(L to R: Joel Dias-Porter, Brian Gilmore, Kenneth Carroll)
Photo Credit: Brandon D. Johnson
“It is important that I tell you their names,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of the poets who influenced him in his standout book Between the World and Me. “That you know,” he continues, “that I have never achieved anything alone.” One of those “older poets” he names is Brian Gilmore, a fixture of the burgeoning poetry scene in Washington, D.C. at the time that Coates was beginning to understand himself as writer. With the plethora of reviews of and commentaries on Between the World and Me on the media (POST NO ILLS not excluded), we also wanted to create some space for a personal response to this major American book, and who better to provide that context than one of those who Coates’ himself cites in the text as a mentor.
From Brian Gilmore:
I met Ta’Nehisi Coates at a poetry reading in Washington D.C. I was a poet and he was a poet and the spot was “It’s Your Mug,” one of the more popular spoken word venues in the city in the 90s. He read that night and I think I told poet Kenneth Carroll that Coates was going to make some noise as a writer. Nothing he has done since (his blog, his memoir, his ability to defend his ideas on the public stage) has surprised me and his latest book, Between the World and Me—steeped in the politics and racial sensibilities of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and many others—is no surprise either in terms of its clever and well-thought-out takes on white supremacy, America, and the racial madness we live each day.
Yet, in some ways, it does surprise. Since we met back in the 90s, I got to know Coates very well even though I am older than him. We co-facilitated two weekly community writing workshops in the D.C. area in the 90s—one at Lorton Prison and another at Lamond Riggs Library in my old neighborhood. We enjoyed the library workshop so much and it became so popular (it was called “The Woodshed”), we continued to convene at his apartment off 16th street for as long as we could. We published and co-edited a literary journal called “The Bridge” and published other writers.
I believe those times together and since, enabled me to fully understand my friend and comrade. He is a realist as a writer and is guided at least partially by Richard Wright’s “naturalist tradition.” He does not drink from the cup of empty idealism, though, like James Baldwin, he believes deeply in humanity. He does not deal in false hope either and never has in his work. His politics, as my wife, Elanna recently said of this book, is not of “the dream.” Coates’ book is being so well-received because it mostly rejects the false hope of the dream but it also rejects those who reject the dream in the name of white supremacy or related evils. Coates is holding out hope a bit with this book and I suspect, like all of us who have children (the book is a letter to his teenaged son, Samori), we have to hold out hope.
He once said on one of his many interviews that you really have to be willing to struggle for change and not see any progress while you are alive. This more than his writing skills and ability to convey singular truths is what is so striking about this quite monumental book. It is a surprise, but perhaps it is one that will finally change the conversation in Black America.
BRIAN GILMORE is the author of three collections of poetry, including his latest We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters, a 2014 NAACP Image Award and 2015 Hurston/Wright Award nominee in poetry. He is a long time columnist with the Progressive Media Project, and is both Cave Canem Fellow and Kumbilio Fellow. He teaches public interest law at Michigan State University.