When we spoke last year, after you had presented on poet June Jordan at the Medgar Evers college in Brooklyn, you said something that struck me and prompted this article. You said, and I am quoting as best I remember, that African Americans are some of the most creative spirits on the planet.
What did you mean by that?
The ability to overcome oppression, to pursue freedom, to survive daily in a hostile environment often requires a considerable degree of resiliency as well as creativity. Consider the person who decides to secure a box, place himself in it and mail himself out of slavery. The ability to make a way out of no way is perhaps imprinted on the souls of black folks. To the extent that America “invented” the Negro, black survival in America has been dependent on invention.
This is evident in our cultural footprints. Our art, especially our music and literature has at times been difficult to define. Consider the inability of music critics to define and understand the first notes of bebop. How does an ear prepare for the coming of Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman? Didn’t August Wilson change American theater?
Where does one place the contemporary literary genius of Olio by Tyehimba Jess.
His collection of poems this year was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The intellectual heft of this book represents the brightness of a new black literary generation. One could see this coming from simply measuring the arching reach of the Cave Canem organization founded in 1996 by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte. Today, we see African American poets beginning to dominate the genre of poetry as if it was the NBA.
“Black people are no longer the children of Ellison. In many ways Barack Obama was our George Washington. Now comes the flowering of a new America and for some -the fear of a black planet.”
In just the last few years American literature has been “spiced” by the work of Natasha Trethewey, Tracy Smith, Greg Pardlo, and Terrance Hayes. In film, as well as the visual arts we find not one but many African American artists changing the landscape. It is also impossible to place all these artists inside one silo. This is not a rebirth or renaissance. It is simply the removal of the veil that was once placed over black culture in America. Our artists have more visibility as a result of social media; in much the same manner we are able to document more incidents of police brutality because of a cell phone. Black people are no longer the children of Ellison. In many ways Barack Obama was our George Washington. Now comes the flowering of a new America and for some -the fear of a black planet. Today’s creative black artistic energy must protect us from what Langston Hughes prophetically called “the backlash blues.” This is what now stands between Trump and a hard rock.
“Being a literary activist means helping to promote other voices. It means encouraging the person who might only have one poem. It means going into senior citizen homes, schools and prisons and discussing poetry and well as listening to it being recited.” E. Ethelbert Miller, Literary Activist and American Griot
In your work, in your teaching and speaking, in your consciousness, there is connectivity, there is peace, a gentleness and a precise relationship with truth. These qualities seem to be absent in our current national discourse, leadership and cultural norms. What is “Literary Activism”, a term you have used to refer to yourself and which has been attributed to you widely, even having September 28, 1979, memorialized as “E. Ethelbert Miller Day.” (in our previous discussion, you noted listening with intent and purpose).
Forty years of working at Howard University turned me into a literary activist. In the early 1970s I was a research assistant to literary critic Dr. Stephen Henderson. I took of couple of classes from him during my senior year at Howard. After I graduated I helped him interview various writers. Among them were Sterling A. Brown, Owen Dodson, Frank Marshall Davis, Julian Mayfield and many others. As director of the African American Resource (starting in 1974) I understood the importance of documenting and preserving history. For decades I conducted video interviews, I also hosted several radio programs that provided me with a way of sharing information with the community of Washington. I coined the term literary activist because it defined the many things I was doing. I was not just a poet or writer. In 1974, I founded the Ascension Poetry Reading Series which gave a generation of poets their first readings and stage.
Being a literary activist means helping to promote other voices. It means encouraging the person who might only have one poem. It means going into senior citizen homes, schools and prisons and discussing poetry and well as listening to it being recited. Today I edit (with Jody Bolz) Poet Lore magazine, which is the oldest poetry magazine in the United States. It was founded in 1889. Editing this magazine for almost 15 years has given me a vehicle in which I can help writers reach an audience. Editing a journal keeps one in touch with the pulse of the national literary community. At one time I sat on the boards of many literary organizations. In a small way I’ve helped shaped cultural policy and strengthen literary institutions. I take pride in having received two awards. On February 27, 2007, I received the Poets & Writers Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award and on March 31, 2016, AWP gave me their George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature. Serving the literary community instead of simply sitting down and writing everyday often requires a considerable degree of sacrifice.
As a literary activist I’ve also spent time giving workshops and talks. For several years I was a core faculty member at the Bennington Writing Seminars. Today I teach an online memoir class for the University of Texas, Victoria. But maybe the key aspect of being a literary activist is the emphasis I place on preservation. I’m deeply grateful to George Washington University and their Gelman Library for housing my personal archives. At last count I believe the collection consisted of over 200 boxes. Hopefully, the material I saved will be of use to future scholars.
“That comfort with words came from my father. As a new mother, I see that what we emphasize as important before our children affects their values. In our home my father valued literacy and the ability to both give and receive knowledge from the power of words. Growing up, we frequented trips to the neighborhood library and over dinner were quizzed on current events from articles we read in the New York Times. I grew up watching my father read entire novels in one night, mentor budding poets and lead writing workshops in prisons.” Jasmine-Simone Morgan, Esquire, E. Ethelbert Miller’s daughter and rising activist attorney in Washington D.C.
In 2010, on NPR in a show called, “How Will We Refer to the Next Ten Years“, you offered a meditation on the next 10 years and predicted a decade not unlike the roaring 20’s and the defining talents of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Huston. You seem to be saying that we are in these times. Aside from literature and poetry, your industry and keep, where else (what other art forms) do you witness the blooming of this work?
It’s funny looking back at what I said in 2010. I was concerned about those “teen” years of the new century.
Well it looks as if we’ve elected a child to lead us into 2020. Fear is real. Might we go to war with North Korea before we celebrate Kwanzaa again? Such darkness seems too real these days. I want to be optimistic but I don’t want to be a fool. What seems to be blooming is the art of resistance. It’s going to be dangerous if we erase the gains made on climate change or race relations. It would be sad if this decade is defined by Trump’s ego and personality. Who wants the sky to turn a funny shade of orange? If this occurs, may all the willows weep for me.
E. Ethelbert Miller recently completing work on –If God Invented Baseball. It is a collection of baseball poems that will published February 2018.
Miller’s poetry has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, German, Hungarian, Chinese, Farsi, Norwegian, Tamil and Arabic.
From 1974-2000 he was the founder and director of the Ascension Poetry Reading Series which presented hundreds of African American poets and poets of color to the general public. In 1997 he worked with the Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corporation (IGPC) and was responsible for placing twelve African American writers on postage stamps issued by Ghana and Uganda. The writers honored were Maya Angelou, Rita Dove, Mari Evans, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Charles Johnson, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, Sterling A. Brown, Alex Haley, Stephen Henderson, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright.
In 2003 Miller’s poems were selected for sculpture installations at the Petworth and DuPont Circle Metro stations.
Mr. Miller is often heard on National Public Radio. He is host and producer of The Scholars on UDC-TV and writes a regular monthly column, E on DC for Capital Community News. His E-Notes has been a popular blog since 2004.
On April 19, 2015, Mr. Miller was inducted into the Washington DC Hall of Fame.
A different version of this article was originally published on Huffington Post
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