That’s the reason why I have never seen Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam. I don’t think I could get into it. In fact the only poem that I remember from high school is Macavity the Mystery Cat by TS Elliot, and that’s only the first 2 lines. Poetry for me has always been an arduous task of reading between phrases and trying to find meaning when I would be so much happier if someone were to just slap my face and say, “Hey this is what I want you to know.” But no one ever did that to me, except for Essex.
I have been thinking about Essex Hemphill for the last couple of weeks. I’m not sure why, maybe because of Black History Month or maybe not, but Essex was a poet. He was also an editor and an activist. I met him at a barbeque party for Marlon Riggs and himself in West Philly. I think the party was to celebrate the release of Marlon’s film Tongues Untied, I’m not sure. I was just there for the free booze and red meat; I was young.
I had read and skipped over some of Essex’s poetry in the book In the Life, so I knew he was, but I didn’t really have much to say to him. Nevertheless we did talk for a little bit, about what I don’t know.
I remember that he had this way of asking a question that made you know that he really wanted know what your answer would be. He had a way of looking at you and you could tell he was analyzing you. He would look into you as far as you could let him and maybe even a little further without being obtrusive. He had the ability to take your thoughts without you being aware of it happening and then place them back where they belonged before you knew they were missing.
I knew Essex for about 2 years and he would do this to me again and again. I only saw him 4 or 5 times but each time was so intense that I would have to have a cigarette after talking to him. It was almost as if we’d had sex and I had walked away panting, trying to catch my breath. Then Essex died.
I went to the memorial service they held at the Quaker Friends Meeting House for him. I didn’t really think that I would miss him. We weren’t great friends, but I did.
I still do.
So I found this poem written by Essex and I’m working on trying to understand it. I hope the family doesn’t sue me.
You judge a womanby the length of her skirt,
by the way she walks,
talks, looks, and acts;
by the color of her skin you judge
and will call her "bitch!"
if she doesn't answer your:
"Hey baby, whatcha gonna say
to a man."
You judge a woman
by the job she holds,
by the number of children she's had,
by the number of digits on her check;
by the many men she may have lain with
and wonder what jive murphy
you'll run on her this time.
You tell a woman
every poetic love line
you can think of,
then like the desperate needle
of a strung out junkie
you plunge into her veins,
travel wild through her blood,
confuse her mind, make her hate
and be cold to the men to come,
destroying the thread of calm
You judge a woman
by what she can do for you alone
but there's no need
for slaves to have slaves.
You judge a woman
by impressions you think you've made.
Ask and she gives,
take without asking,
beat on her and she'll obey,
throw her name up and down the streets
like some loose whistle --
knowing her neighbors will talk.
Her friends will chew her name.
Her family's blood will run loose
like a broken creek.
And when you're gone,
a woman is left
healing her wounds alone.
But we so called men,
we so called brothers
wonder why it's so hard
to love our women
when we're about loving them
the way america
"Conditions XXI" © 1986,1996, 2002 by Essex Hemphill