13 January 1996
It has taken me this long to get up the courage to read the negative
things that have been said against my family. After reading the
material, however, it became apparent to me that these articles
were not about Essex and how his funeral was handled, but they
were about my family. So today, I give my response from a sister's
approach, in stating the following to anyone who challenges my
family -- the family of Essex C. Hemphill.
It saddens me to think of the anger from
those persons who have never helped Essex with his homework;
who never saw him wash the pepper from his thumb he used to help
him stop sucking it; never watched him play with his pet dogs;
watched him lead his brothers and sisters in an Easter parade
around the neighborhood; watched him loan his sister his pair
of Keds so that she could cheer at school; watched him graduate
with honors from elementary school, middle school, and high school;
watched him read and sing in talent shows (and win). So many
never witnessed him fighting his way home from school and after
school functions; reading poetry at his family reunions; hanging
out with the fellas in the neighborhood; cooking hearty meals
for his family; teaching his sisters how to drive.
Few witnessed the Essex
who dealt with spousal abuse; consoled his sister after losing
her husband, his dear brother-in-law; who spoke out against the
Mayor of Washington, D.C.; and stood at his mother's side, after
the loss of her sweet mother, his grandmother. Our family bore
witness when Essex held his nieces and nephews in his arms with
loving care; when he came to nurture, clothe and play with them.
We bore witness when Essex announced his
homosexuality to the family; when he announced to the family
that he was HIV positive. We witnessed his fight with the illness:
his striving for health, strength and success; the late-night
phone calls to his family to tell us how bad he was feeling;
telling his sister and family not to cry, because he was going
to be "okay"; how he did not want to have the virus
take his mind away; and telling his mother that the disease was
rapidly taking over his life. We were with him as he lay in hospital
beds: we held his hands; prayed with him; hugged him; laughed
with him; talked with him; witnessed him taking his last breath.
How can those persons
who have never shared even one precious moment of his life tell
you what you felt about your brother? How can these same people
give you direction and even make comments about how his funeral
should have been handled?
I guess what bothers me most about this
whole idea or notion is that I would be the first person to ask,
"What role did you play in ensuring that Essex was loved
and cared for, while he was alive?" Did anyone who speaks
out negatively about my family stop to see him when he did not
feel well? Did anyone ask him if he needed a ride to the grocery?
Did anyone prepare a meal for him, when he could not prepare
a meal for himself? Did anyone massage his legs, when they pained
him so badly for days? Did anyone wash and iron his clothes,
when he needed clean ones? Did anyone change soiled bedding when
his nose bled for hours? Did anyone help him to his doctors'
appointments, or to the hospital, when he needed transportation?
Did anyone pay a bill, when he could not pay it himself? Did
anyone clean his apartment when he was too tired to clean it
himself? Did anyone take him to church? Did anyone pray with
him and for him? Were you there???
When we have closely examined who we are, what our roles are
in life, what part we will play in this world, we will find that
we do not have the time or the opportunity to sit back and pass
judgement on myself, my family, and Essex's family. Your perception
and my perception of Essex is not and may never be the same.
Essex will never be defined first as a homosexual; he will always
be defined as Essex, the loving, caring and nurturing person
our family knew him to be. Therefore, when persons from the outside
who may have read a book, a poem, or an article by Essex; who
may have even seen him speak at an engagement or university event,
can only say that they received just a sprinkle of who Essex
was -- and, in understanding that, they can never say they knew
the Essex I knew.
None of us really knew how Essex would
have wanted his funeral. Our main objective and focus in our
time of loss was that the person we loved so much is now gone
away from us, never to be seen again. So we may sit quietly from
time to time, waiting for Essex to come again in a whisper, a
laugh, or a dream -- hoping to capture what is now gone, but
lives in all who were touched by his work, his love, by the dedication
Essex left for all of us.