Ethelbert represents a bridge: he was a student when Sterling Brown and others were at Howard. My getting to know Ethelbert Miller, in a way connects me to a large tradition of black writers that include Sterling Brown, the Black Arts writers that were coming of age around the time Ethelbert was a student at Howard and the youngins' like me who are struggling with their own words to tell the truth and simultaneously add beauty and possibility to this world.
A special thanks to poet-friend Melissa Tuckey for providing this photograph of E. Ethelbert Miller.
Abdul Ali: Can you tell me what a literary activist is, and what kinds of work they take up? When did you become a literary activist, what events revealed this calling?
Ethelbert Miller: People often inquire about what I do. Terms like poet, writer or teacher I find to be too restrictive. During a typical day, I’m involved in numerous projects and find myself representing several institutions and organizations. A considerable amount of my work is political and not literary. Social activism has always been important to my life. I feel everyone should be here to improve the social conditions of this world. I coined the term literary activist a few years ago. One other person I’ve seen embracing the term has been my friend Natalie Handal, a Palestinian poet and playwright.
Two of my major concerns are promoting other authors and documenting and preserving literary history. From 1974- 2000, I coordinated the Ascension Poetry Reading Series, which gave many African American writers residing in Washington their first public readings. Recently I’ve been archiving my own personal collection with three institutions: University of Minnesota,George Washington University and Emory and Henry College. Since the early 1970s I’ve been saving correspondence, flyers, and manuscripts from several hundred writers. I keep hundreds of files in the African American Resource Center at Howard. This material has been very helpful to scholars doing research, especially into the Black Arts Movement.
In May 1984, I helped to create the Poet Laureate position and honor Sterling A. Brown with the title. Years later, I would recommend Delores Kendrick to be the second Poet Laureate of Washington, D.C.
As a literary activist I’ve sat on the boards of many literary organizations, including The PEN American Center, PEN/Faulkner Foundation, The Associated Writing Programs (AWP) and The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Each year I read grant proposals, judge poetry contests and write blurbs and letters of recommendation for writers. One project I accomplished back in 1997 was placing the images of twelve African American writers are stamps coming out of Uganda and Ghana. Those writers were: Mari Evans, Stephen Henderson, June Jordan, Alex Haley, Zora Neale Hurston, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Charles Johnson, Richard Wright, Maya Angelou, Rita Dove, Sterling A. Brown and Toni Cade Bambara.
I think some of us must do more than simply write. There will always be a need to protect, promote and preserve African American literature.
AA: I’ve noticed that Islam occupies a prominent space in your poetry. Can you speak to why Islam is important to you?
EM: In the 1970s I was reading many books about Eastern religions. I was attracted to Sufism and was influenced by the writings of Hazrat Inyat Khan. I remember purchasing some of his books from the old YES bookstore in Georgetown. In 1970, I took my Shahada at a community mosque located in the Bronx. I think the spiritual path I found myself on was no different from the one my older brother (Richard) had undertaken in the early 1960s. His journey encouraged him to join a Trappist monastery in upstate New York. My brother and I were searching for answers that would help explain the meaning of life. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse is one of my favorite books.
References to Islam appear in a number of my poems. In my last collection How We Sleep On The Nights We Don’t Make Love one will find the poem “Salat” on the first page. I wrote this poem while in Saudi Arabia:
poetry is prayer
light dancing inside words
five time a day
I try to write
step by step
I move towards the mihrab
I prepare to recite
what is In my heart
I recite your name
American writers (in the future) will further explore Islam; it’s an outgrowth of how our world is changing. It will be important for many of us to visit places like Indonesia and Turkey. Islam is having a significant influence on the African American community. This is something Malcolm X predicted would happen. Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the United States. Look for African Americans to play a key role in how Islam can best coexist with modernization and western values. Look for Islam to move African Americans beyond the 20th century’s double consciousness that DuBois described. In the 21st century, a person will talk about their triple identity. They will mention how they are Muslim, American and Black.
AA: I often tell my writer-friends that you are Howard’s unofficial MFA program. How did you earn the reputation as the go-to person for emerging writers?
EM: Well, I think Howard University needs an MFA program. In 1993, I was advocating the need for historical black colleges to have creative writing programs. I did this while serving as the Vice President of the AWP board. I pulled together a panel to discuss the topic at an AWP Conference in Philadelphia. One person I invited to give a presentation was Cornelius Eady. I think one of the reasons why Chicago State University (today) has a creating writing program is because Haki Madhubuti was one of the black writers who helped support the concept. Others were Marita Golden, Sonia Sanchez and Al Young. I invited them to a conference I organized in Norfolk in 1993, to meet with representatives from twelve historically Black colleges. The schools represented at the meeting were: Univesity of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, Dillard University, Howard University, Lincoln University in Missouri, Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, Norfolk State University, Prairie View A& M University, Spelman College, Southern University at New Orleans, Tennessee State University, Texas Southern University and Virginia State University.
The only people at Howard who were ever supportive of developing a creative writing program at the university were Claudia Tate, Sam Hamod, and Jennifer Jordan. Today Howard needs an MFA program. There’s no excuse for not having one.
If I have a reputation as the go-to guy it’s because when I arrived on Howard’s campus (1968) a number of people were helpful to me. I’m simply keeping a tradition alive. I wouldn’t be successful if people at Howard, like Stephen Henderson, Sterling A. Brown, Haki Madhubuti, Julian Mayfield, Jennifer Jordan, Arthur P. Davis, Clay Goss hadn’t been generous with their time and advice.
Working in one place for almost 40 years can also help a person merge their identity with an institution. That’s what has happened to me. When people think “writing” and “Howard,” my name is mentioned. In the old days the first name was Sterling Brown, maybe you would say Owen Dodson if you were very serious. Today, I’m ready to look over my shoulder to see who is coming after me. There is still so much work to do.
E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist. He is the board chair for the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank located in D.C. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature from Emory & Henry College in 1996. In 2003 his memoir Fathering Words was selected by DC WE READ for its first book, a city program sponsored by the D.C. Public Libraries. In 2004, Mr. Miller was awarded a Fulbright to visit Israel. Poets & Writers presented him with the 2007 Barnes & Noble/Writers for Writers Award. Mr. Miller is often heard on National Public Radio.