E. Ethelbert Miller

E. Ethelbert Miller

“But you know I always find that if I have an opportunity to open doors, that’s what I’m committed to doing”

E. Ethelbert Miller
Photo: C.B. Claiborne, 2004

A writer and literary activist, E. Ethelbert Miller is the founder and director of the Ascension Poetry Reading Series, one of the oldest literary series in the Washington D.C. area. Author of Women Surviving Massacres and Men (1977), Migrant Worker (1978), Season of Hunger/Cry of Rain (1982), and Where are the Love Poems for Dictators? (2001), at the time of the 1994 conference, Miller had most recently published First Light: Selected and New Poems (1994) and In Search of Color Everywhere (1994), an anthology of African-American poetry which was awarded the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award. Miller has also been honored with other distinctions, such as the Mayor’s Art Award for Literature (1982), the Public Humanities Award (1988), the Columbia Merit Award (1994), and the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award (2007). In 1979, the Mayor of Washington, D.C. named September 28th “E. Ethelbert Miller Day.” Since the conference, Miller has served on the D.C. community Humanities Council and as senior editor for the Washington Review of the Arts. In 2015, he was inducted into the Washington D.C. Hall of Fame.

Omar’s House

most of my socks have holes in them
so when I get to omar's house
the first thing I hear
in my head is my momma's voice
talking about
you never know what might happen
to you when you go out the door
that's why you gotta have clean undies
and socks without holes
and i'm thinking about this when
I see all them shoes waiting by
the front door of omar's house
like the beginning of one of those
samurai movies
omar pushes me away from the door
while I balance on one leg trying to get
my shoes off and maybe get a chance
to twist my sock around so no one
notice the big hole
but then omar's daddy extends his hand
and says as salaam alaikum
and I just mumble something like i'm
happy to be here and I really don't know
where I am except I know that omar
is a muslim
the first one I ever met who
didn't wear a bowtie or try to sell
me a newspaper
omar looks like me except he has
hair you can comb quickly
my momma say don't be talking about
good hair and bad hair anymore because
that type of thinking is backwards
what's important is what's under your hair
and if you have a hat rack instead of a head
then it don't mean no never mine about what
kind of hair you have and as salaam alaikum
omar's daddy says again
so I smooth the top of my head and stand
up straight and look him in the eye
and he smiles and tells me to put my shoes down
so now i'm ready to enter omar's house
and the first thing I notice is the living room
don't have no furniture
no couch
no lamp
no coffee table
just some nice rugs
the kind you see in the street and nobody
buys because they're too expensive and if you
don't have a vacuum cleaner or you have a dog
or cat there will be no way for you to keep it clean
so it be best for you to just look at it and
think it's a magic rug and maybe one day you fly
away from the garbage on the sidewalk and near
the curb
omar touch me on my arm so gentle you think he was a girl
he is a quiet boy and my momma says he different from the rest
he doesn't curse and everything he does
he does with his right hand and then his daddy says
it's time for prayer and I look at him confused
because what am I suppose to do
the last time my momma took me to church was easter sunday
and the only reason we went was because she
got herself a mink coat and she said
I want everyone to see what your daddy got me
so I don't remember too much about jesus or the crucifixion
only thing I know is that my momma was the 
happiest momma alive when she walked down the
aisle and sat in the front row of sweet savior
of the regiment first congregational church
everyone nodded at my momma and she whispered to me
and said
every believer in the lord should dress well
god don't like no riffraff
I look at my socks and i'm about to die
omar says the holy quran is the book I should read
and why his house seems like a church I don't know
all I know is that I like it here
the sweet smell of incense
the plants in the window
the soft music coming from the next room
you omar's friend his daddy asks
yes sir I say
i'm omar's friend from school
we in the same class and I live around the corner
and I never met a muslim before
not a real muslim
not in this neighborhood
no--and you ain't no a-rab
because my momma saw you in the supermarket
and she told my daddy you was black and nice
because you said excuse me in front of the vegetables
as you reached for a plastic bag
and in all her years of shopping
nobody ever said excuse me to my momma
especially on a saturday morning


will i hate mirrors?
will i hate reflections?
will i hate to dress?
will i hate to undress?

jim my husband
tells me it won't matter
if i have one or two
two or one it doesn't matter
he says

but it does
i know it does

this is my body
this is not south africa or nicaragua
this is my body
losing a war against cancer
and there are no demonstrators outside
the hospital to scream stop

there is only jim
sitting in the lobby
wondering what to say
the next time we love
and his hands move towards
my one surviving breast

how do we convince ourselves
it doesn't matter?
how do i embrace my own nakedness
now that it is no longer complete?