In the second half [read part one] of “Visionary Literature,” literature scholar Keith Leonard and poet/literary activist Ethelbert Miller conclude by bringing the conversation home (literally D.C.) concerning the increasingly slippery nature of “black” identity and the need for fostering more apprenticeship and speaking of truth to power among contemporary writers.

This is the second part of an interview conducted in the African-American Resource Center in the Founder’s Library at Howard University on July 5, 2007.

KEITH D. LEONARD: You edited Beyond the Frontier: African-American Poetry for the Twenty-First Century. Was there a political edge to that? Did you say something people did not want to hear?

E. ETHELBERT MILLER: Yeah, I edited that book and I will never do another anthology again [laughter]. I only edited that book to do two things. One: to predict who were the writers to watch in the next couple of years. And looking at those writers, everybody from A. Van Jordan to other people in there, I think I did a good job. Many people in there have won a number of awards or their careers have taken off.

Also, in that book of African-American writers, there is a poem by Lori Tsang who is Chinese, who was, shall we say, accepted by Cave Canem and then kicked out. So because she sat right here talking about that, I included her.

I felt that this was a way for us to look at the future. This is a way, I think, in terms of how we handle issues of race and multiculturalism—we have to create these institutions that now redefine what blackness is. And, to me, Lori was black because Lori went to Howard University, she had things on her resume that other people didn’t have, and she was writing these poems about Malcolm X! I wanted to make sure there’s a place for Lori Tsang in the black community.

LEONARD: So do you have a way of characterizing what defines black poetry in the twenty-first century?

MILLER: To say that, coming a few days after the Supreme Court decision where they want us to be no longer colorblind about anything, we are at a point now where blackness has to be looked at differently. I won’t say that it’s not important, but you can see in the last couple of days politically with Booker in Newark and Fenty in D.C. being forced to defend their administrations in terms of the color of it. I look at that and wonder what’s happening culturally. Well I can be corresponding with people and their electronic skin is more important. I don’t know what color they are. Well how do we know, and is it that important? If we were in England, many “black” people are from Pakistan and India. So we have to make sure our definition of blackness coincides with gravity. If it’s black over here, it’s gotta be black over there or else it doesn’t make any sense. Black people here in the U.S.A. are trying to hold onto their own form of blackness which I think is obsolete.

LEONARD: And what’s that? What is it that they are holding onto?

MILLER: Well, what happens is that they hold on to what it means to be black, but just simply black American. See they are just holding onto that. They can’t look at baseball and realize there’s still a very strong black presence. It’s just that every black person doesn’t speak English. You see what I’m saying? And what happens, we are falling behind. Or you’ll be on a bus and you’ll see a black person upset because someone’s not speaking English. So why don’t you speak Spanish? What’s that about? He speaks English! We’re holding on, you know? We’re from South Carolina or someplace like that, and we might as well be white Americans, being very Eurocentric: “Why don’t they speak English?” Instead, we could be saying, “I should be learning some Portuguese because I’m a person of the twenty-first century.” But at the same time, being true to our traditions and everything. We have to make sure that we do not suffer historical erasure or amnesia, that we know that we come from this tradition and we always honor and protect it. But could we be locked in it, you see? Going back to the cube thing, I want to hold the cube. I don’t want to be in the cube [laughter]. I want to be able to say, “OK, this is my tradition,” but I don’t want to be in there and this is all I see because that’s not what it is about. It’s a glorious tradition, and it’s about being human.

Harryette Mullen’s essay dealing with visionary literature is like following Sun-Ra because she is onto something there that I think others can begin to tap into. It changes our whole way of looking when she says, “Here’s Nat Turner, he gets his signs, he’s reading the stars.” It sees text in places where we have not seen texts. Today, our music is mundane. Our music is about looking at somebody’s butt. Our music is not uplifting. Even in the darkest days of slavery, when our feet were bound, we’d get our little thing going. So when you look at those African dances, they start going, they bring in the orishas and everything. Slavery prevented us from dancing freely, so the best we could do was shuffle. People could envision spiritual texts. Their bodies were bound, but their music was uplifting. If you look at us after slavery and reconstruction, whether it is a photo or anything, this is us looking up. That upward, eye on the sparrow, that type of Aaron Douglass stuff . . .

LEONARD: Yeah, I was just thinking about Aaron Douglass . . .

MILLER: You see what I am saying? It’s the light glowing around.

LEONARD: This commentary reminds me of the literary pork that we mentioned earlier. What did you mean by that?

MILLER: Yeah. A lot of stuff. And this is where the critics come in. When you sat down, you were talking about your course on black love—when you teach that you have a healthy course. If I took your class, even if we have a disagreement about texts or whatever, I know that it’s a healthy class. If I was an old person, I would say you got your good food, your vegetables, you know? I leave the class and I am healthier. I have a better understanding of ideas. No different than if we were doing weightlifting or swimming.

I had a copy of the latest Vibe with 50 Cent on the cover. So I am looking through the Vibe because I am always looking for information and I said, “No, I am not taking this up to Howard. This is an institution of higher learning,” you know? I don’t want somebody here to sit here and read this. You know what I’m saying? Pork comes from a tradition of foods and stuff, but is it healthy for us? Those are the things we have to ask because we look at things like Katrina. We could ask ourselves how many black people may have survived if they were one hundred fifty pounds lighter. Maybe a child could have lifted his grandmother on up to safety, but she was three hundred pounds. What could he do?

LEONARD: Talk about something nobody wants to hear!

MILLER: Right! Right! How many people died because they couldn’t get their insulin, you know, their medication? All of what we know is wonderful in terms of food, but all of that food is not healthy for us. What we have to look at is how many people died because of our own health habits. But we have to have critics to come in. It’s for a Howard University to say, “This is wrong! There’s FEMA, this, and that, but you ain’t eating right.” You have to hear that. Or the same way, for example—and this is where black cultural and critical institutions come in—something needs to be done in terms of mental health. An examination of black texts-whether it’s Gayl Jones’ stuff or whatever—but looking at black mental health issues in African-American literature.

LEONARD: Dealing with the crazy negro . . .

MILLER: Oh sure! The crazy nigga! [laughter] If you look at D.C., OK, this is what’s happening here. With this transformation culturally and politically, you see black people becoming mentally ill. OK. At first it is a sense of loss, sadness and displacement and then it turns into anger and rage. And, you see, a lot of our people, they’re hurt. They see white people walking around where they weren’t walking around before and they’re hurt. When you see this rudeness, they’re hurt. I maintain that what you have to ask is: which is more detrimental, to be taken out in slavery and removed from your land, or colonization in which your land is taken from you? What’s the difference? You can have a conference on that. I think that the land being taken away from you is much more hurtful and much more detrimental. We’re dealing with a landscape identity. If I take you out Africa, you can rationalize that by looking forward. You can reinvent yourself. But if I just take your land, if you are standing there and it’s not yours anymore, now comes certain mental health issues.

I say that during that period of time in which we saw segregation being overthrown, white people went crazy. Not racist–just take the word and put it aside. I think they became mentally crazy. The world changed, it got flipped up, and they didn’t know how to cope. What happens is that the bombing of the church is rage. You see? They just went crazy. I can project that there will be an incident where somebody will shoot up some people. I can go on record as saying that some young kid who was eight years old, surviving Katrina, maybe saw his family washed away, might be up on some rooftop shooting X number of people when he is twenty. I can say that, based on what we know.

And somebody will say, “How can you say that?” Let’s look at profiles of many caught Muslim terrorists, especially ones in England. You will notice something interesting in their bio notes or in the comments that they make: many of them went to Bosnia. The same way, many people say that coming out of the camps, the Palestinians and the first Intifada. The camps fueled them. Bosnia seems to be key. Even the kid who was shooting up people in Utah—somebody says, “Where did he come from?” Well, what did he see when he was small? We don’t want to ask these other questions, you see? You can expect some black person, years later, is going to shoot up a bunch of people. The same way we know that there is a generation of African-American kids who don’t want to swim. They don’t want to be around water because they are terrified. If anybody were to bring me in to testify against dog parks in D.C., I would because my son got chased by dogs when his ball ran out into the only dog park, which is Pierce Mill Park, and he’s been terrorized since then. Here’s my son, terrorized by dogs because of what happened when he was small. So, I’m looking at making those projections coming out of New Orleans.

This is what writers have to do. Let’s take racism out of the equation for a moment.

LEONARD: Asking new questions.

MILLER: Asking new questions. It’s almost like you make probes. You say, “What if?” You see, I’m one of the few African Americans associated with a think tank. If you spent time sitting next to Marcus Raskin, who is the founder of the Institute for Policy Studies—that’s like sitting next to Einstein. And what you realize is that you are dealing with a philosopher and master teacher. I’m at the point now that I am just taking notes, because I wasn’t aware of it before. I realize what I am doing in these other areas—predicting political and legal changes. And D.C. is so wide-open because what you see happening is this transformation culturally in terms of issues of black and white.

I think that we will have to really to look at Islam, a big examination of Islam. What would have to be looked at to make it different from all of these other studies of Islam? It would have to look at the issues of modernity and modernism and all of that, and whether African-American people play a key role in the future of Islam. We go back to Malcolm’s Autobiography and he’s talking about what would happen with just a little bit of Islam, if the genie is let out. But Malcolm also knew that sometimes—this is your religion—you’ve got to put that in the closet. He was able to see the two. Most people can’t. But looking toward the future issue, see?

Now, if a publication like Callaloo did such issue well, Charles Rowell would be like Salman Rushdie-he can’t come out of Texas [laughter], because there will be something in there that somebody—it might be in Indonesia—will be upset by. But it’s doing its job. It engaged the world in this dialogue. And we know it is not about the color line—it’s about religion. The people who haven’t gotten it yet are the people in charge of national security. They haven’t gotten it. They look at the guys with Muslim features. But what is that? You got the old line, “He looks like an Arab.” Come on! Now we are concerned about our medical doctors. First they have us take off our shoes. Now it’s medical doctors. Come on! But if your organization or publication is progressive, you are terrorizing the literary and cultural landscape. If you are not terrorizing that landscape, you are not doing your job.

LEONARD: Art and politics again . . .

MILLER: I remember June Jordan telling me something when we were at a conference in Philly many years ago. June was moderating a panel. She had a way of repeating stuff like Malcolm X: “Did you . . . did you hear what they said? Did you hear what they said?” She would repeat it for them. And basically she was stunned by all these young writers, all wanting to get published, talking about themselves but no one had addressed any social or political issue. The work is technically brilliant, but what I feel when I look across this country right now, in terms of African-American writers-with the war on, the assault against civil liberties, the whole gamut—I can’t find a African-American writer, one that I can think of, who is defending us against that. Now I see that Doctorow spoke out against the war. I can’t immediately go to any African-American writer who has spoken out against the war in such a way that he or she moved an audience. If you notice that all the national protests that we have had against the war, there hasn’t been to my knowledge any African-American writer who sort of captures that. I am subtracting someone like a Cornel West because he’s gonna sign petitions. I’m talking about someone who is like Denise Levertov, a poet who all of a sudden embodies the spirit of this movement. If not, then there is something missing.

The writers who we glorify now are like Yusef Komunyakaa. Yusef is quiet, but I don’t see Yusef speaking out. If we use him as a model, people say, “I want to write like Yusef Komunyakaa,” but where’s the politics? The politics might still come from someone like Sonia Sanchez, but she is like Baraka. We admire Sonia and Baraka because they came out of the Black Arts Movement. But where’s the apprenticeship? And that’s the word to use: apprenticeship. Not model, not workshop, apprenticeship. The difference between an apprenticeship and a workshop is that I will sit here and take only one person. You may watch me do something and then we would do something together. And every time I would correct it, but we would do it together. We might be making a wall together. You’re standing and I’m standing and we’re talking and stuff like that. I don’t see anybody workshopping their poems that way. Now you have people claiming, “That’s my student,” “That’s my teacher,” but that’s from a workshop. That’s not an apprenticeship. So if we put that word in, we have a different type of relationship. In the future, for us to produce these new type of writers, they will have to come out of a situation where there’s an apprenticeship that’s taken place.

LEONARD: And how would the African-American institutions—like the “cube” of Callaloo, for instance-factor into this apprenticeship?

MILLER: The mentor could lock you in the room with the “cube.” You go back to the Samurai Trilogy, I think in the second, no maybe the end of the first Samurai when the monk traps the guy. He traps him in a room. The guy had all the physical strength. He was a brute. The monk looked at him and said, “Once you have mastered everything in that room, I’ll let you out.” And you look around, there was nothing but books. That could be Callaloo. That could be the “cube.” Now what’s the catch? In the next episode, the door opens, he comes out and he is clean. What’s the catch? Now you gotta put it into practice! He walks out, he’s walking around, walking through the woods, you know, and all of a sudden a bunny or something comes out and he jumps, OK? And then the monk appears and says, “See, you still have not conquered.”

So what’s that? You have to come out-you read all of this stuff and you are still caught up with: “Damn! Fenty’s black?” You are still dealing with the bunny. You are still dealing with things that frighten you. So you haven’t mastered anything. I have got all of these Callaloos in my basement and it’s a lot of stuff! I don’t think anyone has read all of those Callaloos. To read them all, you would be a brain, man! You would walk around and have to carry your head with you. Because it’s that much stuff.

LEONARD: Why do you think that the politics is missing?

MILLER: The politics right now is so polarizing. And what are we talking about? Politics is dialogue and engagement. But we’re not listening to anybody. In the age of the cell phone, who’s listening? Seems like you are talking to yourself! [laughs] There’s no dialogue! And so what happens is that it’s not going anywhere. We’re not listening to each other. The music is killing us. We have no critics who teach us how to listen and what to listen for!

LEONARD: Is there anyone to listen to? Take us out on the positive tip. Who do you see that’s beginning to do it? You mentioned Harryette Mullen.

MILLER: I think Harryette Mullen is definitely one person to watch. I think A.Van Jordan is another. I look at people in terms of their spiritual paths and who is on a really good journey. If I had to pick a magazine that has a better vision than, say, Callaloo, it would be nocturnes (re)view, giovanni singleton’s magazine. And I say that in terms of aesthetic design, spiritual focus, and what we might call avant garde material. I told her I felt that she was definitely making history. Because you take just four magazines, there’s nothing like that. The only thing I could go back to for that sort of pointed direction would be Essex Hemphill and Kathy Elaine Anderson’s Nethula magazine. Nethula created the standard that D.C. has never met again. But giovanni singleton–she’s it. We haven’t caught up to her as a magazine editor. There’re just certain things she won’t put in her magazine. And her work habits reminds me of Essex. One thing I admired about Essex—Essex was a perfectionist. That’s the type of precision you look for. Michael Jackson has his way. I remember he did a tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. when he was still living and Michael came out and it was just a ballad he did, a tribute, and he had taped his fingers, you know? If he did just a flick, that light hit it. And it was just a movement of a hand. Take that and bring it into your writing. If you can do that, you can do anything.

So I bring it back to the writing. The discipline that people talk about I know I don’t have. I never worked as hard as my father worked. And I never went through the pain and stuff that my children went through. And I say that to anybody who’s a young artist, in terms of what it takes and what you need to do: that desire to win, to get ahead and then to be spiritually grounded. We had an incident last season where a basketball game my son played in was called early because a kid took a terrible blow. He just wasn’t moving and they had to bring in the medics. And everybody’s getting ready to go home and I saw, you can’t teach this, my son go right back across that gym and stand with that guy while he was in a stretcher. And then I found out later that he went several times to the hospital.

So I say that, going back to the writers, I don’t see the writers who will give their little money up or whatever. I’ve looked at it, for example, when Natasha Trethewey won her Pulitzer Prize. I didn’t see the chatter, you know? I didn’t see a little note of everyone being excited. I lambasted the Lehrer report, which said something about all of the Pulitzer Prize winners, yet said nothing about her. A week later they did do a feature on her, which was nice. But I just wanted to make sure. They could have mentioned her name when they mentioned the list of Pulitzer Prize winners because she is unique in terms of being only the fourth black person to win the prize. And so you really want to make sure you are happy for her.

And I say this in terms of these new writers emerging. A key thing will be how they handle success and failure. The same way you know that when you go out here right now, and you didn’t get into Cave Canem. People don’t get in. They’re mad. That is my critique—I think that if we formed right now a money-making venture on how to write the Cave Canem poem, we could do it. And there are certain people who are not going to get in and they are going to be mad. And because they didn’t get in and because they do get mad, they may go on and do their best work. It’s like August Wilson who was told, “You didn’t write this paper. Go home!” And so he turned around and wrote his plays. That’s the tradition we should foster.


About the interviewer: KEITH D. LEONARD is an Associate Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Fettered Genius: The African American Bardic Poet from Slavery to Civil Rights. He has also published on the jazz poetics of Yusef Komunyakaa and is currently working on a book-length study of the relationship between personal introspection and political consciousness in contemporary African-American poetry, spoken word, and hip hop culture.