Thursday, July 6 2000
Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
the heart
is a drum
who will teach us
to Listen?
what sound
will it make?
how deaf we are
Ethelbert Miller Spent a Career Giving.
And Now Its Getting to Him.

    That's  a recent verse by E. Ethelbert Miller, poet, father, husband, professor, major networker, director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University since 1974, founder and co-chair of the D.C. Humanities Council, advisory editor of the African American Review, founder of the Ascension Poetry Reading Series, winner of the 1994 PEN OaklandJosephine Miles Award for his poetry anthology "In Search of Color Everywhere," editor of several other anthologies and author of five collections of verse and the memoir "Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer," published last month by St Martin's Press.

     Miller is arguably the most influential person in Washington's vast and vibrant African American arts community. And perhaps its most unappreciated. Ethelbert is: generous, loving, youthful, soft-spoken, outspoken, curious, uplifting and ever-changing.

     He is also: bitter and full of surprises.

     E. Ethelbert Miller is a poem.

     "Fathering Words" is a book of many faces.

     It is an open-veined and honest thing, packed with poetic moves.

     "Growing up in the South Bronx," Miller writes, "it was important to believe in something, and so my brother made the decision to believe in God. I met God one afternoon on Longwood Avenue in the Bronx.... I was afraid to cross the street without holding someone's hand, and so I did something my brother was good at doing. I started praying to God."

     It is about childhood: "I asked God to come for me, to help me cross the big street. If he did, I promised I would be good for the rest of my life. I would never steal or lie."

     And family- "I closed my eyes and only opened them when I heard my father running across the street, cursing and trying to fix his clothes at the same time. When I was little I thought my father was God."

     Miller tells of coming to Washington in 1968. Of living in Cook Hall, across from the football field and not far from Cramton Auditorium.

     As a freshman at Howard, Eugene, E. Miller-as he was then known-ran for class treasurer. His campaign manager was a woman from Chicago. She asked Miller what his middle name was. He told her and she thought it was catchy. She began making posters that said "Ethelbert Is Coming."

     Miller won the election and from his sophomore year on, he went by his middle name. The change made a difference. "I became more social and outgoing under the name E. Ethelbert Miller," he says. He graduated in 1972 with a degree in African American studies.

     He writes of discovering his poetic voice and of reading in 1973 at Dingane's Den, a coffeehouse. on 18th Street. He opened for betterknown poets such as Jayne Cortez and Lance Jeffers.

     He writes of his love for Howard and for Washington.

     Of his children, Nyere-Gibran and Jasmine-Simone.

     Of people who helped him and of those he helped.

     Of  former mayor Marion Barry he - waxes admiring. "One would have to-cross the Atlantic and resurrect the African leader Amilcar Cabral to find another individual who understood the equation of literature, music and art and how it connects to economics, food and politics." Barry proclaimed Sept. 28, 1979, as
E. Ethelbert Miller Day in Washington.

     He writes understatedly about loss--the death of his brother, Richard. -The day after my brother died, Carmen, one of his neighbors, said she saw him walking his dog."

     The death of his dad: "I want to see my father's face again. I want him to talk this time."

     Of  his family, he writes at one point: "There is no picture of all of us together."

     Part of the book is written in the singular voice of his divorced and childless sister, Marie Hunter. "I look at the pictures my mother has on the piano and the ones next to the lamp and on top of the television. They are photographs of Jasmine and Nyere. The grandchildren's smiles are what keeps my mother warm when she turns off the kitchen light and heads into the bedroom to hug the other pillow on the bed. Some nights when I am driving back to Yonkers, I look over at the Hudson on my left and see the lights -flickering. 'Marie,' I whisper to myself. The sound of my name is all I hear."

     "He was so accurate it was scary," Marie says after reading the book.

     Some readers might be put off by the experimental, jazzlike nature of the writing or the sketchlike quality of the prose or the overabundance of metaphors.

     Like this over-the-fence, five-runhomer paragraph about his father's sickness:

     "Once I caught my father kneeling, praying his bedroom. It was before he was to have an operation on his lungs. I was still in college, home for a few days. The house was like Yankee Stadium after the loss of a close game. Everyone was caught in the moment of thinking about their performance. How could they -lose? My mother, always a pillar of strength, had been picked off first base and caught in a rundown. How could she live without my father? Who would provide for the family? We were running toward second when my father became sick."

     And some might be annoyed by little typos and grammatical slips. "Shinning" instead of "shining." "Then" instead of "than." The publisher did not
always edit closely.

     A poet by nature, Miller wrote this book swiftly.

     "I write fast," he admits in "Fathering Words." "I revise when I prepare to send work out for publication. It's not a big problem or an enormous task. Revision is like divorce or separation. Changes. How different is the second draft from the first?"

     His heart is in the right place.


     The tales of his largess and loyalty are legion. Loyalty to friends, to family. He learned fatherhood-, he says, from his father.

     "My father could have left my mother when I was young," he writes at one point "He stayed perhaps because no one expected him to stay."

     Miller believes in the unexpected. He enjoys his role as a father to"his children, to other writers, to words on the page. "In the Washingtoo literary community," says Kojo Nnamdi of WAMU radio, "I don't think I know of anyone who is as widely known as Ethelbert for his tireless efforts to promote reading and writing."

     "I decided," Miller writes, "that the key to being a successful writer was working with as many people as possible, networking and staying in touch.   I also realized that the key to success was the control and access to information. Phone numbers, addresses, reviews, anything regarding writers and literature, I attempted to gain access to or collect. Serving on a number of boards and working for literary organizations assisted in the gathering of this material."

     In his reading-room office at, Howard, flanked by books, posters of Terry McMillan and the Million Man March and pictures of Malcolm X and Gandhi, Miller keeps manila folders on almost every writer he's heard of.

     It is here, sitting at this desk like an an air traffic controller, that he has made his calls, written and answered his countless e-mails, gotten folks jobs and grants, written blurbs for books. And even jotted down a poem every now and then.

     Over the years, he has periodically taught poetry and literature classes on campus. He has been a visiting professor at other colleges, but has always returned to Howard. He has organized poetry and literature programs, brought in visiting writers and scholars from around the country and assisted students with projects and pursuits. In fact, Miller has spent so much of his time helping other people grow, he hasn't always tended his own garden.

     "He's also directed a lot of people in terms of launching their careers," says his wife, Denise King-Miller. "Particularly writers."

     Miller's influence spreads through the world like concentric radio waves. This third floor of the Howard Library is Broadcast Central.

     Over the years he has saved his address books-a half-dozen or so--and if you ask for someone's phone number, he knows exactly which one it's in. He is the 411 of African American literature.

     When Denise King moved here in 1979, she asked everyone whom she should talk to about the arts in Washington. Time and again she heard the name of Ethel Bert Miller. "I thought it was a woman," she says.     

       The two met. He asked her to a poetry reading at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. They've been together ever since. Denise, a graduate of Howard's divinity school, is a management consultant and ordained minister.

     Miller was married before. He writes candidly, but not obnoxiously, about all of the women in his past. "His first wife and I are good friends," Denise says. The women occasionally have lunch together. "She's taught me a lot about Ethelbert."

     Denise continues, -Women have always been interested in Ethelbert. I'm cool about that Why shouldn't they be? He's handsome, intelligent he's a poet. There's a romanticism attached to it."

     Roy McKay, a longtime friend of Miller's recalls, "He was the first person I met when I got to Howard. He helped me carry my bags to my room."

     You hear stories like that a lot.

     Martin Lammon says, "Ethelbert was most influential in my getting more involved in the African American arts community." Today Lammon is a college professor in Georgia, editor of Arts and Letters: Journal of Contemporary Culture, and president of Associated Writing Programs, the largest organization of writers, teachers and students in the country. More than 320 institutions in North America are involved.

     Charles Johnson, author of the National Book Award winner "Middle Passage," says, "I can't say how long I've known Ethelbert Miller. It seems like forever because he's always been a shaker and mover in Washington, D.C., literary circles, which I've had contact with since the mid-1980s.

     "But I can say this: No one, to my knowledge, has done and is doing more, day in, day out, to promote contemporary black writing, and especially poetry, than Miller. For this reason I often refer affectionately to him as'the wizard.'He always manages to find inventive, fresh ways to celebrate black literature and its creators. And it's important to point out that Miller appreciates all black creators, regardless of their aesthetic and political differenceshe is, quite simply, above factionalism and is one of the healing influences in the literary world."

     Afaa Michael Weaver, author of "Multitudes: Poems," was driving a forklift in Baltimore and writing poetry on the side when he met Miller in 1975. With Miller's help and encouragement,'Weaver went to graduate school and now is teaching creative writing at Simmons College in Boston.

     "Ethelbert is the nerve center of the black literary world," Weaver says.

     Dolores Kendrick, Washington's poet laureate, credits Miller with getting her the position. (In fact Miller was responsible for the revival of the D.C. poet laureate post in the first place. The District's first poet laureate was Sterling Brown, a professor at Howard.)

     She says Miller is responsible for "more poets being recognized, than  anybody I know. And he never did it in a way that he was concerned about himself.

     Like a recurring rhyme, one poet after another praises Miller"s community-mindedness. They applaud his selflessness, his generosity, his lack of self-aggrandizement.

     Then they speak of his poetry.


     All too often, Miller writes, a young writer spends an inordinate amount of time on self-promotion. I have met a number of people who simply want to he famous. No poem, no novel, or play, just fame. Every person who writes a poem is not a poet. A true poet is a person of the heart."

     "I have watched him progress as a writer," Kendrick says. "When I began reading his work, I realized that nobody owned him. He had his own voice."

     I like the feel of creating something," Miller writes in his 'new book. "My father taught me how to sketch, to make shapes, to turn circles into faces. Add a nose, two eyes, and ears.- Poetry is like drawing. I find a line I like and turn it over and over in my head. I stretch the words, bend them, place them on the page, change them again. I enjoy this more than going to class."

     His poetry is awash in the blues and Langston Hughes.

     Jerry Ward, a professor at Tougaloo College in Mississippi and editor of the 1997 book "Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry," has known Miller since 1976. "Ethelbert is a poet who grows on you'," he says. "He works with great economy of language. A clean style. He doesn't waste words. It's dear what he's saying. Then it's not so clear. He has a kind of wicked wit. You have to look twice sometimes.

     "Ethelbert is one of the really great American poets," says historian Douglas Brinkley, a longtime friend who calls on Miller to help him teach classes at the University of New Orleans. "He has the sensibility of an academic. He's not one A those , coffeehouse guys who write free ree verse on a cocktail napkin He cares about language.

     "He has helped hundreds of people Brinkley says."on the page. He reads his own material. He can teach poetry and he helps other People. He is the complete package.

The School

     That E. Ethelbert Miller is a major mover in the African American world is undeniable. That is considered by many to be an outstanding poet is indisputable. d that he has loved his alma mata is evident in his writing. "I decided to make the school my literary base," he writes in "Fathering Words." "My goal was to reach a point where the school's name was synonymous with my own.

     So what's wrong with this picture?

     Miller is walking across his beloved Howard campus, past Cook where he lived nearly 40 years.   Bells chime in the distance.  He is talking about the novel he is working on, "Geometry of Desire," about a college professor. He is asked about an old building that is being renovated it.

     That he explains, will be the new aal Center for African American heritage and Culture.

     Will his office be moved into there?

     He says he doesn't have a clue.  Adjusting the neck of a loose-fitting sweater, sticking his hands in dark slacks  he says, "I'm out of the loop."

     And it is here , on the campus he loves so much , that the poet begins to open up.

     He is, he feels,  without honor in his own country.    Though he has sweated and bled for this school, he feels ignored and belittled and forgotten.

     Talk to people who know and they will tell you that Miller isn't the first employee to be slighted by Howard.  Stephen Henderson author of   "Understanding the New Black Poetry," and playwright -novelist Julian Mayfield were never given proper respect, people say.

     "I've seen people really make it and acknowledge everybody but me," Miller says, "And I was the person who gave them a start."

      He sighs, "I lobbied for jobs."

     There is a breeze in the trees overhead.  "I can't think of an African American writer whose life I haven't affected."

     Gone is the laughter.  The sparkle in the eyes.  Now there is just puzzlement.  "I'm not part of the in-group here," he says.

     Miller says he learned about the development of the center from Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of chairman of Harvard's Afro-American studies department. Gates was surprised that Miller wasn't being kept apprised by the university. I'm right here at Howard and nobody made a phone call," Miller explains.

     He says he's never been asked to be on any advisory committees. "Gates knows more about what's going on here than I do."

     Is there bitterness in his voice? "Bitterness? Yes."

     He says simply, "I feel like I should be the writer in residence here." There is no writer in residence at Howard University. Asked if he's ever volunteered for committees, he says, "I've always helped various people. I've never pushed myself on them."

     Instead, he says, he feels like a mailroom employee. "I see them having receptions," he says. "Im not invited."

     "There is a touch of irony in this," remarks Jerry Ward. "Ethelbert is editing a collection of essays by Stephen Henderson. Up until now, Howard hasn't tried to preserve the collection or make it available.

     "It's a tradition," Ward says. "Howard University, like many institutions, does not recognize the great work of native daughters and sons."

     The university pays Miller less than $40,000 a year.

     "That's ludicrous," his wife says.

     "Howard has slapped him in the face one zillion and one times."

     When asked about Miller, Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert speaks glowingly. "His presence has enriched the university," Swygert says. And "He now has a national reputation."

     He reaches for a copy of "Fathering Words" and quotes a couple of his favorite lines.

     What about Miller's concerns that he has been left out of the loop? "Ethelbert is not the type of person who would say that for dramatic effect," Swygert says. "If he says it, it's true."

     While Swygert refuses to talk about Miller's salary, or any Howard employee's, he says he will look into the matter.

     Swygert says that of course Miller's office will be moved to the new center and, of course he should be included in the decision-making process.

     "I think he should be damn angry," Swygert says. "But he is too much Ethelbert to be damn angry. I'm president. I can be damn angry."

     E. Ethelbert Miller, Howard's president says, "is one of the reasons we are a university."


     The proud father moves about his house on Underwood Street NW on a Sunday afternoon just before the graduation of his 18-yearold daughter, Jasmine; from the Edmund Burke School. He calls her Jazz.

     He seems so young. He's 49, but looks 30. He and Nyere, 13, sometimes play basketball together. Kids on the court mistake them for brothers.

     On this day, Miller-still called Gene by his sister and his mother and others in his family-is turning his full attention to Jasmine-Simone.

     The celebration of her graduation will stretch on into the night, full of wit and warmth and inadvertent poetry.

     There will be delicious barbecued chicken and sweet potato pie and peach cobbler.

     Friends come and go. Washington writer Dan Moldea, whom Miller calls to drive him in case of emergency, helps with the drinks. (Miller takes a bus to Howard each day.)

     "This house has always been full of writers," says Denise King-Miller, "people coming through all the time, looking for Ethelbert."

     At one point, everyone piles into cars for a convoy to Temple Sinai for the Edmund Burke School graduation.

     To recorded music, the seniors file out. Various students rise to speak, one plays Chopin. Then the keynote speaker, E. Ethelbert Miller, moves to the lectern.

     But before he rises, before he opens his purple folder and speaks in his whisper-song voice to the Class of 2000, before he kids the students about wishing that school closing snowstorms -could be ordered like pizzas" and tells them "you are the leaders we have been waiting  for," before he tells them about the value of critical and creative thinking, before he invokes the memories of his favorite poets, Walt Whitman and Langston, before he chokes up, then breakes down, remembering his daughter as a little girl in his arms, before he tells the students to "continue to walk in the light and embrace everything that is yes in the world," before he receives a standing ovation, he is introduced by the lovely young woman in the burnt orange dress.

     Jasmme-Simone tells her fellow seniors that she'd like them to meet, her father, a man who taught her "lifelong values" and, "though he hasn't always received the respect. and recognition he deserves, he is one of the most talented and accomplished. writers of our time."