E. Ethelbert Miller — Black & Universal
February 11, 2010

A poet and self-described literary activist, E. Ethelbert Miller attended Howard University in 1968 — the age in which Black Power was finding its voice. He has remained there ever since, observing and making sense of the trajectory of black history and culture. He pushes at the parameters within which mainstream America routinely sees what he calls "blackness."

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Selected Readings

"My Language, My Imagination: The Politics of Poetry"

Miller's essay on the politics of poetry.

"Langston's Buddha Smile"

A short reflection from Miller on the Harlem Renaissance writer's gentle demeanor.

An Excerpt from Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing

A selection from Charles Johnson's book of essays on Buddhism and writing.

Selected Poems

Poetry by E. Ethelbert Miller

We asked E. Ethelbert Miller to share some of his favorite poems. With accompanying text, you can listen to him recite several of those poems.

Pertinent Posts from the On Being Blog

1

A retired butler at the White House misses the chance to tell his Helene about the first black man bound for the Oval Office.

The process of giving, taking, receiving a name holds deep meaning. Miller's story about the evolution of his own name, and that of his children. Tell us yours.

1

How we arrived at choosing the late Lucille Clifton's "won't you celebrate with me" — with video.

1

Replace notes with words and you might say that reading Miller is similar to Mingus "thinking on a piano."

A moving performance of Frederick Douglass' "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro" in Howard Zinn's history roadshow.

About the Image

Artist Kara Walker installs her work "My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love" at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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Comments

I enjoyed this interview. I am a Howard University graduate who arrived in DC from South Carolina. Howard helped to color my world in that people were no longer just Black or White. I understand Miller's rationale that Black is universal because of the diversity of ethnicities/races that you encounter in DC. I did an exchange to UC Berkeley during my junior year and became familiar with Asian perspectives. That experience informed me that many subcultures in America have the same ideas, concerns, goals, etc. I'll continue to explore "the color of ideas" as I pursue international work/ministry.

I was surprised that you did not ask Mr. Miller about the increasing disparity within the black community between middle class blacks and lower class blacks as evidenced by recent national surveys (Pew, for example). I would think the definition of "Blackness" may differ among these two groups.

I am a regular listener to your show which consistently sets a new record for intellectual dishonesty. It's compelling in the same way passing a car wreck is. On your show with Mr. E. Ethelbert Miller I was not surprised that you read that famous passage from Malcolm X in which he reached an epiphany about racism. Of course you ignore the point that IN TRHE SAME SENTENCE it says that religious bigotry is the way to eliminate racial bigotry. In the same breath you bring up Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan without mentioning their role in murdering Malcolm X. I get the feeling that if you had Hitler on your show you would spend the time discussing his watercolors.

Angela Davis spoke here in Grand Rapids on Weds night and she was so spell-binding and inspiring. I think she would be a wonderful person to feature on SOF. Her last statement was, "Keep an open mind and a radical spirit." Her message was that we, the collective people, are the ones who bring liberation from oppression, and as we realize our responsibility and our capability, we will move more quickly to relieve the suffering that results from oppression. (my interpretation) Anyway, I am just trying to bring into focus how she fits into the purview of your broadcast. D. Stark

Ideas can be expressed in many forms, many types of languages. This program addressed spoken and written English and jazz. If I could say what I feel in jazz it would sound like Coltrane's outrage in a song like "Alabama". To say it in words, it's this: I can't see any value in anyone, black, white, blue or green, taking pride in identification with ancient Egypt or those monuments to slavery, the pyramids. It was a culture of slavery. Next I detest the presumption that Muslims in the Middle East are oppressed, and the unspoken subtext, that Israel is the oppressor. Next I detest the idea that Louis Farrakhan is anything but a racist thug. Next I don't like hearing phrases like "you know" and "in terms of" thrown into statements hundreds of times an hour. Next has Mr. Miller ever heard of Darfur where Arab Muslims are oppressing, killing, raping black Africans? Finally Ms. Tippett should understand that jazz isn't random or disjointed or pointless, it is quite focussed, logical, and meaningful. Cliches and empty phrases that mean nothing are not much appreciated. Sorry to be brutal but it's the truth as I know it.

Ms. Tippett,

I was incredibly moved by your interview today with E. Ethelbert Miller. As a Chicano fiction writer and poet who converted to Judaism over twenty years ago, I often explore and struggle with religious and ethnic identity through my writing. For this reason, Mr. Miller's thoughtful and eloquent opinions resonated greatly with me. Thank you for having such fine guests on your show and for the respect you demonstrate through your quetions and observations.

Best,

Daniel A. Olivas
West Hills, CA
www.danielolivas.com

Being black is a grace. It provides for, if one desires it, a distinctive lens through which to experience the world, to experience being American. What history, what creativity! I found my way into Catholic Communion because I caught an amazing glimpse (and yes, just a glimpse) at what it might mean to be a black Catholic. Blackness, i.e. this cultural, historical particularity, provides a great challenge and a cherished gift. I struggle sometimes with knowing how to preserve the gift while being freed of the predefined molds that stifle so many young women and men.

Nevertheless Jesuit spirituality and black religion/spirituality together provide for an identity that continues to amaze and puzzle me as people bring themselves to me as minister and fellow companion of Jesus. It is an experience of the Paschal Mystery, centered on the opaque nature, the gritty, piercing love of the Cross. I could never ignore being black or black being; I would be the first to suffer. I continue to learn from Christ what it means to accept oneself with all that comes with being the self that one has been given to be. In fact, it is the only one, that is, the only true self that can love and suffer with authentic joy for the salvation of the world. Being black? What else could I ever be?

Miller's phrase, ‘…to think about blackness. Not the color of my skin but the color of ideas’ means to me that all people, if they permit themselves, can benefit from acknowledging the cultural, social, and global impact of contributions made by people of color based on the contributor's talent, perspectives, ideas, body of work, worldview and experiences.

For example, I grew up in the rural south. There were unspoken rules of engagement between Black people and White people. This was a common experience by both groups within one community, but each group had different perspectives and expectations.

One mutual experience and expectation in this community was, on Friday night during the high school football season bigotry, class-ism, racism, and other ills were magically and subconsciously forgotten. Why? because a larger and mutual enemy had arrived on the scene... the opposing football team. Community members rooted for the HOME team. Black and White shouted together in one voice of support, rather than with two opposing voices against one another. The subconscious acknowledgment was, "this is our team, these are our boys."

Descriptions were heard in the stands like that fella is super fast, number seventy-one is a man-child he's so big, that kid can catch a bullet. The contribution of these Black teenagers was being acknowledged by Whites, not because of their skin color. In this case athletic ability was the recognition factor because it was this ability, of these individuals, which produced winning teams and community pride.

When the human race pulls together in community around ideas, e.g. producing a winning team, then we can see the value of each contributor. Then we can relate to one another with mutual respect and appreciation.

Black and Universal with E. Ethelbert Miller really put Obama's presidency into a different light for me. I feel as though I'm surrounded by people who think that upon Obama becoming President, things like racial inequalities are going to start dissolving. Although his achievements are definitely great I hope that people really aren't under this impression. He may be a big symbol for black society but he doesn't show that the inequalities aren’t present anymore.
As Miller pointed out "it's like using a ruler as the wrong measurement." Obama doesn't really represent a post-racial society, but more that white people in the United States have changed. That Obama isn't the way to measure black advancements in society but rather the changes in white people. I loved it when Miller said that if he turns out to be a bad President then it will be because he wasn't qualified, not because he's black. And I whole heartedly agree with this. We need to stop viewing people as they are just by the color of the skin. Just because the President is black doesn’t make him any different than any other President.

Millers view of blackness Matthew Lewis Feb 14, 2010 11:45 PM -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- I did think that Miller had some very interesting ideas, the best might be that religion is going to be the next big division, not race. I can see that happening, and it worries me, how do you settle a debate when no one can be proved right or wrong? I do think he underestimates the power and necessity of stereotyping in our culture. not all assumptions are bad, sometimes we don't have time to evaluate everything or everyone on their every merit. while i think he was somewhat right about Obama, he said if his presidency is terrible it wouldn't affect race relations. while I don't think it will affect directly race alone, but many more young people are following his decisions, and seeing what type of policies he supports. As more young people learn about Obama, they also learn about his opposition, he has given a face to liberals, and conservatives. They say that democrats get most of the black, and hispanic votes? So if Obama doesn't please that demographic (i don't know if he will be able to or not) but if he doesn't, that might shift how a racial group votes in the future? I was annoyed when he said that even if his policies are terrible, "he looks good doing it"(as if that should make it ok for any president to do a poor job) and that michelle will do a great job of diverting attention from the policies with her beauty?(like thats a good thing) I have seen the psychology studies that show the way children think about their own beauty based on what they see potrade in the media. So I hope Michelle being praised for her appearance helps those kindergarten kids, I just hope Miller wasn't serious about the policy stuff. Overall it was a very interesting clip, I wish they had dug deeper into any one of the topics instead of just commenting on something the switching to another topic. Thanks for another wonderful topic, Matt Big Lake, MN

My stepmother was a classical musician who got a job at NC Central University. Her students weren't usually enthusiastic about classical music. It was frustrating. She was called names for being white. But she was able to hear lectures by John Hope Franklin. She retired and after my father died at 97 her dementia emerged. She developed a fascination with visual art. I told her, "You know. Some people think Jazz is America's classical music." She smiled. "I suppose it is!" Dementia can liberate!

Voices on the Radio

is Director of the Afro-American Studies Resource Center at Howard University and author of two memoirs and many books of poetry.

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Host/Producer: Krista Tippett

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