Dead at the age of thirty-eight as a result of AIDS-related complications, the African American poet and gay rights activist Essex Hemphill has always inhabited, both in his life and artistic career, a figurative borderland. Black and gay in a white supremacist heteronormative society, then affected by AIDS, Hemphill experienced on his own skin the pathologising discourse that did not only revolve around his health condition, but that also developed historically around black and gay bodies. Drawing on Sharon Holland’s (2000) insight on how the unspoken and unspeakable presence of black and queer bodies occupy the space of the dead in Western society, and on the work on queer temporalities (especially Halberstam 2005; Muñoz 2009; Freeman 2010), this chapter explores the way in which in the collection of poetry and essays Ceremonies (1992) Hemphill becomes intimate with death in order to celebrate life. At the borderland symbolised by the disruption of dichotomies (e.g., life and death, present and future, private and public), Hemphill conjures up sexual encounters in public spaces and queers heteronormative institutional practices in order to show the alternative (re)productive, life-creating potential of queer desire against the discourse that seeks to invalidate it by representing it only as tending toward self-annihilation.
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