Books by E. Ethelbert
How We Sleep
on the Nights We Don’t Make Love
Fathering Words /
Search of Color Everywhere
First Light: New and Selected Poems /
the Love Poems for Dictators? /
Whispers, Secrets and Promises
The Frontier: African-American Poetry for the 21st
Season of Hunger/Cry of Rain
An Anthology of Washington D.C. Black Poetry
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Ethelbert Miller’s First Memoir
By Julia A. Galbus
In 2000, Washington
D.C. poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller (b. 1950)
quietly published a memoir,
Fathering Words: The Making of An
African American Writer, with little supporting fanfare from
the publisher, St. Martin’s Press. On April 7, 2003, the
Washington D.C. public library system selected Fathering Words for
its second annual DC We Read program, part of a national campaign
that promotes literacy through the reading of a common text that
suits a local community. The choice of Fathering Words
signals a public acknowledgement that this autobiography appeals
to a general audience.
derives its poetic complexity from the multifaceted influences on
Miller’s life. A memoir about family, it draws upon
metaphors from sports, music, and African American history to
reveal the heart of loss and the poetry of healing. Both
Miller’s father, Egberto, and his brother, Richard, conceded to
being trapped for the sake of other family members’ survival.
The narrative is as much a testament to their lives as it is to
the chronicle of Miller’s career.
brother Richard supported Ethelbert’s dream to become a writer
by encouraging him to leave New York and escape the controlling
grasp of their mother. Ethelbert’s father supports his son
in the quiet way of many fathers, by working to pay for the
family’s basic necessities. Both men die before Ethelbert
is forty. The book portrays their mysterious unspoken love
and the loss felt by the younger son. Miller’s mother,
Enid, monitors the family’s behavior and prevents her children
from being lost to the influences of the streets. She fails
to leave family members room to discover themselves.
His sister Marie
offers a counterpoint to the narrator’s, giving the perspective
of a girl and a young woman who can live her mother’s dreams and
who can watch her brothers’ lives develop. Although this memoir
can be read for the literary history and chronology it offers, and
its explanation of networking and choosing writing as a career,
the book offers a number of avenues that transcend a traditional
literary audience by connecting to a cultural milieu and to a
specific, complex family dynamic. Ethelbert Miller is known
for his ability to write from a variety of perspectives in his
poetry. In Fathering Words, Miller imagines a voice for his sister
Marie. He also considers what his parents’ lives were like
before they met and married.
This memoir is
literary and lyrical, a “standard” American story of how a man
came to find and express his voice in spite of circumstances that
might have easily thwarted his development. It is a bildungsroman
keenly aware of the literary tradition of African American writers
but also of ordinary people who manage to piece together a life.
It acknowledges the price of spiritual and artistic poverty in a
household within which a boy could become a writer. Its
power is derived from the poetic language, the depth of emotional
texture, and the persistent mystification of making one’s way.
Loving without lapsing into sentimentality, this is a view from
someone actively engaged with twentieth-century American culture.
How does a person
fashion a life for himself and know he’s made the right choices?
Here’s how it happens for Ethelbert Miller:
One night a poem comes
to me. Words. Revelations. In the beginning I was a small boy
standing on a corner in the Bronx waiting for my father. The sky
is gray. I start praying. Suddenly words are escorting me across
the street. I reach the other side, proud of what I’ve done. I
can write. My prayers are songs. I can make music. I can give
color to the world. This is my life. This is my gift (67).
Writing also has an origin in family history.
Speaking of his father, Miller explains, “I became a writer
because he lived a quiet life and my mother was afraid for us to
speak, to draw attention to ourselves, to walk out in to the world
and perhaps cross a street or a sea as wide as memory” (175).
Langston Hughes’ The Big Sea is one literary father who
spoke to Miller when his literal father was nearly silent.
passages in this book as a series of related stanzas or prose
poems is not misplaced. Images recur to weave the parts
together in a coherent, compressed whole, though some symbols are
whispers, unexplained and haunting. Fathering Words features
a compressed, nonlinear narrative order. Miller draws on a
number of recurring images to unite the vignettes that form each
thematic chapter. The memoir is a quilt, with “parts taken from
the past, present and future” and his brothers and father’s
lives exist as “small patches resting next to each other” like
their graves (27). He writes the memoir to preserve their
stories and to understand them better.
The blues provide another element of secular spirit: “When
you can’t find love, your heart stops and listens to music. You
walk out of your house and you can’t decide which way to go. So
you wait for your ears to lead your eyes. When you hear jazz or
the blues, it doesn’t matter how much money you have . . .”
(34). Music is solace, marker, emblem. Music conveys emotion
when a person has no one to talk to, or when one needs something
external to signify one’s emotions.
The memoir begins with the
loss of a father and a brother: “Sorrow and grief can be found
in that place within the blues where words end and moans begin.
The singer is speechless because the hurt is so bad. The only
thing one can do is ride the song” (2). The songs, singers and
players support the tale. Ella Fitzgerald and Billie
Holiday, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, Miles Davis and Nina
Simone suggest a soundtrack for the memoir.
Rather than a
chronicle of enlightenment, Fathering Words poses
questions, suggesting perhaps that pain may lead to creativity.
How do you know who
will influence your life? Suddenly, a cat walks cross your
path and you think about your luck and maybe that a spirit is
watching over you. Chance, a toss of the dice and you gamble or
maybe you finally realize what faith is. How do you begin to
embrace the unseen? (158)
Family members affect each others’ lives in
countless ways. The mystery of their actions might cause a
person to wonder about his future and to search his past for
omens. Whether one reads this book to unearth literary history, or
for the connection to popular culture, or to consider the ties
between fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, mothers and
husbands, the grief is balanced by moments of humor and hope.
Julia A. “Fathering Words and Honoring Family: E Ethelbert
Miller’s First Memoir." Re-markings. 2.2 (2003) 7-19.
Fathering Words: The Making of an African
American Writer. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.
Julia A. Galbus, Ph.D. University of Southern Indiana
* * * *
The 5th Inning by E. Ethelbert Miller
The 5th Inning is poet and literary
activist E. Ethelbert Miller's second memoir. Coming after
Fathering Words: The Making of An
African American Writer
(published in 2000), this book finds Miller returning to
baseball, the game of his youth, in order to find the
metaphor that will provide the measurement of his life.
Almost 60, he ponders whether his life can now be entered
into the official record books as a success or failure.
The 5th Inning is one man's examination
of personal relationships, depression, love and loss. This
is a story of the individual alone on the pitching mound or
in the batters box. It's a box score filled with
remembrance. It's a combination of baseball and the blues.
To see a clip of Ethelbert reading
The 5th Inning click here:
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update 2 August 2008