secret that what we term “the” coming out story is an improvisational performance calibrated to different spaces and audiences and urgencies. Commas shift, names change, acts are elaborated and diminished—a fuck turns into a kiss, a kiss into a handshake, the sweat of lust into the perspiration of anxiety. We speak of love rather than lust, partners rather than fuckbuddies, relationships rather than tricks. And our own certainties about what it is that we think we know—when we knew and how we knew—become unbound and re-bound: our stories leak into our memories, our bodies shift in the tales we tell, lines are crossed between the real and imagined. “Being out” feels more like being on a permanent threshold, perhaps one with a gloryhole. [note: I had been reading Lauren Berlant on gloryholes as I was writing this]

I notice the “I” that opened this paper has morphed into a “we” and I wonder about the interpellative seductions attached to that we. [note: the seduction of the aggregation conference-race, gender, class, sexuality-is that “we” becomes too easy, and I like to foreground the making of that “we” as part of a critical practice]

That “we” becomes difficult to sustain in each of the George narratives; that is, the modes of identification available to create something called community or collectivity become risky, if not impossible: the white George is the scene and the occasion for the creation and, sometimes, satisfaction of appetite for a variety of black teenage boys. Apart from George’s own insatiable appetite for young black men and sex, it’s not clear what else he shares with the young Hemphill. There is no “white George and Essex”—both become bound and unbound by appetite. One might argue that identity never coalesces, but that is not quite right and is perhaps irrelevant. [note: while I continue to share queer studies’ critique of identity, too often that position risks smugness in ways that avoid the forms of embedding we practice]

Tellingly, the story of the white George ends with a teenage Hemphill abstaining from sex with his girlfriend: this scene is not a confirmation of gayness, but a more deliberate refusal to take up the black masculinity predicated on disavowing the white George. We might ask, again, what it means to route black sexual masculinity through the white George’s all-too-willing and all-too-available orifices. How might we think about black masculinity’s appetites? How might one write or imagine a black queer history of appetites? How might one imagine a queer history of the erotic secrets that subtend black masculinity? [note: I was thinking about DL and MSM discourses here, but I think there’s something more to be said about black masculinity as an aggregation of “erotic secrets.” It’s a tease of a thought, and I have yet to parse it. It’s not quite about the closet]

Perhaps it is precisely this queer history of erotic secrets that makes the narrative of the black George so fascinating. A church deacon, black George belongs to a group of men we might describe as “respectable,” perhaps even dismiss as respectable. And while we might want to like him because Hemphill liked him, it’s difficult to forget that he is a middle-aged man engaged in a sexual relationship with a 17 year old boy. I say this to mark the difficulty of reading this narrative easily, and also to suggest something about the difficulty of reading young people’s erotic testimonies seriously; it is difficult to learn to listen to the incoherence of erotic appetites. [note: all erotic appetites are incoherent, of course. Yet, our truncated discourses on young people’s sexuality marks their appetites as even more incoherent. And this might not be untrue: the rapacious hunger for sex that marks many coming out narratives creates its own market. Many men pride themselves on satisfying the appetites of college-aged men]

The tenderness with which Hemphill writes of the black George further complicates our desires to read black George as another middle-aged closeted gay man taking advantage of unfocused youthful appetite. Such a reading would not be entirely wrong, but it is not one that Hemphill allows us to make. Indeed, one of the signal achievements of the narrative of the black George is the attention it pays to the importance of youthful erotic appetite: the story it tells of youthful desire.

Like a trick from Craigslist, I have made several promises so far about arguments to which I will return. And because I don’t want to be the trick who never shows up, let me attempt to return to at least two of these: first, the question of coming out and the notion of erotic secrets and second, the relationship between coming out as an act of freedom and its proximity to death in black queer imaginings.

Let me confess that I find myself uneasy talking about “coming out.” It feels so very pre-queer theory, so very pre-anti-identitarianism, so much like an embarrassing dance song from the 1990s that one now rushes to disavow, even as one remembers dance steps and blushes. In 1996, Patrick Merla wrote, “Coming out is the central event of a gay man’s life. It is at once an act of self-acknowledgement, self-acceptance, self-affirmation, intimately linked to how he views himself and how he interacts with the world.” As a good queer scholar, I am tempted to dismiss these remarks, to argue for a range of desires and appetites that do not so much consolidate the self as disperse it, to argue for the modes and practices of irony and disidentification and parody and celebration and mourning that so often comprise the experience of queer subjects. I find myself thinking more of erotic secrets than erotic disclosures, wondering what it might mean to narrate the stories of the white George and the black George. And I wonder what it means to tether oneself to those stories, as Hemphill does. To have them as anchors as one ventures forth into other modes of being and becoming.

And perhaps this is the queer scholar in me saying, too obviously, that the relationship between something known as “coming out” and something else that I am calling “erotic secrets” is complex.

Part of the complexity of the erotic secret is its proximity to death—to the forms of the elegy and the eulogy—that “u” matters. Within a long trajectory of black queer writing that might begin with Richard Bruce Nugent’s “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,” work itself through James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, and make its way through the fiction and poetry of Assotto Saint and Melvin Dixon, death haunts the black queer subject. Not simply death in the sense that many queer figures live endangered lives, and that it is precisely conditions of precarity that queer black lives, but death as a name for what can be remembered of one: the slide between the elegy and eulogy, the forms of remembering and un-remembering black queerness.

Despite my best efforts, I could not think of a way to conclude this presentation.

My already elliptical prose become even more elliptical. And I wondered at the structure of repetition and return that marked the paper, the circling that refused to move forward, toward a “clear” argument. It is, of course, part of academic labor that we hide our labor. We rarely discuss process and obstacle, and think of “mental blocks” and “forms of circling” as things to move beyond. This is not entirely wrong, of course. But I find myself wondering what our books and papers would look like if they chronicled our movements across space and time, our modes of consumption and production, our dreams and nightmares recorded in dream journals. In writing this, I wanted to note the “of course” and the “it must be repeated,” to think about obvious statements and their power to sustain particular lives and imaginations. I wanted to think, also, of the way that “coming out” is not something that one can get past, even as it is very tiring to belong to a group of people who are constantly asked to come out. I am ambivalent about the performance of coming out–in part, because I know it can go horribly wrong, but also, more substantially, because I think the demand that one come out can be incredibly violent. We live complex lives.

I wanted, also, to note something about memory and self: I did not have my primary texts with me. I wrote about stories that I had not read for some time–I think it’s been close to ten years since I read the Hemphill narrative in Merla’s collection. My ambivalence toward coming out is tempered by the force these narratives had in my life. I wanted to capture some of that force.

I could not approach death, though. The suggestive line between “elegy” and “eulogy” had to remain undeveloped. Proximity to death is never easy. Perhaps in the longer version of this.

5 thoughts on “Essex Hemphill Comes Out Twice

  1. I feel shorted by this incomplete version. Do send me or post the complete one later.

    “I do so because I want to consider the relationship between these two Georges and to return, eventually, if circuitously, to the relationship between coming out and the elegy, that is, to the curious way narratives of freedom, understood as forms of subjection, rub against narratives of death in black queer imaginings.”

    Would you explain this part to me a little bit? I seem to understand it and not to understand it at the same time. The part I’m trying to wrap my noodle around is how narratives of freedom are understood as forms of subjection. Is that because of the intergenerational and interracial politics involved (how older men are usually portrayed as taking advantage of younger ones, and black men in relations with white ones portrayed as lower/lesser?).

    The intergenerational part of the relationship has got me thinking about this “cougar” craze and how we can read those two together.

  2. The paper is still in process–I think I am aiming for suggestive rather than fleshed out–this is, in fact, the proper role of the conference paper. On freedom and subjection, I’m really just recycling Butler’s Psychic Life of Power, and I’m sure you recognize the Lacanian heritage there–assujetisement providing legibility through subjection–this is, of course, the Law of the Father and so on and so on. I am trying not to feed your Lacan habit (I had the frenzy once and frothed at the mouth–it was not attractive). At the same time, I am trying to think about the work of the “u” that distinguishes between elegy and eulogy. No doubt there’s some very smart reading of this somewhere that I have yet to access, but I want to to try to think a little about this.

    One of the fascinating things about the narrative of the white George is that Hemphill privileges appetite over victimization–indeed, we are led to empathize (to some extent) with the white George who embraces his role as the community sexual teacher–or cumdump. There’s something about this designation, this figure, that undoes or, in some way, compels some thinking about subjection–to be a subject who acts and one who is subjected–and its relationship to pleasure, or appetite, especially when appetite works against self-consolidation (in Bersani/Dean territory here).

    I think what’s dangerous about the intergenerational–and I have had massive fights about this term over the years–is that it is clearly illegal. Hemphill is 13 or 14; George is in his forties. And the narrative asks us to think about the desiring bodies of young people, and that’s very, very hard. The Cougar thing (did you know there’s a Nairobi version?) is not quite in the same register. Not yet.

    (I’m running on about 3 hours of sleep on 24 hours of travel, so this might not be coherent.)

  3. If you do get a chance to post the final version, or would be so kind to send it to me, I’d love to see it. Great stuff–and how your mind works! Wonderful!

  4. I’ll be working on this for the next few months–glad to send it when it’s complete. I’ve been wanting to write on the two Georges for at least ten years–I’m so glad I got the chance to for the conference.

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