A Black Education

Remembering Greg Tate, critical giant, author, Flyboy, and my teacher.

Photo: Nisha Sondhe/Duke University Press
Photo: Nisha Sondhe/Duke University Press

The last dispatch from the alien/agent provocateur known as Greg Tate beamed out from perhaps his most inconspicuous dwelling. No #tbt dedicated to the Burnt Orange Arkestra, the freaky jazz-funk crew he founded and conducted, bringing their pyromaniac improvisations to stage; no perspicacious pull quote on Facebook via The Guardian, his digital paper of choice; no brief, breezy boost of Black art brio across the diaspora. This time, in a December 2 post shared on both his Facebook and Instagram, the 64-year-old critic curioso sat in a rather austere office, foregrounding a bookshelf pouring over with tomes, some of them his own — his 1986 epic collection of essays turned Black cultural bible, Flyboy in the Buttermilk, peeks over his shoulder — and others, like Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James and Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin, hipping skinfolk to the literary range of a graceful madman, to use his own word.

Tate’s eyes are downcast behind orange-tinted glasses underneath a matching knit cap, focused on the kalimba he uses to thumb along to Incognito’s rare 1999 groove “Nights Over Egypt.” Playing eighths in-sync with the lavish disco beat, every so often the longtime Village Voice columnist goes off-kilter, throwing in a counter note that shouldn’t work and yet somehow adds to the playful gravitas of Jean-Paul Maunick’s original work. The tinkerer’s heart-shaped lips twitch, and his fingers attempt to catch up to his mind; Tate’s cheeks, now a little less full than usual, lightly quiver as he hits his improvisational flow. Watching the video more than a week after it was posted, in the wake of Tate’s sudden passing last Tuesday, I see so much of his character is preserved in it: a perpetually competent coolness, an unwavering signature style, and craftsmanship — a quiet lesson in subtle savoir-faire and as ominous a sayonara as ever.

Tate’s abrupt loss is a seismic blow to the worlds of cultural criticism, music, and visual art. I’m grieving indefinitely, but in rewatching this video, his last nonverbal message, I also can’t stop thinking, Nah, this right here still the slickest muhfucka to enter the vast beyond. 

This was the Tate I came to know, perhaps oddly for him, in an office space. He arrived at Williams College my senior year, in 2015, as a visiting lecturer in Africana studies; my adviser, Professor James Manigault-Bryant, who took up the department-chair gig at the time, introduced us. I was skittish, wondering how this dude ended up in bumfuck Massachusetts — a question my Houstonian ass could’ve equally posed inward. I’d read his work in the Voice and had seen his byline in a number of hip-hop publications; it was clear he was in a completely different league, and possibly planet, than his colleagues. I didn’t know what to make of him at first. I appreciated the cool-uncle vibes of his flamboyant fabrics — in particular, a spectacular array of kaleidoscopic scarves and hats — but didn’t understand them as sartorial id. The man I met was kind and uninterested in the whole “sizing up” thing that many influential men do. He was a visiting professor and wasn’t anti-Establishment to be quirky. This was just him.

Almost instantly, I found his pedagogy to be just as fluid as his writing, collapsing the institutional demand for in-class hierarchies and helping his students get into the funk of this here Black life. Sitting with us at eye level, Tate didn’t feel so much like an instructor as another student who might learn as much from us as we, him. He’d mix Socratic chop-up sessions with wide-ranging ambles on the making and remaking of Black Harlem; Ron Isley’s rhythm and woozy tutelage — and lowballing — of Jimi Hendrix; or the Pan-Africanist lineages of Black “American”–made crystal in Amiri Baraka’s Blues People. He introduced us to the work of his friend and co-conspirator Arthur Jafa through his 2013 documentary Dreams Are Colder Than Death, in which radical thinkers like Kathleen Cleaver and Saidiya Hartman excavate the machinations of global racial and sexual violence against Black people and consider how to actively resist it.

Tate’s guidance through the diaspora reignited my sense of curiosity. Prior to his teachings, I had a pretty good handle on Black culture through an American lens; I could make cross-cultural connections and engage with what I believed to be a Black radical politic at the time. But Tate was adamant about finding its intellectual center, about situating Black cultural production as not just an offshoot of Africa but as African property and invention. Tate presented Black art as a continuance of African world-making, even as we’re splintered across the world; whereas the dominant ideology would have African American genius — or struggle — seen as peculiar, he sought to make the connections between what Black people created and performed in Africa and elsewhere as salient as could be. And I just couldn’t get enough of that new worldview; his course was a Sahara sandstorm sashaying its way through the Berkshire Valley. It felt immersive, like a crash course in critical theory that was subconsciously in motion.

Tate, who was born in 1957 in Dayton, Ohio, had turned himself into an East Coast staple, studying journalism at Howard University and then moving to New York shortly after graduating in 1981 just as punk, hip-hop, and various derivations of blues, jazz, and dance flooded the nightlife scene. Tate incorporated academic scholarship in all this work, from his cultural critique to speaking engagements — as likely to reference Hortense Spillers as he was Sly Stone — but, crucially, never produced his work for heady institution types even if they looked to him as an authority on Black culture. (In fact, it appears 2015 was the rare time he flirted with entering that space, as Imani Perry recounted on Twitter following news of his death: “I remember Greg Tate once talking about considering whether he should get a Ph.D. and saying to him, ‘So you can read a bunch of people citing you?’’’ Maybe he was playing with the possibility, propping that door open just so.)

After each class, I’d walk with him to his office, where we’d chat about the latest film or album; or about how wild Jimi Hendrix had to be to jump out of planes for the fucking Air Force; or where Kendrick Lamar draws his musical foundations (“Everything’s pretty much ’70s and ’80s right now,” he quipped); or the moment he knew hip-hop had been sold down the river (when Diddy went platinum it “signified,” the godfather of hip-hop criticism wrote in his prologue to Flyboy 2, that “Black Mediocrity was now as commercially viable as Black Genius”). I was trying to grasp everything. Speaking to Greg about art — that is, speaking to someone who is most principally interested in what Jafa would call “Black cognition” — begs one to become a seeker. He answered the critic’s charge to use tools developed within a rich practice of study to invite, entertain, and investigate his fundamentally Black world. I didn’t know what a Black critic meant until our meeting, nor that I could actually be one.

Tate’s criticism could be scathingly pointed (like that Diddy jab). He had no problem going after Wynton Marsalis’s corny, false doubts about rap’s staying power, or, in 1990, frustratingly suggesting to Ice Cube that he acknowledge the ways rap is hostile toward women. But Tate really became a writing-ass writer when he was truly jazzed; the Flyboy was no less colorful and out there in his criticism and musical work. His books and columns ciphered essential realms — the linguistic, the artistic, the sexed, the raced, the aesthetic, the musical, the intellectual — with sentences that took us from the blacktop to the Greek pantheon, from the moon to the bedroom sheets, with rhythmic flourish. (A more recent beloved example came in a 2012 Spin review, when questioning where Azealia Banks would carve out her territory of the Afro-future. Tate dallies in the phantasmagoria of Banks’s own making on her mixtape Fantasea: “The coolheaded Banks supplies the hyperkinetic answer: plunge her slice of the Afro-futuristic pie like a dagger into a motor-booty affair, a place where you’ll dance under extreme pressure and struggle in vain not to get wet-up or spat upon three times fast.” Like, are you fucking kidding me?) 

Tate’s ethic of linking the intellectual, practical, and transgressive dimensions of Black cultures came alive in verbose bouts of playfulness that came straight from his participation in Black communal spaces. In founding the Black Rock Coalition in 1985, he played and worked alongside artists like Meshell Ndegeocello, who, he wrote in a piece exploring the pleasure-taking musical body of Ndegeocello, Betty Davis, Chaka Khan, and Grace Jones, made him privy to what it means to take “possession of their bodies in performance like those sisters in Trane’s old church took possession of their heavenly voices.” The Black Rock Coalition, co-founded by a group of pigeonholed Black musicians — Vernon Reid, D.K. Dyson, Konda Mason — pushed against an idea shared by record labels at the time: that there was no audience for Black rock music.

Ndegeocello’s eventual refusal to sign with Dr. Dre or Diddy in creating her now-classic 1999 record, Bitter, geeked Tate up. Having seen her work for years, Tate could dispute the lie label bosses told that “she had no sex appeal by dint of her boyish butch profile” by calling attention to her performances “where sisters who came to the show on their boyfriends’ arms left the club caught up in same-sex rapture with their formerly straight BFFs.” He then used that anecdote as a setup for Ndegeocello to explain why she didn’t put go-go in her music: “She said because go-go wasn’t a style, go-go was church, a religious service. And I had to concur because the spirits go-go set loose were more interested in freeing their own libidos than following the Lord. Long before anybody down D.C. way had seen the inside of a reggae dancehall, a krunk strip club or a girls gone wild video, a go-go audience could be found any given Saturday obliterating whatever difference you imagined between dance as African ritual and sex as a form of African dance.” He was, in many respects, crucial to bringing forth a Pan-Africanist purview to Black art, one that did away with reductive visions of queerness and gender stereotyping. Tate queered the way.

I held Tate’s work to my chest in the darkest moments of my life. In 2016, just a year after meeting him, I had a nervous breakdown at my home in Houston, on the same lawn I used to mow as a teenager. After a while, my parents had me admitted into a psychiatric hospital. I was so angry with them at the time — to be institutionalized in a white space that ostensibly calls itself caring about this Black boy’s mental health? Okay, sure — and surrounded by struggling strangers and bleary-eyed workers. We were all so isolated. This was a community, of sorts, but one built on mental solitude, as if we could only heal when we’re alone. Luckily, patients could accept books and other writing materials from their loved ones after being vetted, quite like a prison. Perhaps owed to an innate desire to find some part of myself that I liked, something I could connect with and find pride in, I put Flyboy 2 on my list. I was drowning in uncertainty, but Blackness felt stable. When the book came, I grasped it like a lifeline. I reveled in its play, wrote down all the intriguing African names that I wanted to look up after I was released: journalist Itabari Njeri, Afrofuturist visual artist Wangechi Mutu, father-son musicians Marion and Djinji Brown. That small notebook of Black worlds, old and new, gave me something to anticipate; I wanted to survive to learn more about us. Greg will never know it, but even then, I reached for him. And in reaching for him, I rekindled my curiosity and love for African people, and for the parts of myself I had yet to uncover. 

It’s easy to latch onto the way Tate spoke, wrote, and worked. Scrolling through the many tributes to him by writers of all kinds, there’s a commonality: As young writers, we all tried to sound like Greg Tate. And after a while, in our continued failure, we stumble upon ourselves — our own voices, our own ways of meaning-making. Greg Tate has created so many critics and held open such essential realms. It’s easy to reach for him, to want to be like him. There’s further learning in that impulse to do as he taught: Tate always pointed the brilliance back to the Black subject, the Black communal, and the wealth of Black knowledge that kept him in pursuit. He didn’t create worlds; he invited us into them with a sincere wit and infectious cool. Those worlds are still standing, even if, now, there’s one less seeker.

A Black Education