by Paul Buhle
January 28th, 2013
A distinguished African American poet and for decades a prime cultural organizer on the campus of Howard University in the glory era of Black Studies and in the largely black community of D.C., Ethelbert Miller has always been a surprisingly youthful Wise Old Man in the African sense, a senior figure, soothsayer, and a poet. Now he is not so young any more.
He is still, however, an undiminished baseball fan of note, and there is no doubt that his appreciation of the National Pastime blossomed under the warm sun of his favorite philosopher and mine, C.L.R. James. Around 1970, the aged James — who many across the world took to be that ancient Wise Man — took a job teaching at what was then Federal City College. A circle of activists surrounded James and provided him an avid audience as well as logistical support (he was palsied and had trouble making his own way), with Miller often at the head of the group, connecting him with ordinary African Americans of the moment, seeking wisdom in a rapidly changing racial environment. James’s great love, apart from philosophy and revolution, was unquestionably cricket, of which he was undeniably the greatest historian and savant. James’s cricket is Miller’s baseball.
Here, Miller has chosen to wind the contradictions of life, of his own life, and all of us in middle age (or beyond) into the game that so many of us considered the very center of our lives, way back in the summers of childhood. He insists, at the outset, that he has himself reached the fifth inning, and we surely hope he will go the distance. As he says, someone is getting up in the dugout or the bullpen (I keenly appreciate the anxiety, perhaps an approaching sense of relief as well: off to life’s showers).
He hears about the death of great poets — those he knew well, sponsored, read alongside, loved, and now misses. June Jordan for starters. Like an elderly Yiddish poet I knew thirty years ago, he is scratching out the names of the deceased in his little phone book. It’s the cost of surviving.
He begins another chapter with a memory or imagined memory of being on the mound. For the first three innings, he feels like he could go on forever. He has the fastball. Then the innings go by and he doesn’t have it any more. Suddenly, the batters hit for extra bases and it’s over. Next chapter: “So what went wrong? Do you want to talk with the sports writer, therapist or literary critic?” He feel like a former star playing out the string, traded to another team, box-office-useful for his name more than what he can do on the field.
Ethelbert Miller spent so much of his life taking care of other people, from his mother to the poets and fiction writers visiting Howard, and, naturally, also his family, that perhaps he never appreciated how much we, who saw him in action only from time to time, appreciated him for what he was doing. It looked so natural because he was obviously so good at it.
Now he’s afraid — not ashamed like the rest of us to admit being afraid — that he’s the shortstop who failed to touch second amidst a double play. Even if the umpires didn’t notice. He also thinks (slipping back into the role that I remember best) that he should now contemplate his very last pitch. Fastball, curve, knuckler? What would Satchel Paige throw if he had one more pitch to throw?
Unanswered questions. But beautifully proposed. This is real E. Ethelbert Miller and a little book to treasure.