Poet, editor, and activist Essex Hemphill was born April 16, 1957, in Chicago, Illinois. He was raised in Southeast Washington, DC, and began to write poems at the age of fourteen. He was educated at the University of Maryland.
Hemphill's first books were the self-published chapbooks Earth Life (1985) and Conditions (1986). He first gained national attention when his work appeared in the anthology In the Life (1986), a seminal collection of writings by Black gay men. In 1989, his poems were featured in the award-winning documentaries Tongues Untied and Looking for Langston.
In 1991, Hemphill edited Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, which won a Lambda Literary Award. In 1992, he released Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry, which won the National Library Association's Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual New Author Award. His work also appeared in numerous anthologies including Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time (1986) and Life Sentences: Writers, Artists and AIDS (1993). He was a visiting scholar at The Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in 1993. On November 4, 1995, Hempill died from complications relating to AIDS.