Born prematurely with a heart murmur in Chicago on April 16, 1957, Hemphill would credit his grandmother’s love with saving his life at birth and disciplining him during adolescence. Hemphill came out to his grandmother, against the wishes of his family, by giving her a copy of his first chapbook, Earth Life. After reading it she questioned, “Essex, do the authorities know what you’re writing about?” (Ceremonies 45). Although the question allowed the two of them to laugh away some of the situation’s discomfort, she posed it seriously, and Hemphill recognized its pertinence: His will to tell the truth would land him in hot water more than once.
The eldest of five siblings, Hemphill grew up primarily in southeast Washington, D.C., and began writing at age fourteen. He has said that writing was for him a way of coming to terms with the emerging contradictions of his identity, contradictions that he also explored by poring over the books on homosexuality at a local library. Since these pre-Stonewall texts discussed homosexuality in terms of dysfunctional perversion and sin, they led him to try “to separate my sexuality from my Negritude only to discover, in my particular instance, that they are inextricably woven together. If I was clear about no other identity, I knew, year by year, that I was becoming a ‘homo.’ A black homo” (Brother xvi). Hemphill later consciously styled Brother to Brother as the book that he wished he had had himself as an adolescent African American coming to terms—or failing to come to terms—with his sexual orientation. The twin pressures of being the eldest son and growing up in the macho environment of southeast Washington, D.C., with no gay role models worthy of emulation delayed, but did not ultimately prevent, Hemphill’s ability to integrate his racial and sexual identities constructively.