E. Ethelbert Miller spoke to Krista Tippett recently on her American Public Media program “Speaking of Faith.”  Tippett described the conversation as a “jazz riff,” and I think you will agree that Miller, who is poet, spiritual seeker, memoirist, and director of the Afro-American Resource Center at Howard University, weaves together a beautiful cloth melody in this set of reflections describing his awakening into the idea of blackness as idea, not just color.  Well worth the 55 minutes it takes to listen here.

He sums up what he sees as a universal response, coming from all people, when they hear jazz or listen to a story or poem–“I see the hurt and the pain, but I also see the joy and celebration.”

Black writers have given us some of the first and best American memoirs–from slave narratives to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Richard Wrights’s Black Boy.  Mary Karr’s included all three of these in her list of Top Ten Memoirs previously described here.

Blackness as an idea includes many spiritual traditions. Christianity has been a major influence in black community in this country, but today Islam and Buddhism have become important spiritual influences also as the American idea of blackness expands to include the whole world.

Miller’s voice reminds me of Langston Hughes’ smile, which he celebrates as being Buddha-like. One of Miller’s more interesting ideas is that “there should be people that you know are poets by their behavior.” Below you can see a living example of the idea of universal blackness as you watch the short video of Lucille Clifton reading her poem, “won’t you celebrate with me.” This reading is bittersweet because Clifton died last Saturday, Feb. 13, 2010. You can read more about her here.

Wonderful resources–John Coltrane, Langston Hughes, Charles Johnson, music playlist, video, etc.– on the Speakingoffaith.org website can be found here.

I have not read Miller’s own memoir, pictured above, so I would love to hear from those who have. And I will be reviewing a number of African-American memoirs in the weeks and months ahead. Black memoirists, like black poets, musicians, dancers, and visual artists have evolved a combination of truth and beauty that appeals to all people and will last forever. We need to celebrate the beauty of blackness not just this month but every month!

Shirley Showalter


  1. marycoxpace on April 14, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    Captures the essence of her reality in an ansolutely beautiful presentation! I salute her.

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