What is a writer? He writes for readers, but what does “for” mean? It means intended for them, a writer, he writes to his readers just as he writes “for” readers. He also writes for non-readers, that is, not intended for them, but “in place of them.” So “for” means two things: intended for them and in their place. Artaud famously wrote, “I write for the illiterate… I write for idiots.” Faulkner also wrote for idiots. That doesn’t mean so that idiots might read, or the illiterate might read. It means “in the place of” the illiterate. I write “in the place of” barbarians, I write “in the place of” animals. And what does that mean? Why does one dare say something like that? I write in the place of idiots… the illiterate… animals?
Because that is what one does, literally, when one writes, when one writes, one is not pursuing some little personal matter. Dumb asses! It’s an abomination of literary mediocrity in every era, but particularly quite recently, that makes people think that to create a novel, for example, any little private matter suffices, any little personal affair, one’s grandmother who died of cancer, or a love affair, and there you go, one can write a novel! What a disgrace to think such things! Writing is not a private affair. It’s an act of throwing oneself into a universal affair, be it a novel or a piece of philosophy… writing necessarily means pushing language and syntax… up to a certain limit, the limit that separates language from silence, or the limit that separates language from music, or the limit that would be the wailing, the painful wailing, the painful wailing….
—Gilles Deleuze, in L’abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze
Don’t look at the sun! Feel it! Death is imminent. My fire is unquenchable.
—Charlie Parker, in a letter to Nico Konigsberg
That Gregory Stephen Tate was born in Dayton, the birthplace of American aviation, in Ohio, the free state of so much lore and legend, makes too much sense. What many others ran toward and dreamed of, Greg Tate was born into, on October 14, 1957.
All of us are in a constant state of becoming, cataloging, and putting into place the references that will define us, but few of us will have the sheer talent of assembly that Greg Tate had. He turned himself into an archive, an infinity room of everything Black, magnificent, and mythic.
Tate once wrote that “what Black American culture—musical and otherwise—lacks for now isn’t talent or ambition, but the unmistakable presence of some kind of spiritual genius: the sense that something other than or even more than human is speaking through whatever fragile mortal vessel is burdened with repping for the divine, the magical, the supernatural, the ancestral.”
If that was true a decade or so ago, when he wrote it, it might be even more so now. When Tate died, I was sent a small army of links to his writing by his dear friend dream hampton, and I read them all with the unbroken attention of a student, with the furrowed-brow focus that one must summon whenever one sits in the presence of a master. Some I had read before, some were new to me, but now, when I recall those days of wonder of returning to his sentences, there are too many perfect ones lodged in my brain to select those I thought were his most seminal.
These days, I understand all his essays to be a kind of uncollected liturgical book on love. In his commentary on the minor war between Amiri Baraka and Spike Lee over the legacy of Malcolm X, Tate sagely decided that:
What makes the oratory of Malcolm endure as a source of enlightenment isn’t just his clarity about how white supremacy works, but also his desire to see us love our African selves more than we love the world of the oppressor. We still listen to Malcolm because we hear the voice of a lover, sometimes asking what Bob Marley asked—could we be loved—other times asking us why do we love white America, or at least its status symbols, more than we love ourselves.
All Tate’s writing has a density that I associate with memory but also with the repping for and of the divine. Tate was making art for the most high. He was also a lavish and unabashed lover of Black people. And he refused to let us forget all that he knew about us, not out of arrogance, but out of care. His writing offers us grace. And meaningful instruction on how to treat one another with intelligence and tenderness. What is dazzling, if not staggering, is how each sentence of his goes forth from the embassy of his intellect, weighted down with all he has to say and heavy with everyone and everything he cites, and somewhere between where it left his desk, carrying his aims as a craftsman, he also then gave those words the ability to alight, run to the sun, and never touch down until they had kissed the sky.
Greg Tate was the eldest son of Florence Tate and Charles E. Tate. In Sometimes Farmgirls Become Revolutionaries, Florence’s biographer, Jake-Ann Jones, coyly describes her as “a middle-
class Dayton housewife and mother of three children.” But, as Jones writes in her fascinating study of Florence Tate’s evolution toward activism, she was also “the first African American female journalist at the Dayton Daily News.” Charles and Florence were committed and engaged, if not enraged, members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and founders of the Dayton Alliance for Racial Equality (DARE). They were a cultivated and sophisticated couple; in 1968, they left the kids behind to attend Miriam Makeba’s wedding to Stokely Carmichael, dressed to the bohemian nines. They were also two people with unrelenting drive, who were discontent with the laggard pace of overdue progress and who became increasingly radical. Tate’s father worked as an economic development theoretician, while Tate’s mother acquired a voluminous FBI file from being surveilled for her pan-Africanist efforts, which ranged from her support of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) to her later work as a press secretary both for Mayor Marion Barry and for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign. If Tate’s parents were laboring hard to envision a new world, he found himself a child citizen well prepared for it in so many ways. From the Rust Belt’s veldts and a small agro-industrial city in the middle of America, the boy sent away for news of life occurring elsewhere. Greg Tate was a quiet child, an observer of the universe around him. Recalling his adolescence, Tate once wrote:
The one known as Samuel Ray “Chip” Delany first entered my frame of reference in Dayton, Ohio, circa 1968. He arrived through the mail via something called the Science Fiction Writers of America book club. SFWA would send you three books a month, and in my first batch was Delany’s Nova. Before even opening the book, I was struck by the author photo, which presented a wooly-headed young Black dude said to have been born in Harlem on April Fools’ Day, 1942. My 13-year-old self had been reading science fiction since second grade, but I’d never seen nor even imagined an Afro-American writing science-fiction novels at the height of the Black Power movement.
By the time the family moved to Washington, DC, in 1972, Greg Tate was old enough to understand the statelessness of the district itself as a metaphor that extends to Black people everywhere. Dispossession not only lends itself to the construction of our art; it also gives it that bottom, that ineffable ache. It provides ready-made proof of the odd paradox that the wounds of history are always the basis of our glory, that all harnesses can be altered into superpowers in the realm of wild imagination.
But sometimes it be your own people who don’t understand you. A family friend tells me that, like so many of us, Tate struggled in school with bullies who tried but failed to flatten him into being the sort of boy they thought he should be. Their failure might have done him and us the inadvertent favor of sending him forever searching for a tribe he must have dreamed of discovering.
When Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, a masterpiece of science fiction, was published in 1975, Tate remembered: “Taking possession of the black leather La-Z-Boy in the family den, I would spend the next four days devouring the novel in 200-page gulps.”
It is no wonder that Bad Brains and Greg Tate both came of age in DC. There is something renegade and inherently riotous about being able to see the Capitol Building from the hills of Anacostia, with only other Black people around you for miles. In those sections of DC, everyone seems to reside under an invisible David Hammons flag, where a Black utopia, politically and sonically, is the destiny, the obligation, and the only intended audience. In “Yo Hermeneutics! Hiphopping toward Poststructuralism,” his audacious review of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s anthology Black Literature and Literary Theory, Tate toggled from Saussure to his own sense that “perhaps the supreme irony of Black American existence is how broadly Black people debate the question of cultural identity among themselves while getting branded as a cultural monolith by those who would deny us the complexity and complexion of a community, let alone a nation.”
All of Tate’s work felt rich with this sort of understanding, one that I attribute to him growing up in DC, surrounded by a city brimming with people who looked, sounded, and experimented like he did, with all the many ways they could perform their personhood while being fully aware that defiance and endless elasticity are the bedrocks of Black American culture.
For his “arkestra chamber” that he founded in 1999, Tate chose to call the thirty-person band, Burnt Sugar. Was he thinking of his city? And the agonizing, almost alchemic historical process that turned us from enslaved Africans into Black Americans—in which by necessity we became the molten, dark, and liquid presence running rebellious through the bleached bones of the white whale that consumed us? The majority of Black Americans here have learned the obvious with ease: that we can only pledge allegiance to ourselves and whatever we create artistically must try to articulate the strangeness of being the animating life force of a nation that despises you but needs you.
As Tate told Camille Goodison in a 2012 interview in Callaloo magazine, Chocolate City was where rather logically, he first “got interested in music, collecting music… and reading music criticism too. It kinda all happened at the same time. I had a subscription to Rolling Stone. I was really into Miles Davis. He was like my god in the 1970s. Miles, George Clinton, Sun Ra, and locally we had a serious kind of band scene going on. All the guys in my high school were in a band. You were either in a band or you were just deep into music. That was definitely the major activity that all conversation and passion flowed around. More than sports, more than politics.” It was the music. “The reason black music,” explained Tate in his obituary for Miles Davis, “occupies a privileged and authoritative place in black aesthetic discourse is because it seems to croon and cry out to us from a postliberated world of unrepressed black pleasure and self-determination. Black music, like black basketball, represents an actualization of those black ideologies that articulate themselves as antithetical to Eurocentrism. Music and ’ball both do this in ways that are counterhegemonic if not countersupremacist—rooting black achievement in ancient black cultural practices. In the face of the attempt to erase the African contribution to world knowledge, and the diminution of black intelligence that came with it, the very fact of black talents without precedent or peers in the white community demolishes racist precepts instantaneously.”
To read Greg Tate is to wonder: Who taught Greg Tate high school English? They knew the operations of the language. He knew the operations of the language. You just know Greg Tate sat somewhere under the watchful eye of a Black teacher who cared, learning how to diagram sentences into perfection. His sentences are so clean and architectural—balancing the brutality and beauty of fact with Tadao Ando’s, Louis Kahn’s, and Álvaro Siza’s smooth lines. They are the evidence of a teacher, peering over the rims of their glasses, who knew that the building can’t just be pretty, it has to stand and be strong enough to endure any oncoming catastrophe, any form of doom. And so, prepared and extremely well trained in a way that some say no longer occurs, he entered the city’s “Mecca,” Howard University, to study journalism.
Greg Tate met many of his closest friends at Howard. He watched Betty Davis tantalize homecoming with her sweat and the gyrations of her hips. But, most importantly, at “the Mecca,” he started to claim the title he would wear for the rest of his life, that mysterious cloak of authorship: he began to be and to call himself a writer. A gift-and-a-curse decision that anyone who writes knows is like James Brown’s cape: something you try to throw to the floor, only for it to be put back on your shoulders as your responsibility, your craft, your gorgeous duty to the rest of us who need your screams to articulate our highs, our lows, our grim day-to-day, with words that make sense of it all.
“Let’s be clear. Editing Greg,” said Joe Levy—Tate’s editor at The Village Voice—in his NPR eulogy, “…was a little bit like being the coach who looks up from his clipboard and says it’d be a good idea if Michael Jordan played that night. He’s writing about film. He’s writing about books. He’s writing about culture. He’s writing about scholarship. He’s writing about philosophy. Any writing he did was a revelation.” Beginning in 1981 and continuing for the next twenty or so years, Greg Tate dominated the pages of The Village Voice. New Yorkers everywhere got to read a writer not only working in his prime but as much at the top of the game as anyone ever has been. Many of these articles were compiled into his book Flyboy in the Buttermilk. Published in 1992, Flyboy has become an anchor text that shows what modern criticism can do. But there is something worthwhile and intimidating about looking back at Tate’s essays piecemeal as cover stories instead of as a collection. The velocity with which he produced his mastery is astonishing. He wrote like he knew his writing propped up a misunderstood, decontextualized generation—and it did.
Tate once said his ideal readers were “postfunkateers well read in literature and cultural theory, conversant with black politics of the last four hundred years, visually literate, musically eclectic, and as at ease with themselves in Watts as they are in Paris. If I reach one person like that out there, the rest don’t matter.” Did he know we were all out there waiting to be hit by him and his vicious abundance like a heavy storm, and to stand there, stunned by the recognition and the thunder of his gift?
Tate homed himself in Harlem, and, having found his peers, other outlandish and intelligent Black people, he pulled them close and made a tribe: Julie Dash, dream hampton, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Joicelyn Dingle, Joan Morgan, Stefanie Kelly, Imani Uzuri, Tamar-Kali, LaRhonda Davis, and Michaela Angela Davis, were his homegirl goddesses and Geechee women; Vernon Reid and Thulani Davis created all over the map; AJ and Mikel Banks seemed made of thangs past. He often quoted his found family in his work, many of them bold in their deep purple. In those essays, he flashed a message to the rest of us that there was life on another planet, where God was a Black woman, and her lyre played P-Funk, and if we stayed strong, we, too, could get there and gather over sushi at his table at Sharaku.
Once, I got tagged in a Facebook conversation in which Tate told two of his friends, Ginny Suss and Paula Henderson, that Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch was one of his favorite novels. Of course it was. It is a time-jumping story, but most of all, it is a love story. Tate himself was a love story. That is why we must hold his family, his people—Chinara, Nile, Brian, and Geri—so close: because they were the absolute center of his enormous love. Although they shared him with us, their loss is colossal, because anyone who knew Tate knows that Nile and Chinara don’t just share his blood. They not only carry his face, borrowing and replicating that same broad smile, but they were and are the focus of his devotion, the sum of his love. But anyway, in the conversation that day, Tate quoted three lines from Hopscotch that didn’t make sense to me then, but they do now, so I’ll share them here:
I love you because you are not mine, because you are from the other side, from there where you invite me to jump and I cannot make the jump, because in the deepest moment of possession you are not in me, I cannot reach you, I cannot get beyond your body…
As if you could pick in love, as if it were not a lightning bolt that splits your bones and leaves you staked out in the middle of the courtyard.… You don’t pick the rain that soaks you to the skin when you come out of a concert…
La Maga did not know that my kisses were like eyes which began to open up beyond her, and that I went along outside as if I saw a different concept of the world, the dizzy pilot of a black prow which cut the water of time and negated it.
Greg Tate’s love “cut the water of time and negated it.” And there must have been, always, throughout time, people—not many, but of much importance—who knew how to teach us to recall the songs we once sang but have forgotten, who recalled memories that our motion away from our pasts had disfigured. And for as much as we speak about our journey here over the water, the wood and wicker of the ships, the pitch and night-colored waves, there must have been someone who, knowing how to sustain people in moments of utter despair, a shattering of their spirits and selves, asked them to lift their eyes up toward the infinity of the stars that have and will always point us toward our true selves that are beyond possession, anyone’s control, and always free.
What we are mourning is that Greg Tate kept our secrets. Some have said he was a griot, but I’m not sure about that, because, as Tate pointed out, a griot must live away from his people, be buried in the stump of a tree away from their reclamation, as a tax for his knowing. But Greg Tate was our bard, our storyteller, and our generous, ego-free high priest, who held in his hands the blueprints to our most profound shrines, who whispered to us that we always know how to get back home. Greg Tate reminded us that we don’t need a place at their petrified tables; we can gather under a living tree and love, create, in our own making. And that is more enduring and powerful than anything we can be offered from the outside. The part of us that knew to see him and claim him also knows in our abiding love, respect, tutelage, and recognition of him that there will never be another Greg Tate. He was from above. He was a conductor of the beyond.
Greg Tate never let anyone shackle his devotions. He permitted no attenuation of his brilliance so that others who feared an unimpeded Black brain might remain comfortable in his presence. The apotheosis of cultural criticism, Tate was calm and esoteric, but he was not a coward. He was also our best critic, in that the critic discerns, and through them we understand, because we are returned to what Amílcar Cabral termed “the source.” Sometimes they point the way to good taste. To decay. Or to a better understanding of our aesthetic and intellectual limitations. At the height of his fame, Chuck D of Public Enemy told Spin that the only piece of criticism he was “furious at over the past year is Greg Tate.” Tate’s crime? To point out in 1988, publicly, “[Public Enemy] are obviously making it up as they go along. Since PE show sound reasoning when they focus on racism as a tool of the US power structure, they should be intelligent enough to realize that dehumanizing gays, women, and Jews isn’t going to set black people free.” Tate recognized that at our best, we must forget the easy seductions of misogyny, colorism, provincialism, and vacant capitalism.
At the center of his critical project was the legacy of his powerful Black mother as the emotional and intellectual root of his abiding concern for Black women as peers, artists, and thinkers. Greg Tate was surrounded by men who professed to be radicals, busy thinking up new worlds, but who, for the life of them, seemed adamant in their ignorant refusal to figure out how to treat Black women right in this world here and now. “We’ll all still have to get up the next morning and deal with being Black men and women in America. Which at the end of the day is about what? Learning to love and struggle with one another, end of story,” he wrote. I don’t think I ever once heard Tate sound angry. But I almost always saw him know what was up. Black excellence? So inherent, one must almost be suspicious of the people and iffy moments that have gathered up under it. Black ambivalence? The clever, quiet space where what is understood needs no branding, cannot be bought or sold—the interior that hovers above translation or transaction? Yes. The decadent rigor of Tate’s thinking let us witness someone who knew the ins and outs, the folds, the fantastic planets, and the heft of Black culture, and therefore the madness of America at large.
When Greg Tate died, his devoted friend Imani Uzuri put together a video call where his friends gathered to say goodbye. Some played the bass, some cried, and almost everyone told stories. One friend asked that we do what Greg Tate would have wanted most from all of us as artists: that “we leave nothing on the shelf.” I think that is the best way to describe what he did as a writer.
Greg Tate understood that Blackness is essentially just a bibliography. Those who know not only know but also contain and further it. The importance of capacious citation is really just a matter of love. We hat-tip what we love and acknowledge whom we learned it from, not only out of obligation but because citation is devotion and puts us in constellation.
When things first got bad two years ago for me, as they did for us all, I fell into the practice of listening to—no, blasting, to be honest, to my neighbors—Pharoah Sanders’s Pharoah album. While every song on it is a plea and a prayer, “Love Will Find a Way” always makes me want to cry like every cell inside me is experiencing deep pleasure and absolute disbelief at what we can do here when we leave nothing on the shelf. It is the same with good, thick, dense writing like Tate’s, full of memory and rich with an account of what can easily get lost. Isn’t writing like this just an attempt to transmute onto the page what Pharoah screams on that track? Sometimes I feel so good giving love to you. And hope you will feel the same as I do.
I feel lonelier now that Tate is gone, not because we spoke often or because he was my closest friend. But because when I knew that Greg Tate was in the world, I knew there was someone out there playing his kalimba, walking down Adam Clayton Powell in a turquoise silk scarf, or suggesting some Guardian article about a punk band in Libreville—someone who always knew what time it was, even if I don’t always. I knew there was someone worth listening to, because they often had the correct answers.
I met Greg Tate when I was twenty, as the starstruck juvenile creep assistant of dream hampton. I was invited to join them for a spicy tuna roll lunch at his office (Sharaku), and I sat there stunned into silence by my good fortune and Tate’s cool, but also terrified that the rice would get lodged between my braces and embarrass me. Instead, Tate let me sit with them like I was an actual human and asked me what I was reading. This is to say, I cannot think of a time in my life as a writer when Greg Tate was not present with a generosity that is rare.
Early into this hope of mine to be a writer, back in 2011, Greg Tate messaged me, as I’m sure he did many others, with the following tremendous but tender lie: “YO-… No condescension or patronizing or hubris intended but you’re now officially the new Me. At the very least.”
I am very hesitant to share this, for all of the logical reasons, but it tells so well of the sort of man that Greg Tate was. He wanted to, at all costs, esteem the ones who often only knew 400 blows, the kids who had almost been flattened by life. Do you have any idea what a gracious lie like that does for someone, particularly for a young Black woman writer, a juvenile creep, starting out? Helado Negro, who makes gorgeous music, has an album called Private Energy, where he sings about what it means to be enclosed by your people and held by those you cherish:
You grow older
Knowing that you’ll
Always be this one thing
And you’ll always have
This to be you
And the people
Who’ll be here waiting
Always will be one with
And you’ll be one with
When Tate sent me that note, I think he was aware that I would need jet fuel to try and write and live in this skin. However, with words like those, I needed no shield. I needed no mercy. What could I need from them? Those out there. He had alerted me silently to the moral and creative lassitude of certain literary outfits that had never published him when he was our absolute best. If he was our best, and I was certified by him, I was already given entrance into the private energy of what matters most and what is true. You can give others harbor, and that note did as intended: it helped me float past other lies and unforgivable injuries that I would hear, assaults that were intended to sink me as a Black writer. It was a raft against the precarity and erasure that I know Tate, as a one-of-a-kind Black genius, must have known well and seemingly didn’t want others, especially a young Black woman, to be bruised and undone by.
In an exchange we once had, Greg Tate told me, “We boost America even in reporting our slow genocide. There’s no critique or gesture that doesn’t feed the beast up in this shit. Whut we fighting for at best is to become co owners of Indian country. U dig? With a corner office? We gotta get Pan-Africanist again so that our notion of winning is a Continent not fukn prison or prosecutorial reform. We need a more visionary end game than a fairer master-slave dynamic.”
Although it forever haunts me as a generational question, I dislike having to ruminate on what having the kind of bold vision that Tate had cost him. To stay free is a sacrifice, to remain sovereign is a commitment, and to consider what his liberty, his womanism, and his vanguardism might have cost him is disquieting. To fully appreciate Tate, we cannot be naive from the safe perches of tenure, staff positions, or trust funds, and romanticize or minimize his professional independence. Now that he is gone at sixty-four, which is really no age at all, I have to read his classic essay about Basquiat as a doubling or as a self-portrait of Tate’s own battle with the loathly lady of commercialization:
This business of speaking for Black culture and your own Black ass from outside the culture’s communal surrounds and the comforting consensus of what critic Lisa Kennedy once described as “the Black familiar” has taken many a brilliant Black mind down to the crossroads and left it quite beside itself, undecided between suicide, sticking it to the man, or selling its soul to the devil. The ones who keep up the good fight with a scintilla of sanity are the ones who know how to beat the devil out of a dollar while maintaining a Black agenda and to keep an ear out for the next dope house party set to go down in Brooklyn, Sugar Hill…
One could read this for the literal geographies of a generous man providing directions for how to be, but what I’m also speaking of here is extra-literary and deeply personal. Greg Tate showed every generation coming behind him not simply who to be but also how to do it. With Greg around, the orientation of things was righted and like the position of the sun tells you what you need to know about how to order your day, he was always cheering you toward the way without saying more than a few words.
So are you still very sad? Because I am. I feel withered by his absence. There are moments when the reminder of his passing catches me, and I feel spun around and stupid and unsure of what I should do next and for whom, and it feels as if something omnipresent in the order of things has vanished.
When that happens, what occasionally steadies my vertigo, my feeling of such premature, injurious loss, is that I know Greg Tate must have felt so good when he wrote, not because writing is ever easy, but because Tate was always leaving behind an illuminated record of genius, reverence, magic, and subculture, and therefore he was always giving such love to us.
And how lucky we were to witness that ever-expanding mind. It was like watching Max Roach solo on and on and faster and faster, at a vertiginous pace, but never letting the pocket sag with slowness or a stick fly loose from his fingers. It was orbital how much information he could summon and loop in on the spot—he was to Black history what the moon is to Saturn or Mars or the other planets. He was located in it. So close to it. You could call him with a question about Quincy Troupe, Betty Carter, or Amiri Baraka, and suddenly you’d know what Tony Williams said to Miles on March 23, 1963, in Boston. Rich Nichols, the Roots manager, always told me that in terms of writing that rivaled the sound, the boom bap, the rush, and the wail, you had to start with Greg Tate. Which was true, so it was hard to care what anyone else thought about the work or what it should be, because early on, Greg Tate said to so many of us all, Do that shit. And we all tried to trail that comet of him, knowing it was utterly impossible.