E. Ethelbert Miller, a noted poet, has received some extraordinary words of praise since leaving his job, unwillingly he says, as director of Howard University’s African American Resource Center.
“Ethelbert is the heart and soul of Howard University,” said Douglas Brinkley, a prominent historian and author. “He has the institutional memory of Howard. He is deeply inspirational and a bibliophile who knows the archives better than anyone.”
Elizabeth Alexander, a professor of poetry at Yale University and author of a widely praised new memoir, “Light of the World,” said in an e-mail: “To me, it’s a sad day for Howard to lose Ethelbert Miller. Generations of writers — myself included — have made the trek to see him as budding young creative people committed to the art of the African diaspora. His generosity is legion.”
Testimonies like those are usually reserved for people being laid to rest, not for those who apparently have been laid off. I say “apparently,” because Miller says that no one from the university ever told him that he was being let go. He also says that he was locked out of his university computer last month and that a larger-than-usual paycheck from the university was deposited into his bank account.
Howard has not commented on Miller’s departure.
In a statement last month, the university said that the reason for canning 84 employees was to “ensure long-term financial stability.” The release concluded, “We do not expect this decision to have any adverse impact on student services or their academic studies.”
That was a curious assertion, because the decision will most certainly deprive students of the positive impact that so many others enjoyed.
The decision also raised questions for Miller, such as what it means to be a historically black university if it operates with a corporate mind-set.
“We have to ask ourselves, as black people, what have we learned from using the corporate model?” asked Miller, who is 64. “How can you be a black person on a black school’s board of trustees and phase out custodians who take two buses to work and probably won’t be able to find another job? How can you do that and claim to be concerned about income inequality?”
The African American Resource Center grew out of protests by Howard students in the 1960s. They demanded a curriculum better suited for understanding the social and political upheavals of the time. At first, the center was little more than a reading room and a resource for making video tapes. But it grew into a storehouse of educational resources under Miller, who took over in 1974.
Did university officials know — or care — about Miller’s contribution? Were they unable to appreciate his personal connection to Howard luminaries of the past, such as the poet Sterling Brown and playwright Clay Goss?
“For many aspiring young writers who were wondering what college would best help them achieve their goals, Ethelbert was the inspiring face of Howard,” said Charles Johnson, a National Book Award winner and MacArthur Fellow. “Unfortunately, in the relationship between artists and institutions, artists are not always rewarded or the value of their works understood.”
(A year’s worth of e-mail correspondence between Miller and Johnson was recently turned into a book, “Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson.”)
During an interview last year, the university’s president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, shared insights about his educational philosophy.
“We have to meet the demands of an increasingly competitive workforce,” Frederick told me. “Our students will be seeking jobs and careers where African Americans are underrepresented, where there will be fewer people to advocate on their behalf. So they need a very strong academic environment, the kind of preparation that Charles Drew meant when he said excellence of performance will transcend all boundaries created by man.”
African American studies programs were not mentioned.
Still, it is ironic that Miller is gone and that the resource center has been closed just as students and young people across the country are once again protesting societal injustice, as they had been when the center was founded.
In the aftermath of the recent riot in Baltimore, President Lincoln’s Cottage in the District asked for Miller’s help in putting on a program for a group of middle school students who will be visiting from that city. The cottage, located in Northwest, served as a retreat for Lincoln during the Civil War.
Miller suggested that the students take advantage of the historic setting by thinking about ways to heal their city, just as Lincoln had to think about healing a nation ravaged by war.
“We reached out to Ethelbert, because he knows that poetry can be an especially strong way for these young people to express what they have been experiencing,” said Callie Hawkins, associate director for programs at the cottage. “He is a tremendous asset to the community, with such amazing thoughts about how to engage these middle-schoolers.”
Good for Miller.
Too bad for Howard.