by Brian Gilmore
Poetic Ancestors, Issue 13:4, Fall 2012
May Miler is a teacher and culture bearer with a great heart and soul; she has never withdrawn from the complexities and contractions of the world
To read across May Miller’s life is to read across the history of 20th century America.
May Miller writes with quiet strength, lyric intensity. She is perceptive and compassionate.
May Miller is a Washington institution as well as a Washington poet
a poet who strikes an authentic note of love and wrath
The Washington Post
What a fine teacher, what a gracious woman, what a talented poet she was.
She wrote with feeling about people and places in and around Washington and about memory and folk tales from her childhood.
I cannot imagine anyone who knew May Miller Sullivan ever forgetting her, or even keeping her out of mind for any length of time.
May Miller is the dissonance between the notes; Duke Ellingtons piano taps. John Edgar Wideman once wrote about the dissonance between Thelonious Monks notes. This is May Miller.
Like those notes, her words persist. She was born the same year as Duke Ellington. Three years after Plessy v. Ferguson created separate but equal. She understood meanness in her poetry:
Rider, turn away in the wind
You of the frozen face
And cruel hands
It is vengeful steed you mount.
Paul Laurence Dunbar slept in her bed when she was a child. Dunbar, the poet laureate of Black America at the time; Dunbar who came here and energized an already burgeoning black poetry scene. May was just a girl and her father, Kelly Miller, the educator from Howard University, the Capstone, was Dunbars good friend.
How could she miss then? Dunbar, the greatest black poet of that time, perhaps the most important black poet of all time, stays at her house and is a friend of her father, the man she admits was her greatest influence. How could she not have wanted to be a poet after her father brings the poet of all black poets to his home? This tells her what he respects.
But it wasnt all so clear: I wanted to be a dancer, she once said. We went to dancing class and the Howard Theatre. I wanted to be the girl at the end of the chorus line kicking up my heels.
Yet the poetry torch carried by Dunbar would be handed to her.
In 1911, an African-American cultural organization Mu-So-Lit selected as the first person to honor Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar had passed away just five years prior tragically from tuberculosis. May Millers father, Kelly Miller, was a member of Mu-So-Lit and involved in arranging the Dunbar tribute. Three years later, on October 14, 1914, the seed that had been planted bloomed. May Miller made her literary debut in The Washington Post, with a short story called Wireless in Squirreldom, the adventures of Shadetail, the squirrel.
The torch had been passed.
In 1920, May Miller graduated from Howard University at the top of her class and was collaborating with Howard University professor Alain Locke in the Howard Drama Players. Her life as a writer would excel initially as a dramatist in the silence between the notes not the limelight. It would be her play, Harriet Tubman.
TIME: About the Middle of the Nineteenth Century.
PLACE: Eastern Shore, Maryland.
SCENE: A neck of marsh land on Eastern Shore, Maryland.
When the curtain rises, the gray mask of twilight hangs over the swamp. Dark shadows play among the tall, straggly trees and touch threateningly the young NEGRO GIRL and FELLOW seated on a fallen log. Only the disconsolate sobbing of the girl breaks the awful stillness. The FELLOW puts his arm about the GIRL’s shaking shoulders. She clings to him hysterically.
?HENRY: Come on, Cath’rine, thar ain’t no use n’ yo’ breakin’ yo’self up lak that. Ain’t Ah tole you Ah’m comin’ back to git you?
CATHERINE: [In a tear-choked voice.] You can’t git back.
?HENRY: Ain’t Harriet comin’ back, wid ev’ry slave town ‘twixt heah an’ Canada off’ring forty thousand dollars foh huh?
?CATHERINE: But the Lord leads Harriet. She says she talks wid God.
HENRY: An’ why can’t the Lord lead me? Ah’m Harriet’s brother, an’ besides Ah love you. Ah won’t neber close mah eyes in peace, Ah won’t neber dream no sweet dreams, even in Canada, ’till Ah gits you ‘way from heah. Freedom won’t be nothin’ widout you.
CATHERINE: Ah knows, but Ah’m scared. Mas’r Charles am so mean!
HENRY: Well, it ain’t too late. You can still make up yo’ mind to go wid us. Harriet’ll take you.
– May Miller (from Harriet Tubman)
Washington DC, from the earliest of May Millers days is the or a capitol of Black America. It is where the well to do black professionals made their lives, and where they built a world of culture and respect in a city of segregation and expanding government. This is May Millers city. Duke Ellingtons city. But more importantly for May Miller, Washington DC is the city of Sterling Brown and Jean Toomer, two black writers who would become celebrity writers in the trade. It was these poets who would unintentionally would push Miller to the silence. Brown and Toomer and all of those great writers who came to live and work in the city. But May Miller accepted her own space and made it sing at her own pace, and with its own enduring aesthetic power.
If out of silence, I can fill that silence with a word that will conjure up an image, then I have succeeded, Miller once said.
Sterling Browns blues; Jean Toomers people; A city full of other writers, all those African-Americans professionals all who had something to say, some idea of the direction for the race.
Today, 420 College Street NW, the house where May Miller, the poet and playwright was born into a family of high intellect and ambition, no longer stands. It has been consumed by campus property and now is, in fact, part of Howard University in the real sense. It seems appropriate considering that her father, Kelly Miller, was a professor and dean at the university during its early days of excellence.
Myra Sklarew, the local Washington DC writer and scholar, who knew Miller personally, describes Miller well from a distance even though she had been close to her as well:
To read across May Miller’s life is to read across the history of 20th century America. May Miller was born in Washington, DC and raised on the Howard University campus, one of five children of Kelly and Anna May Miller. May often told about having to give up her childhood room for visits by W.E.B. Du Bois, author of the prophetic masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk, and the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. She spoke of visits by Booker T. Washington, Carter G. Woodson, and Alain Locke.
Dunbar was a friend with Millers father, Howard University professor, Kelly Miller, and it was at Millers home that Will Marion Cook, the famous composer, came across Dunbar while working on one of his many projects. Just to know that Dunbar once stayed in your room had to be quite powerful to a young May Miller. So it seems no accident that May became a poet and a writer and one of the more significant poets in her day living in the city.
It isnt likely that May Miller got to know Paul Laurence Dunbar very well because he was out of the city early in her life, and had died by 1906. But May Miller was the recipient of the black poetic legacy that Dunbar helped forge in just a short time here at the turn of the century.
She seems to be a caretaker in a way; a writer who was connected to African-American literature nationally and locally and as a result provided a connecting thread for the local Washington D.C. to the rest of the nation.
III. The Silence Between Notes
But I prefer to call May Miller the silence: the silence between notes. Like that famous dissonance between Ellingtons pianos tappings or Monk, May Miller is that. This isnt because she was silent in her writings; it is because of where she was born and raised and where she learned her craft, a city and community of enormous possibilities and expectations for African-Americans.
Clearly, her efforts paid dividends in the literary world. On March 4, 1972, Cassandra Willis interviewed Miller on her long career in writing and teaching. The interview is now part of the legendary Hatch-Billops Archives at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the major depositories of African-American art and culture. There is May Miller there with other great playwrights such as Ed Bullins, Langston Hughes, Owen Dodson, and Alice Childress.
In a December 1, 1982 feature by the Washington Post, Miller continued to rise in stature. Writer Isabel Wilkerson described Miller, in the article, as a writer with saucer like eyes, a turn of the century child born into the protective palm of Washingtons early black elite, reared among the Negro intelligentsia…on the Howard University green.
Later, the next generation of Washington DC writers began to embrace May Miller. There were more readings, more exposure, and she became synonymous with the citys thriving literary history.
In a December 1986 feature in the Washington Post, Patricia Gaines Carter wrote of May Millers lifelong dedication to the word, culture, and art:
For 45 years, Miller has lived in the same expansive apartment filled with antique furniture, art and memories. She writes at an oak desk given to her when she was 10 years old by her father The desk, in the library, stands against a wall covered by paintings by her good friend, noted artist Charles Sebree, who died last year.
May Miller endured across the 20th century. Jean Toomer passed away in obscurity in 1967 but his legend immediately began to grow. Sterling Brown died 1989 but by then was a giant. May Miller owned the space alone at last. She is still there. That beautiful space between the words spoken in the cafes and clubs of the city that still ring true each night in the capital of the world. May Millers city. A city where the silence lives.
The Washington Post
The African American Review
May Miller, Collected Poems, Lotus Press 1989
Kathy A. Perkins, Black Female Playwrights, Indiana University Press 1989
Myra Sklarew, Collected Papers
An earlier version of this essay was first presented at the 2011 Associated Writers and Writing Programs Annual Conference in Washington, DC, in a panel entitled “Four by Four: Beltway Poetry Quarterly Celebrates the Poetic Lineage of the Capitol City.” The panel was moderated by Holly Bass, and the presenters, in addition to Gilmore, were Regie Cabico, Kim Roberts, and Dan Vera.
Brian Gilmore is a poet, writer, and columnist with the Progressive Media Project. He is the author of three collections of poetry, elvis presley is alive and well and living in harlem (Third World Press, 1993), Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags (Karibu Books, 2001), and his latest, We Didn't Know Any Gangsters (Cherry Castle, 2014). He has published in The Progressive, The Nation, The Washington Post, Book Forum, The Baltimore Sun, and Jubilat. He currently teaches at the Michigan State University College of Law. He divides his time between Michigan and his beloved birthplace, Washington, DC. To read more by this author: Brian Gilmore, Spring 2001; Brian Gilmore's Introduction to The "Woodshed" Issue, Fall 2001; Brian Gilmore on Waring Cuney: Memorial Issue; Brian Gilmore: DC Places Issue; Brian Gilmore: Evolving City Issue; Brian Gilmore: Split This Rock Issue; Brian Gilmore: Audio Issue; Brian Gilmore: It's Your Mug Anniversary Issue; Brian Gilmore on Drum & Spear Bookstore: Literary Organizations Issue; Brian Gilmore: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue.
May Miller (January 26, 1899 - February 8, 1995) first came to prominence as an award-winning playwright during the Harlem Renaissance. A high school teacher, Miller was active in the famous literary salon of Georgia Douglas Johnson, and later held salons in her own hom, using Johnson's as a model. Miller helped establish the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, serving as Chair of the Literature Panel for the Commission's first three years. From her retirement from teaching in 1943 until her death in 1995, Miller dedicated herself to writing poetry, publishing nine books of poems, including Dust of Uncertain Journey (1975), Halfway to the Sun (1981), and her Collected Poems (1989). To read more by and about May Miller: Myra Sklarew on May Miller: Memorial Issue May Miller: DC Places Issue May Miller: Audio Issue