For Brook Stephenson
Brook’s signature pose of books he admired. I gave him this book to guide the edits of his novel in progress, The Maturation of Moses Jones.

I met you in an auditorium at Columbia University after witnessing Kiese Laymon and Philip Lopate debate the genius of Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. A line had formed of friends and others like me who wanted to wish Kiese well and express our gratitude, and when my time came, Kiese and I began discussing a question that I had posed during the talk. Then you walked up and Kiese asked, “You know Brook?” in a way that meant that I needed to know you. We exchanged numbers and you told me about the Rhode Island Writer’s Colony, the colony you curated. Whenever I texted you after that initial meeting, you responded, and a month later I had submitted my manuscript and been accepted as a writer-in-residence.

In the two weeks we communed in Warren, Rhode Island, in a home with six other creatives, a few blocks away from your brother’s home, you shared your life story with me, with us. You and your brother John had been inspired to create a space for writers of color by your late father’s passion for the arts. Your father had been a visual artist and art teacher who had always encouraged you to create. I also came to know your mother who was there to spend evenings with us over dinner and drinks during that first week. In short time, it became clear that your kind, selfless personality sprang from her.

After dinner one evening, we agreed to share how we became writers, and you offered the story how you began writing for Rolling Out. You had secured an interview with the publisher under the pretense that you were a writer.  At that time you hadn’t been published and had no idea what the publisher desired, but you were confident and unflappable and brought with you the first short story you had ever composed, one that you had written in preparation for the interview. The publisher was impressed, but he needed it to be shorter. And over a series of weeks, you began submitting story after another, until the publisher was convinced that your writing could sell magazines. Your persistence led to countless articles and columns you would write about music, art, and culture. Eventually it led you to New York, where you would network and meet scores of writers, photographers, playwrights, and other artists to form a community.

Your gift of community-building may have been your greatest. It was on full display in the lobby of the auditorium where we had just heard Tracy K. Smith read from Life on Mars at the Ocean State Summer Writing Conference. We were chatting with the other attendees when your magic began to emerge. We had only planned to stop by, buy a book, engage with a few writers and leave, but in a few minutes, you had secured each of us a copy of the Ocean State Review, lanyards with our names printed on them, indicating that we had paid and registered for the conference, which we hadn’t, and invites to the post-reading reception at the campus home of the president of the University of Rhode Island. At the reception, you met the editor of the Ocean State Review and had convinced him to publish the work of writers you would refer to him for the upcoming edition of the journal. But your most impressive feat was introducing us to the school’s president. After surveying his library, you had commented on the president’s penchant for science fiction, and then all of us engaged in a rich conversation about literature, the very last of the night, as we were the last guests to leave his home.

I admired this most about you. Whereas I was a failure at small talk and sometimes reckless with my words, you had mastered connecting with others. Often I am insecure about being too pensive, too reflective, too didactic when I speak. But one night, after everyone else had retired and we sat under the large tree in the backyard of our adopted home in Rhode Island, you showed me that I shouldn’t shy away from myself. In my too reflective tone, I told you that while you were telling the story of how you became a writer, I realized that I had remembered reading your columns in Rolling Out while I waited to get my hair twisted at a salon in the West End neighborhood of Atlanta, blocks away from where we both went to school at Morehouse, you a generation before me. I remembered thinking that one day I hoped to write words like yours. And sitting there then, I told you that I thought it rather unbelievable that our dialogue, had many years ago as I read your columns, would one day be consummated in the flesh. You smiled and were genuinely grateful before offering something encouraging. While you had accomplished so much, never were you driven by ego. I may miss this most about you.

When we returned to New York, we hung out a number of times and had gone to a few readings together. It seemed that you knew every writer in New York, and in some ways, it seemed that you sought this goal. At the McNally Jackson bookstore in Soho where you worked, you would manage to read every new release during your shifts. Even after you stopped writing book reviews for EBONY, you maintained a regular diet of literature, especially writers of color. If you hadn’t read it, you were planning to. And this is the spirit that drove you. You were a writer’s writer. You wanted everyone to succeed. Two days before your death, you told me this much at a mixer for black media professionals in Harlem. You also gave me some final words of encouragement. “What other journals are you submitting to?” “Which contests?” “When will you finish your draft?” “Keep writing Irvin.”

You left a lasting impression on me Brook. When I think about the time we shared, I don’t think about its brevity, for a man’s life should never be measured in time. Its impact is a more accurate rubric, how the number of waves a life leaves in its wake undulate and inspire others.

The night before you passed, I had a dream wherein the apocalypse was upon us, and I couldn’t find someone I love dearly. I went searching for her the entire dream, distraught and in tears. When I awoke, I was shaken and took the dream to mean that I had angered the gods, the orishas, the karmic balance in the world. I was so afraid that something would be taken away from me. Perhaps this was a sign, a message to prepare me for your departure. I can’t be sure. I don’t have the legend to decode all of life’s symbols.

I do know that I’m the better for having shared life with you. I do know that I will honor your spirit and write and read and share my gifts with others. I loved you with such agape that when I spoke to your brother and mother, I couldn’t restrain my tears. You were a Morehouse brother, a sage, someone I looked forward to being at my wedding and cradling my unborn children, a man who believed in me.

It pains me to know that I won’t be able to attend your funeral. You knew that I would be vacationing in Italy, and you even told me what to do, where to go, and what to eat. You were excited, and I couldn’t wait to report back to you. The tenor of my trip will be different now as I reflect on why you were brought into my life and taken away so abruptly. But I will speak to you Brook. I will kneel before antiquity at every altar I can to say a prayer for you, to commune with your spirit again. I can’t say that my prayers will be as humorous and winding and all-encompassing as those you led for us as we broke bread every night, but I promise that I will seek your soul. Please continue to guide me brother. I love you.

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