Black & Universal: Meeting E. Ethelbert Miller
Artist Kara Walker installs her work “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (photo: Cameron Wittig/Walker Art Center)

I’ve heard E. Ethelbert Miller’s essays and short interviews on Weekend Edition Sunday and always learned something new. He has been at Howard University, first as an undergraduate, since it was a crucible of Black Power in the late 1960s. I’ve heard him observe political and cultural events — like the election of Barack Obama as president — through a fascinating lens, from that vantage point, and also from his vantage point as a poet, a “literary activist.” And I wondered what would happen if I sat down with him for a whole hour to explore the nexus of the political, the artistic, and the spiritual in the dramatic trajectory of black history over the last half century — a trajectory he has both been shaped by and has shaped.

The result is an unpredictable, playful, and challenging program. For starters, he is not eager to engage in a head-on discussion of Obama and race — the discussion many in our culture have both longed for, and not found a way to have, throughout his candidacy and now his presidency. For E. Ethelbert Miller, Obama’s election says interesting things about how white people in the U.S. have changed. He does not buy the language of a “post-racial society.” Yet he sees that both Barack and Michele Obama have made a lasting impact on global cultural associations between blackness, elegance, excellence, and beauty. And in the long run, he seems to feel, that may be more than enough, for now.

We hear the trumpet of Miles Davis and the saxophone of John Coltrane as Miller guides us in an entertaining, if not linear, way through the evolution of what he calls “blackness” in the last half century. His words and the sounds of this music join the poetry of Lucille Clifton “won’t you celebrate with me”) and the prose of Buddhist novelist Charles Johnson and Muslim activist Malcolm X to evoke the eclectic range of influences that nourished the black consciousness that first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Our cultural memory has taken in some of these influences and forgotten much of the rest, though they have all continued to ferment in E. Ethelbert Miller’s being and in the diverse universe he inhabits.

My Imagination, My Language by E. Ethelbert MillerHe likes to imagine a healing role for African-American Muslims, for example, in the global encounter between Islam and the West in this century. He also suggests that, in this globalized world, the noun/adjective “African American” is too small. His own heritage is West Indian, and the term African American in fact obscures the far-flung immigrant story inside the story of race in the U.S. alone. But in using the word “blackness” — which culturally might seem a reversal — E. Ethelbert Miller is talking about much more than the color of one’s skin. He is talking about “the color of ideas.”

Listen for yourself, and enjoy.

Also, I recommend reading Miller’s “My Language, My Imagination.” It’s a beautiful essay based on a speech he delivered on the campus of Western Oregon University in 1998. It is a vivid, personal, concise, and energizing introduction to the turning points and inner dynamics of African-American life in our time. And it is terrific background for going on to read Miller’s memoirs — especially his first, Fathering Words — and his poetry.


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