Hearts have been heavy these past couple of days. On Sunday, August 9th I, and others, found out that a wonderful person/artist/man died unexpectedly the previous evening. That man was Brook Stephenson. Brook basically knew every Black writer in NYC and potentially every writer of color in the area and other cities as well. He was most recognizable by his smile and his presence. I remember saying to him at a reading in Harlem, "Man, you are everywhere!" He nodded, grinned, and we chatted for a bit.
Brook and I met at the Harlem Holiday Fete in December 2014. He was giving shout outs to so many Black writers, established and emerging, and other industry folks. We were crowded, shoulder-to-shoulder, back-to-back at the Fete with the vibration steady from pockets of discussion throughout the restaurant. Brook was someone I was searching for to say "Thanks for organizing this," and when he went to the front of the restaurant/lounge he definitely had a welcoming aura about him. I introduced myself and he was encouraging. There was a queue starting up just to speak to him. He'd created a writers colony and wanted people to apply, he was working on his own stuff, (he was multitasking) also introducing others who may be like minds in terms of connection. We exchanged cards.
In 2015 is when I saw him more regularly because we were often at the same events. He wanted to support everyone. Jacqueline Woodson, Renee Watson, Tracy Sherrod, new artists at Sundays At, his own crew, the last reading I had hoped we may see each other was last week at B&N for The Book of Luke. I smiled when I saw his pictures because I just knew he'd be there. "Man, you are everywhere!"
I was unable to go to the reading he held for some of the residents at RI Writers Colony but I was confident I'd see Brook again soon. He had been coming to my readings this summer when I invited him, his a familiar face, the goatee framing his ever-present smile was always nice to see in the audience. I introduced him to my mom at my second-to-last reading of the month on a day that felt like 105-degrees. I thanked him repeatedly for coming out. "I'll see you soon" I said and believed I would.
I recall when Brook walked me to the subway after a reading. A true gentleman even though the 2/3 train was not on his path. He asked me why I was taking so long to write my collection. He remembered my statement for RI Writers Colony in which I revealed, as I had been in many statements, the 7 years and counting it was taking to get me to that place I felt my linked anthology would be complete. I got a bit indignant, "Well how long is it taking you to complete your work?" Again, that smile. We are both activists. We had so many ideas and balls in the air. Him the colony, a business, his work, a full-time job, writing gigs, and being everywhere. There's so much he was doing and wanted to do to elevate those voices. We commiserated in wishing we had more time. More time to focus on ourselves and our work but agreed, the work we're doing is important. Our brothers & sisters need to be heard and recognized and then that's when it'll be our time.
On Sunday I was with two writer friends talking about how to better reach out to other artists of color. We gather monthly and talk about our concerns and frustrations, we talk about the work to be done. It's a conversation I know Brook would've been able to contribute to highly and has. I checked Facebook quickly for something, but was halted by a post from a mutual friend tagging Brook as having passed. None of us believed it. And it seemed so many who were posting on Brook's wall couldn't either. "I just saw you" many wrote, said, and thought, including myself. I had seen him 3 weeks ago on that projected 105-degree day. He ate one of the lemon ricotta cookies I made and nodded saying he enjoyed them. He met my mother. He clapped and smiled and encouraged me to keep going. He was a constant, positive, welcomed presence urging you forward. And suddenly, he was gone.
I sat in shock. I am still shocked. I am shocked, saddened, and obsessive in looking at the many people Brook's mere presence touched and inspired. I am considering how to continue to honor a man who gave so much to others in genuine kindness and interest. I am hurt that such a wonderful person was taken so soon from so many of us, his family, friends, girlfriend, and even more the many who would've read his words on the printed page and connected to it on a deeper level. I am pushing myself to move beyond being shocked and to do the work Brook encouraged me and other artists to do because he emphasized how much our voices mattered and how much he cared. I am moving forward to know that every word I write, every kindness, every day will be in honor of Brook because that's how he lived.
"Man, you are everywhere!" And Brook is, and he will continue to be everywhere, in our spirit, actions, and art. We miss you, Brook.