As African-American literary institutions such as Callaloo and Cave Canem continue to grow in size and influence, are they really seeing the big, global cultural picture? Literary activist and D.C. icon E. Ethelbert Miller sat down with literature scholar Keith D. Leonard to drop a few eye-openers.

The following interview was conducted in the African American Resource Center in the Founder’s Library at Howard University on July 5, 2007.

KEITH D. LEONARD: You are an editor and an active writer. You have your finger on the pulse. So, there are a couple of things I want to start with, one is the question of which writers are being neglected, especially since the ’60s, which seems related to the blog you sent me about black literary pork, the literary expression that was being prepared for what you called the black picnics and black family reunions. If you don’t mind, let’s start by talking about those two things. Who are some of the folks you think are being neglected.

E. ETHELBERT MILLER: I’ll begin with the writers who are being neglected and talk about why I think these writers are being neglected. I would go back to 1960s and what I observed working closely with one of my mentors, Dr. Stephen Henderson. You know, if we were to pull his book, Understanding the New Black Poetry, we would find what Henderson referred to as the Umbra writers, you will see the Howard poets, who were overlooked by many of the anthologies that came out in the 1970s. So, what happens is that we begin to look at Percy E. Johnston, we begin to look at somebody like Lance Jeffers. Here you have a literary scholar, Henderson, now deceased, looking critically at African-American literature and seeing omissions in terms of poets. I felt that if he was to do an anthology, pulling in the old tradition which many people felt was missing, he’d also pull [current] omissions into this literary tradition. I looked at this [anthology] in terms of people that Henderson restored.

I would have to be witness to people who I personally knew felt they were overlooked. Let me look at a writer, not a poet but critic: here’s Howard University and many people, for example, immediately talk about Sterling Brown. I was close to Sterling Brown, but I was closer to Arthur P. Davis. I recall one day Arthur P. Davis, so much the gentleman, but for one little moment you could see something bothering him. I remember I was in his office and there was another event honoring Sterling Brown, and he said, “Sterling hasn’t been overlooked. I’ve been overlooked.” And he just sat there for a little moment. I loved Arthur P. When he had his office on campus, I would check on him. I looked at the books he produced. He had his hands on African-American literature and was a key scholar, in terms of From the Dark Tower, Cavalcade, and books like that which were pretty much his lifetime work. But, you know, maybe this is what happens to critics. They wind up being overlooked. I think also of Julian Mayfield, who was here. Many people did not know the full range of his work. This was a man who touched Africa, Guyana . . . he was multi-talented. When we talk about African-American film, we should begin with one of the first blaxploitation films, Uptight—key role, Julian Mayfield. Here is a man that, when he was let go from Howard University, I sat in a car in front of this library, and he had tears coming out of his eyes. And here was a university letting him go. I felt I learned something about the overlooked writer. And then let me add a person who has my name, May Miller. If it was not for Ahmos Zu-Bolton—and I would now put him down as another overlooked writer (now deceased)—May Miller would not be known to many of us in D.C. Ahmos was publishing May Miller’s poetry when he was in California and when he came here in ’74, he told me about her. I don’t think May Miller had read on Howard University’s campus until he invited her here.

I think in terms of the writers who are overlooked, I can just go down a list. I would also add Léon Damas. Now we could say, “How can he be overlooked? He is one of the fathers of Negritude.” Overlooked here in this city! Overlooked here on this campus! And I remember Henderson saying, here’s Damas walking across campus and no one knows who he is. We as scholars and writers always have to bear witness to those people in terms of their careers, making sure that they are acknowledged. Gaston Neal was overlooked, back in the early ’80s when we had these national African-American writers’ conferences. Nobody put Gaston Neal on a panel and he’s right here. Gaston would attend because he was a friend of Baraka and others who were on one of the panels.

What am I leading up to in terms of answering your question, in terms of why we have so many overlooked writers? We have to look, in 2007, at what has happened in terms of the institutionalizing of African-American literature, publications like Callaloo, organizations like Cave Canem. If I was looking back at African-American history—say it was 2060 and I was looking back at 2007—I would probably overlook any African-American poet that wasn’t in Cave Canem. I also give credit to the genius of African-American literature right now. I think that we can glorify the Harlem Renaissance, but I don’t think that they can go up against the writers today. Just like I think Tiger Woods is playing better golf than Lee Elder. You just can’t go up against some of the individuals today. I mean Langston’s wonderful, Countee’s wonderful, but when you look at the intellectual range of the some of the Elizabeth Alexanders—first of all, their training, their education, has prepared them to pursue a greater level of excellence, and that’s how it should be. And so what happens? The success of some of these organizations—the Hurston/Wright Foundation—now will be a way in which, when people look back, they’ll look at these organizations. They’ll look at these magazines. If you are not part of that, see, you are left out.

Now we know how someone could be left out. If I wasn’t knowledgeable of the Beat scene, I could leave out Ted Joans. I could forget totally about Bob Kaufman, unless somebody comes along and discovers Bob Kaufman. And so what happens? We could ask ourselves, at this time, in 2007, what African-American writer, male or female, not doing spoken word, but doing really good work, who is not even applying to Cave Canem, what happens to his or her work?

LEONARD: That’s a good question.

MILLER: I mean, if they are living in Missouri, Oklahoma, or Nevada—I’ll just give you the geographical thing—they are going to be overlooked. You see? Unless they win American Idol or something. What’s going to happen? No one is going to know their work. Because of the network that is now put in place, it is going to keep them out. They would have to emerge with some white writer praising them the way you saw Updike doing a review of Colson [Whitehead] in the New Yorker. If you are not coming through these channels, you are going to be overlooked.

The problem that’s happening right now, especially in African-American literature, and we can use poetry as an example, the critical development is lagging. You take Lorenzo Thomas and A. L. Nielsen, that’s like taking Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Dwayne Wade and Shaq, you know what I mean? You got two leading scorers who are doing a lot of scoring for poetry. That’s missing. The poets themselves have to provide the essays like they did in the 1960s. The three people I would look at—Elizabeth Alexander, Harryette Mullen, and Kalamu ya Salaam. I would pick those three in terms of essays.

LEONARD: Given these issues, one of the things that Kyle wanted me to make sure to ask you was this: You are an editor and an activist and what is the relationship between editing and activism? Where does the editing stop and the activism begin?

MILLER: I am a literary activist, Keith. So it’s the three Ps. The first p is the production of literature. I produce. I write. I have my blog E-Notes now, which I do more than even writing poetry. I have to write. So that’s the first thing.

The second p is promotion. I’ll give you an example of what I am doing now. At Bennington, even though I am no longer a part of the program, What do I promote? I promote the annual Miller Classic. I fund a softball game, a contest between poets and fiction writers. So, I am promoting writers and I promote the Bennington program. That gives me a link. I take the sports approach—I am always looking for new writers just as if I were working for the Orioles, I would be developing their pitching staff in the minor leagues. I read grant proposals and stuff to promote individuals and help advance the field.

And then the third p is the most important in literary activism: preservation—the saving of letters, making sure writers have archives. That’s key, making sure that when you walk down the street, you know what writer lived here. So if you went from here over to Sterling Brown’s house, there is a plaque. I am responsible for that with a few others. You know that this house at 1222 Kearney Street was Daisy and Sterling Brown’s home. I was just down in Jacksonville and was asking how do we document James Weldon Johnson’s presence there.

I feel I have done a very good job with June Jordan’s letters. I can go right here online and I can show you all the letters that June wrote me that is in deposit at the University of Minnesota. I work very closely with the Givens Collection [of African American Literature, Special Collections and Rare Books]. I gave them June’s letters and all of my Charles Johnson correspondence. I gave them my Baraka stuff. I am working with George Washington University to help build their literary archive. I gave them eight boxes of personal items this past year. Hopefully, what this will do is interface with other people’s collections. I am encouraging other people to work with the librarians of GW which means now if you came along and you were doing something on maybe May Miller or something on the literary history of Washington, it’s all there, especially the correspondence. One could spend a year just at one institution. I think that’s very very important. Preservation is key.

Now with Poet Lore magazine—and I’ll give you this copy right here—this brings me back to what I was doing when Ahmos Zu-Bolton came through here with HooDoo magazine. You know, Ahmos was the first black person I met who introduced himself as a publisher. He helped me develop a career in publishing. I was coordinating the Ascension series and I was dealing with promoting people because there was no publishing. I would help writers create an audience through the sponsorship of readings. But when Ahmos and I came together, we fused our talents so we could hear somebody reading and then we could publish their work in HooDoo magazine.

Now, with Poet Lore, what I have finally been able to do is sort of put myself back out as an editor. People know Poet Lore magazine, but they really don’t know I am an editor.

LEONARD: You mentioned before how institutions like Callaloo and Cave Canem will determine who gets remembered. What can they do in terms of preservation?

MILLER: Callaloo does what Coca-Cola does, it continues to put out its product. [laughter] You know what I’m saying? What happens—I am not going to open up a bottling company and try to compete with Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola is important. I say that in terms of what’s happening in African-American culture. I am not going to compete with Wynton Marsalis. Now, is Wynton Marsalis advancing jazz? I don’t think so. Is Wynton Marsalis a key custodian of jazz? Yes. I don’t look for the next Wynton Marsalis album to be groundbreaking, but I do look for Wynton Marsalis, who is a master teacher, to help define jazz and to keep jazz alive. And then by merging with an institutional base, he can do that. That’s the key thing.

So if you ask what Callaloo should do, first I would say that Callaloo would have to define itself in terms of what it is. I don’t think it is a magazine. Let me give you an example of this—give you a little sci-fi connection. If we took Callaloo magazine and we look at it, not in terms of the early issues but if we look at them now, they are very big. They’re almost blocks. So if you took all of the Callaloo magazines and put them together you could create a cube. It’s a nice big cube. Now in the cube is a phenomenal amount of work. It’s unbelievable! You could take one cube—this is what I mean to show you what you could do with it—take one cube, made up of all the Callaloos and you take the cube and place the cubes in certain geographical locations. A cube of Callaloo would be in the Middle East, maybe in Saudi Arabia at a key institution. Let’s put another cube in Turkey, in tribute to James Baldwin. Because of technology, I can access the cube from anywhere, but the actual cube could be distributed more widely.

You now begin to say, OK, we’ve got this stuff, now let’s begin to make sure it gets into curriculums. Let’s look at these issues—what’s missing? What can we now build on? Also, how does all this cultural stuff guide us politically? If you place these cubes in key institutions around the world, it could be fantastic. A light should come on.

Institutions like Callaloo have to link with certain countries. It has to link with certain organizations, and I’ll give you two. They have to link with China, and a way to do that might be through Afaa Michael Weaver who is dealing with Taiwan right now, and he’s learning Chinese. Michael don’t wanna come back [laughter]. He’s right outside the mainland. Through someone like Weaver, what would happen is scholars like yourself and Charles Rowell would go and lay the foundation with China. The Chinese would redo all the Callaloos for example and make them available in different languages and export them to Africa. See, we would take all this stuff, take it to China and then to Africa. And could you imagine young Africans from the North to the South—all of Africa—they all would have access to it.

LEONARD: And so it becomes more like an archive than magazine?

MILLER: Right, but more than an archive. Because, see, what happens, you’re creating documents. It’s not a magazine I read from cover to cover. It’s a magazine that if, for example, this were the ’50s and we were saying, “OK, how do we prepare for nuclear war?” we would stockpile Callaloos along with our ravioli [laughter] and bottled water. And what are we saying? You know, if you had all the Callaloos right now, that’s all you need. That will hold you forever. If you have it as a cube, and you were abducted by aliens and you had to reproduce your black culture, you could do it with this cube. Everything would be there.

That’s why I would challenge Charles Rowell face-to-face: I don’t think he knows what he is doing. And the reason why I say this is because Charles and I had long conversation when I was at Emory & Henry College. I told Charles when I was at Emory & Henry, “It’s not a magazine.” It has to be a presence. You have to go out here and see Callaloo caps and t-shirts and those types of things. And, you see, Charles realized that. Charles—when he sees something, he will run with it. Is Charles a visionary? I don’t know. I think Charles Rowell’s legacy is going be like Booker T. Washington’s.

Look at Callaloo and look at its sister publications. There used to be three. People may not want to talk about that. There were three magazines—HooDoo, Obsidian, and Callaloo. Three magazines with overlapping people. A person you would see overlapping the three of them a Jerry Ward. But you know that if you go to Callaloo and bring Tom Dent back as a ghost, like the ghost of New Orleans, Tom Dent will probably disagree with what Callaloo magazine is. Because, when it was first created, it filled this tremendous void in terms of the Southern voice. It was a Southern magazine. Callaloo came into existence because the Black Arts Movement was primarily a Northern phenomenon. So the overlooked people—Pinkie Gordon Lane, Julia Fields . . . I can go down the list of black Southern writers overlooked during the period, those we know were overlooked.

I gave a talk at a National Writers Conference right here [at Howard University]. Everybody asked me was I still alive the next day. I lambasted all the magazines. And they were furious with me. And what did I say about Callaloo? I said it set itself up to be a Southern magazine and isn’t even publishing Southern writers. Hadn’t seen a pot of greens. Aren’t even from the South. I said that jokingly but what I realize looking back is I was seeing a magazine morphing into something. And what happened is if you give a person—and I love Charles—an opportunity to build something from the partnership with institutional support and then bring in [Robert] Hemenway—you bring in Hemenway, because he is a key, helping Callaloo get through—then what happens, it survives. And that’s why Callaloo did better than Obsidian, better than HooDoo. With those magazines, when you look at their beginnings, people didn’t know what they were doing compared to how it is now. Things are successful, but what are we really doing? If, for example, one was to say what’s the next issue to do? Now I got a feeling that the same way people cook callaloo, you can throw anything into it. But that’s not scientific and that’s not working towards the future.

If I have an institution now like Callaloo and I am conscious of what I am doing and I am changing things globally, I have to be a lot more systematic. This is going to sound mystical—you could be putting things back together. All of a sudden now, for example, the word that would disappear from the pages of Callaloo would be the Diaspora because it no longer exists, because you have taken what was dispersed and you have brought it back together. And so the word diaspora should not appear anymore. The Diaspora is no longer part of the vocabulary. Buy if you remove that now, what kind of issues are you doing in the future? I don’t think people know how to handle the cube, the tradition.

LEONARD: People don’t know how to handle the tradition?

MILLER: I’ll give you an example. I’ll say publicly right now that African-American music is killing black people. But it’s not just the music. It is the very essence of who we are. And you see, what happens: you cannot—here is where the critics are wrong—you cannot justify this [violence and hatred in the music]. You cannot say this goes back to the tradition. This is not part of the tradition. It is not part of your tradition. Don’t link it and don’t claim it. It is not part of your tradition. You know, for example, you could not go out here and tell someone “Imma wash your mouth out with soap!” You know you can’t do that anymore. And you know, growing up, that when you heard those words, they struck a particular chord, a note that you heard, a boundary or something that established a certain moral principle to guide you. You did not use certain words because you knew what those words meant. You see? Or when you did use those words, you knew what those words meant. You might see your uncle or grandfather—one of the elders—and something happens and you hear them curse about maybe what the white people did to the church. And you understood then what that word meant. You see? And so what happened: for those of us preserving the traditions, to understand this particular point now, we have to defend the language and traditions, and we have not defended them well.

LEONARD: And so, one of the things our literary and cultural institutions can do for the future is defend the tradition by saying things, like your critique of music, that people don’t want to hear?

MILLER: Right. If the magazines do not do that, if the magazines do not challenge, do not piss off, if the magazines do not create some sort of article that everybody is discussing like somebody’s new movie, then the magazines are not doing their job. If the magazines are not going to be banned, they’re not doing their job. In that case, it is not cutting edge. If I can take a black literary magazine right now and the Taliban won’t ban it, then we aren’t doing our job.

[END PART ONE]