Essex Hemphill

Tongues Untied(1989)
Directed by Marlon Riggs

I hadn’t seen Marlon Riggs’ poetic polemic, Tongues Untied, since the early 90s. I probably saw it during one of Chicago’s Gay & Lesbian Film Festivals. But I can’t remember now.

What I do remember is that it didn’t affect me as profoundly then as it did just now, especially after I did a brief search to find out which of the performers and artists featured in the film were still alive. I stopped after three obituaries. It was just too much.

Both Riggs and poet/performer Essex Hemphill died of complications due to AIDS in the 90s. Because that’s what happened to most gay men with HIV, white and black, artist or not. Although black gay men tended to die faster, as did women, facts that most don’t seem to remember now and many didn’t care all that much about then. Not even the white gay activists I knew in Chicago cared that much, most of whom did not attend actions focused on people of color and women.

Watching this film has left me feeling sad and with a sense of loss. Sad that these men, really at the beginning of what they were capable of doing and creating in the world, are gone. I wanted to meet them, to talk about ACT UP, to talk about the sexualization of black men in white gay culture, the absence of positive images at all, to talk about what it means that, looking at this film, more than anything I would have wanted to suck Hemphill’s dick, if he’d have me.

Now, since we’re all so post-gay and marriage-crazy, that sounds crass. But there was a time when desire itself felt revolutionary, even though “this nut could kill us.”

“Black men loving black men is THE revolutionary act,” says Hemphill in Tongues Untied, so maybe he wouldn’t have had me, if he’d lived.

We’re all responsible for giving our lives meaning, and our deaths. But, in life to remain silent  is to die way too soon.

Sex with a man like that would have been a revolutionary act for me, not because he was black, or even a poet, but because he didn’t go quietly either.

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