|E. Ethelbert Miller:
Renowned Poet. Literary. Arts Activist. Father.
to be like my Father, the one he dreamed of being."
E. Ethelbert Miller
|Acclaimed poet and writer E. Ethelbert Miller takes ACE Dialogue
contributing editor Waris Banks on an excursion through his latest career moves,
challenges in working at Howard University and his experiences as a
father. He also discusses his latest book:
"Nyere!" calls Eugene Ethelbert 'Miller, The Dad,
looking up and out of his wire framed glasses as if he could see through the ceiling of
his living room in his brick colonial in upper northwest Washington, DC. The spindly,
fifty year-old parent surrenders for an instant and tries once more, this time turning the
tune into a full melody: "Ny-ere!"
Nyere, Miller's teenage son, sleepily answers back. Miller instructs his son to answer the
telephone on the first ring while he and the journalist conduct the interview. It's
ten-thirty on a Saturday morning and, like any self-respecting, decent adolescent, Nyere
won't get out of bed before noon, or eleven-thirty at the earliest.
Miller, still looking up, pauses to let the drowsy teenager digest his instructions. Nyere
responds. Miller exhales a laugh and shakes his head. Apparently, Nyere's answer satisfies
Miller because he doesn't press the subject anymore.
"Let's sit in here," says E. Ethelbert Miller, the poet, leading me into the
solarium to conduct the interview.
To see Miller move between his roles as parent, poet and literary activist is almost a
comparative study of different personalities that are sometimes at odds. just listen
carefully to Miller's thoughts: "How do I maximize my earnings in the arts field so
that I can still send my kids to a good college? How do I transform from a
youthful-minded, outspoken literary activist to a savvy entrepreneur and arts director to
maintain my household and family? How do I maintain a busy career while ensuring that I
spend quality time with my family?"
Artists and writers struggle. They struggle to find work or get paid, or even eat and keep
a roof over their heads. They can also struggle with their past and reconcile it with
their present and future.
But the frank and uncanny Miller proves that even the most acclaimed and well-known
artists and writers can still struggle with their pasts and their futures--especially when
the titles of "father" and "guardian" are added to a byline.
do you write in your latest book, Fathering Words, that your father was an outsider, even
in his own family?
think many men are outsiders within their own family. My father was pretty much very
quiet. Growing up in the South Bronx, when you walked into our house, it was as if my
mother ran everything. Behind the scenes, my father was doing a lot to keep the household
together. My mother who is 81 years old in New York is able to live by herself because my
father provided for her. When I look at even MY own household, I see in many instances
decisions being made in which I'm not centered to it. I wind up sometimes being marginal
to key decision making. And I don't think that my family- is that strange or different
from other households, Using my own family as a test tube, I took in the jar at the
problems of family and come to conclusions. And that's what I've done
with Fathering Words, as well as my poems.
you think this marginalization characterizes a lot of Aftican-American fathers?
think that many African-American men, in general, have been marginalized. When I
go into the prisons, and I go into prisons quite a bit, or even go to the schools, you see
Black boys in the back of the room. They don't speak up; they hold their heads down. They
can't find the words. They've been told constantly that they are not going to amount to
anything. That their views don't mean anything. Unless you're a master teacher, dedicated
to your field and you have the skills to pull these young men out and get them involved,
make them see their potential, many times they drift around. They drift around and that is
how we function in our society.
DIALOGUE: So have you done anything
to create more open communication with your children?
very much aware that the structure of my day consists of me spending time with my son. I
feet that my father didn't have that opportunity. He would probably on a Saturday like
this, probably sleep, may have to go to work late tonight. And we come home and we have
Sundays off. So just by me having this time and taking advantage of it, I see myself
correcting, or having the opportunity to correct what was not there for my father to do.
also write that the birth of your children made it so that writing went from being a means
of self- expression to basically a means of paying the rent and putting food on the table.
How do you reconcile artistic freedom with fatherly obligations?
MILLER: I got
to take care of my family. My daughter is in college, and my son is getting ready to go.
At 50 years old with a family to sup- port, I'm at a point where I have to increase my
earnings. So I'm challenging myself to learn more about the business side of running an
arts and cultural organization, which is why I became co-chair of the DC Humanities
Council this year. I also want to be a decision-maker. I refuse to go into a room and sit
across a table from somebody who either has no respect for me, either somebody who is
incompetent, or somebody who just has no vision. I'm shifting. That's where I'm at right
now. I have to look at Howard University (HU), what I'm doing, options for growth and
development, plus other offers.
DIALOGUE: You've always been very
vocal about your dissatisfaction with Howard University 'in certain instances. What is it
about that experience that frustrates you?
MILLER: It's not dissatisfaction or
frustration. Now, I'm not bitter at HU. I'm very realistic. I love the place. I arrived at
HU in 1969. That's when Howard was going through its transformation from a Negro
institution to a Black university. Those of us who were there were student activists,
which is what I was at that time, and we had a deep love for the institution. Many of us
were saying this school could be doing a whole lot more. We talked about global vision. We
saw HU as the Mecca, a holy place. You faced HU and got inspired. I also realized the
myth. The myth is what Howard is about. If you tell somebody in jasper, Mississippi about
Howard, they're like: "Oh man, Howard University." Yeah, they have that, and
then they come to HU and ask: "How come the dorms are like this?'Or: "How come
registration is like this?" Or: "Look at the carpet here." I can listen to
a speech that a university official gives and laugh. "Yes, we are the such and such,
blah, blah, blah. Yeah, right." And it's nothing wrong with that. But you can't sell
that to me. I'm at a university that I feel has never fully appreciated my career. There's
no way that somebody at HU administration can sell to me their 100-percent-plus commitment
to Black authors. Fathering Words just made it to UH bookstore. I think President
[Swygert] must have called over there after the Washington Post article.
DIALOGUE: In that feature story entitled
"Washington's Unsung Poet," which appeared in the Washington Post's Style
section, July 6, 2000, Linton Weeks writes that you are the "411 of African-American
literature," with your wife, Denise King-Miller, adding that you "have also
directed a lot of people," particularly writers, "in terms of launching their
careers." Can you cite some specific examples of those writers whom you've helped and
helped many writers. I don't see myself launching careers but instead providing support
and outlets for folks' creativity. I've been blessed by knowing such writers as Essex
Hemphill, Afaa Michael Weaver, Lori Tsang, Eva Day, Reetika Vazariani, Helen Lee, Greg
Tate, Brian Gilmore, Kenneth Carroll and Angela Boykin. I've found very few that I haven't
influenced, and some people think that that's arrogant, but, keep in mind, I'm a literary
activist. I've always undertaken a career of service. I always undertook a sense of being
humble. But what I've seen in other writers in terms of their spiritual development is a
certain degree of arrogance. Some of my friends have gotten away from what it means to be
a writer or an artist. I find that some of my friends have-and these are well known
people-a sort of arrogance when it comes to even signing a book. Some of them don't want
to stay in any hotel unless it's a five-star hotel. Some of them don't want to do any sort
of program unless it's a large honorarium. I'm just noticing these days. I look at one
very, very prominent person who got this big grant--and I got that grant for her--and the
person never even said thank you. I had to go back and pretty much pull together stuff,
when I could have been doing a lot of other things. I just sit back now and laugh because
I could see the personality. I don't think I will ever do anything for that person again.
And I'm saying that in terms of not just me but how these individuals now because of their
success are going to interact with younger people or, say, people who are incarcerated-a
book or a poem can be very meaningful to their life.
there any upcoming projects that you have?
always have upcoming projects. I deal first with the community projects. I want to
celebrate Sterling Brown's 100th birthday. Another project for 2002 is a celebration for
Langston Hughes' 100th birthday. In fact, I just wrote an interesting piece for Black
Issues Book Review called "The Buddha Langston," which
looks at Hughes' nature and spirit.
DIALOGUE: This past year
you became co-chair of the Humanities Council here in Washington, DC. Can you tell me more
about this move, in term of what you will be doing and how this will help Black artists
see the Humanities Council of Washington as playing a key role in helping the city
understand itself. Our city is changing and we need to be aware of what is happening to
our neighborhoods. We need to examine our values and beliefs. I am happy the council is
now located at 9th and U Streets, NW. I mentioned in a speech List month that I
remember Hughes and Toomer when I walk around that part of town. Hopefully, the council
will fund projects and programs that will employ African-American writers and scholars.
DIALOGUE: I hear that
you are working on editing some sort of encyclopedia. What exactly is going to be in it?
MILLER: We are in the
planning stages of creating an on-line encyclopedia. This site will be a
"gateway" to the humanities in Washington, DC.
DIALOGUE: Recently, you hosted at
the District of Columbia's Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) a documentary entitled
"The Scottsboro Boys: An American Tragedy," which chronicles the events
surrounding the Scottsboro trial, in which nine Black boys were accused of raping two
White women in 1930s Alabama. Do you have any more such plans to reach beyond the
African-American cultural community?
recent Scottsboro Boys program at the DCJCC was part of my "Windows and Mirrors"
series. I started the series with Miriam Nathan and Ken Sherman a few years ago. It brings
together Blacks and Jews around issues of culture. Next year I would like to coordinate a
program which will examine interracial marriages as well as one that looks at the American
Communist Party influence on Blacks and Jews.
DIALOGUE: There is one more question that is
nagging at me. Why don't you drive?
MILLER: I don't know how to drive.
Lucille Clifton doesn't drive. Langston Hughes didn't drive. In fact, when Hughes went
down South, he had to get a driver to drive him around. The driver seat is very, very
stressful. I never missed that idea of driving. I enjoy