Essex Hemphill, one of the most famous and successful African American gay writers and poets, uses his literary works as a mean to pass his ideas and beliefs to his readers. Hemphill possessed a rare literary gift and he wanted other people to perceive him with all his likings, differences and beliefs. Hemphill spent life trying to persuade other people that Gay American community has a right to exist. He possessed courage to tell about his sexual preferences and even to defend them.
At the same time he could not find understanding even in his own family. Despite his mother, orthodox Christian, recognized his sexual preferences by the end of Essex’s life he desperately lacked support and understanding in his childhood. His famous poem Commitments, which was included in the famous anthology of Gay African American literature edited by Hemphill, is dedicated to the family relations of gay son and his relatives. Loneliness, deprivation and isolation are the main themes of this poem. The readers can see that the author desperately needs recognition and support from his dearest people. His tone is bitter and sad: “In the photos / the smallest children / are held by their parents. “My arms are empty, or around / the shoulders of unsuspecting aunts / expecting to throw rice at me someday”¯ (Hemphill)
This poem describes typical situation of gay and lesbian children in their families. They are rejected and blamed by their parents and relatives. They are treated like black sheep and lack understanding and support. People with gay sexual orientation occupy special position in our society. They realize their difference but can not help it. Essex very early realized his homosexuality. Together with literary gift, his homosexuality made him different from all other people. In Commitments Hemphill very brightly illustrates how children whose sexuality differs from social norms meet ignorance and blame from early childhood. Parents and close relatives, the dearest people who must always provide their children with unconditional love and support, become the first judges who persuade children in their “wrong”¯ behavior.
Sexual orientation in the most cases is a born factor which can not be changed by the wish of the person. Children desperately want to satisfy the needs of their family members and their expectations but they cannot change their nature. As a result alienation and separation from other family members comes. Even silent alienation and blame of the parents result in hard trauma for their children. In the poem Hemphill describers that parents want to hide the truth about their “not normal”¯ children from friends and relatives. This only enforces the feeling of rejection experienced by a child or teenager. He knows that he is not likely to marry a woman in the future but he also knows that his ants hope to be present at this wedding ceremony some day. “My arms are empty, or around / the shoulders of unsuspecting aunts / expecting to throw rice at me someday”¯ (Hemphill) Ants and other relatives who do not know about family secret and this becomes additional burned for the author.
In his poem Hemphill not only shows his inner feelings but also depicts the picture of lies and hypocrisy which surround him in the family.
In the beginning of the poem the author creates an ideal picture of happy family:
I will always be there.
When the silence is exhumed.
When the photographs are examined
I will be pictured smiling
among siblings, parents,
nieces and nephews.
Detailed depictions of family celebrations also serve to underline the false image of happy family time spent. In the third stanza bitter tone shows real feelings of the author. He compares himself to other children who sit on the hands of their parents and realizes that he is alone.
He does not have to look for an answer for the question why he is left alone on these family photos. He knows that his “unlikeness”¯ is the reason. His ants who want to be present at his wedding, who are among the people who do not know about his homosexuality, are the only people he can hug at the pictures. This way there is no single person who could give support and understanding to boy in the family. By the end of the poem the author depicts his true feelings of bitterness, loneliness and separation.
I am the invisible son
In the family photos
nothing appears out of character.
I smile as a serve my duty.
Parents, who voluntary or involuntary reject their son, can not hide their attitude from him. He feels alone during family meeting. Family pictures become a symbol which reflects this position of gay male son. The author has to smile despite he is not happy. He has to hide his real feelings because he can not count on support and understanding from other family members. Everything he can do is to pretend to be happy in order not to disappoint his family even more. He is not happy, he “serves his duty”¯. “Commitments”¯ is a very symbolic title of the poem. Exclusion from the family becomes only the first sign because later it is accompanied by the exclusion from the community. This way sexual orientation became closed many doors for Hemphill, like for many other homosexual people. “Commitments”¯ is a word which assumes strong ties and supportive and reliable relations. The family is supposed to be the center of such relations. Family relations are the strongest commitments which have an extremely strong influence on all further life of the person. Hemphill describes the type of relations he had to experience in his family and describes his feelings. This relations and commitments he experiences in his family will mark all his further life. As he himself states
My arms are empty
in those photos,too,
so empty they would break
around a lover.
By these lines he underlines that loneliness and feeling of isolation rooted in the childhood can hardly be compensated in any other kind of relations. Family relations become that starting point which determines all further life of the author. His homosexuality prevents his from normal and sincere relations inside of his family. His later relations with men will also be influenced by this lack of understanding and support he brought to his adult life from the childhood.
All further literary work of Hemphill was dedicated to the attempt to show lies and hypocrisy which spoil human relations. He doest his best in order to demonstrate everything unnatural in human relations. At the same time he doest not believe relations between man and man or woman and woman to be unnatural. People, who judge and blame lesbian and gay relations in reality build unnatural relations based on lies and hypocrisy, insincerity and profit. This kind of relations should be treated like unnatural.