E. Ethelbert Miller asks: In your essay 'Holding onto Truth: Gandhi and King' you make reference to the ten points of the "Commitment Blank." During the Civil Rights Movement it was circulated among activists. Did Ella Baker create this? Could you elaborate on these commandments for volunteers? They seem like the type of knowledge and information that should be shared by everyone participating in today's Occupy Movement. Might you agree? However the tenth point reads as follows: Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration. Today it seems as if new activists prefer what is considered horizontal democracy and a leaderless movement. Can you offer any clarity into this matter?
Sunday, December 18, 2011
"The troubles of the world, my husband said, were due to incompleteness. Greece gave us noble philosophy and poetic insights, but her glorious cities were built on a foundation of slavery...The individual, Martin said, should strive for completeness within himself...One of the failings of the Movement was that, while we taught people to fight against the system, and how to respect themselves, we didn't teach young people that they would have to fight all over again...Freedom is never guaranteed; you have to fight for it." Coretta Scott King, My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr.
I've been living with the inspiring Decalogue known as the "Commitment Blank (or Form)" since the early 1990s when I began work on my novel Dreamer. I honestly don't know if Ella Baker composed this document. (That is an excellent research question for an essay or article.) And I don't know if I can bring any clarity to Ethelbert's question about "horizontal democracy." But, if pushed into a corner, I guess I would say, tentatively, that a possible problem with a horizontal, leaderless movement may be that the protesters, while admirable in their youthful, idealistic rejection of any form of hierarchy and in their desire for egalitarianism, may be leaving themselves open to their members taking off in an undisciplined way in many directions, which dilutes their focus and causes confusion in regard to their ultimate goals and tactics. (For example, protesters who resort to violence only play into the hands of their opponents.) The brilliance of the Civil Rights Movement at its best was its clear focus, represented by the Commitment Form. The Movements leaders (and, yes, there were strong, widely admired leaders) had specific goals clearly defined during the Montgomery and Birmingham campaigns, and well thought out strategies for realizing those specific goals. If the initial goals of a Movement are not agreed upon and clear to everyone (such as "Muammar Gaddafi must go") it can be difficult to determine a line that distinguishes success from failure.
But something I do know with certainty is that Martin Luther King Jr. said that in the black liberation struggle we always have to work on two fronts, one public and the other private, one external and one internal. One effort is to constantly improve the social world; the other is to constantly improve ourselves. Both efforts are necessary; they reinforce and strengthen each other. All this King addressed in the sermon he said was his favorite among all his speeches, "Three Dimensions of a Complete Life." The men and women of the Civil Rights Movement worked out the Commitment Form, which nicely complements Mahatma Gandhi's vision of satyagraha, in practice as they moved from one campaign to another in the south. This form(ula), this insight, was fully developed by the time of the electrifying Birmingham campaign in 1963. Men and women, and then children filled the jails of “Bull” Conner in a massive act of civil disobedience. They---and all the volunteers---were asked to sign this document, which is as follows:
Commandments For Volunteers
I HEREBY PLEDGE MYSELF---MY PERSON AND BODY---TO THE
NONVIOLENT MOVEMENT. THEREFORE I WILL KEEP THE FOLLOWING
1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
2. Remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation---not victory.
3. Walk and Talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10. Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.
I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.
This was not simply a pledge for civil disobedience. This was a grand vision in which the personal and the political were one, a blueprint for how to live. (And how similar its spirit is to the words of Horace Mann that inspired Coretta Scott King, an Antioch student, when in his address to the first graduating class he said, "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." Italics hers.) I say all this as a Buddhist who has taken formal vows, the Precepts, as a lay person. (My very Christian wife of 41 years once said that she saw me as being like a Unitarian, someone always looking for the beauty and best in the world's religions and sciences, and I guess she was right about that.) I hope that someone gives to each and every protester in the Occupy Movement a copy of the Commitment Form, and gets them to sign it. Why don't you, E-Channel reader, print off this post right now, and sign it. You'll feel good, if you do. And M.L. King, wherever he is, will thank you for doing that.
With this 218th post or brief essay, the E-Channel project comes to its conclusion. I want to thank E. Ethelbert Miller and all those who followed this literary project for a year, for their comments, for the emails they sent to us, and I especially wish to thank those who shared some of these posts in the classroom with their students. As I write these final words I'm again reminded of something my father always said when he came to the end of a demanding job, when he lifted that last heavy box, laid on that last layer of paint, or when he removed the cigar from his mouth, smiled, and happily cast his gaze at the last remaining piece or item that brought a long task successfully to closure:
That's the one I was looking for.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 8:34 AM
"Thus, by its very nature, idle talk is a closing-off, since to go back to the ground of what is talked about is something which it leaves undone." Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Sharyn Skeeter wrote "Walking Meditation: Sangha on Unbound Pages" for you. Here is the last stanza of her poem:
Your pages breathe, flicker
in light. Gongs vibrate,
pulse, dissolve into silence.
What might one learn from the "silence" in your life? What have you decided not to place on paper? Sharyn Skeeter seems to be a kindred spirit. When did you meet her?
I think this question is very important. What things do we---should we---remain silent about? I can answer this question by referring to the title of a book of my collected interviews, Passing the Three Gates: Interviews with Charles Johnson, edited by Jim McWilliams (University of Washington Press, 2004). And what does "passing the three gates" mean?
In Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic literature I've seen versions of the spiritual advice known as "passing the three gates." The advice is a guide for how we should speak, or what Buddhists call Right Speech. Before we make our thoughts and feeling public in speech (and I would also say, writing), we must first mindfully determine if they are worthy of being shared by passing them through Three Gates. These gates take the form of three questions: (1) Is what we are about to say true? (2) Is it necessary? And (3) Will it do no harm?
I always try to consider these three questions (or gates) before I speak or write anything. For example, after reading some of my E-Channel posts that described my father, a writer-friend here in Seattle told me that he thought a book about my Dad would be a great idea. I assured him that book will never happen because my father was a very private man who had no interest in the details of his life being offered up for public consumption or, if you will, public entertainment. (That stance was very much a part of what I always saw as his personal integrity.) So, no, he would not have approved of my doing such a book.
If there is a principle here, it is this: it is not always necessary to say or write everything we know. Or feel. Or think. Some matters we should be silent about, especially if they will potentially cause harm or hurt to others. Indeed, some matters we remain silent about because they are no one else's damned business. And there is a beauty in silence. It is the background, the backdrop, and the precondition for speech and sound, the Ground from which all sounds arise and into which they vanish as all things do in shūnyatā, or emptiness or the Void. For this reason I abhor gossip, what Heidegger in Being and Time called "idle talk," and unmindful speech that plays fast and loose with truth. Listen to Heidegger for a moment on this matter:
"Idle talk is constituted by just such gossiping and passing the word along---a process by which its initial lack of grounds to stand on becomes aggravated to complete groundlessness. And indeed this idle talk is not confined to vocal gossip, but even spreads to what we write, where it takes the form of 'scribbling.' In this case the gossip is not based so much on hearsay. It feeds upon superficial reading. The average understanding of the reader will never be able to decide what has been drawn from primordial sources with a struggle and how much is just gossip...Discourse...has the possibility of becoming idle talk. And when it does, it serves not so much to keep Being-in-the world open for us in an articulated understanding, as rather to close it off, and cover up the entities within-the-world. To do this one need not aim to deceive...The fact that something has been said groundlessly, and then gets passed along in further retelling, amounts to perverting the act of disclosing."
In the 1995 film Crimson Tide, the character Captain Frank Ramsey (played by Gene Hackman) is commander of a nuclear missile submarine. Early in the story he has a strong, important moment with his new executive officer or (XO) Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (played by Denzel Washington), who spent a year at Harvard. As they depart on their mission, just before their submarine slips beneath the waves, they stand together topside, watching a gorgeous sunset. This scene is brief, but like so many quick, well-done scenes in film or fiction it captures in just a few words the essence of Captain Ramsey's character. Hunter, smoking his first cigar (a gift from Ramsey), just quietly watches the last sunset they will see for a long time. He does not speak. He is silent. And all the while, Ramsey is carefully watching Hunter, his new XO, sizing him up, scrutinizing him in order to determine what kind of leader he potentially might be. At last, he smiles and says:
"Bravo, Hunter! You knew to shut up and enjoy the view. Most eggheads want to talk it away. Your stock just went up a couple of points."
I really do love that moment in Crimson Tide. Too much speech or over-thinking can obscure the beauty of that which is ultimately ineffable and beyond speech---like the experience of Nirvana itself, which is beyond words and concepts. Silence, then, shows respect for Being. And it speaks directly to one of my favorite sayings by Zen master Wu Kwang, which is the title of his book: Open Mouth Already a Mistake.
I see writer, educator, and former editor Sharyn Skeeter as one of my sisters in the Dharma. We correspond via email about many subjects: spiritual practice, cultural matters, literature, politics, issues pertaining to the state of black America and the state of the world, and more. We first met in 1976 when writer Clarence Major, her husband at the time, and I were both hired by the English Department at the University of Washington. I was delighted (and very humbled) to see her poem in the festschrift volume published this year in India, Charles Johnson: Embracing the World, just as I felt deeply moved by the contributions so many of my old friends and former students made to this book, including yours, Ethelbert. Perhaps some writers seek fame. But I cannot say enough about how the friendships I've enjoyed for decades have enriched my life. That sense of the value of enduring friends is captured, I think, in a poem I've never forgotten by Henry Austin Dobson (1840-1921):
Fame is the food that dead men eat,---
I have no stomach for such meat.
In little light and narrow room,
They eat it in the silent tomb,
With no kind voice of comrade near
To bid the banquet be of cheer.
But Friendship is a nobler thing,---
Of friendship it is good to sing.
For truly, when a man shall end,
He lives in memory of his friend,
Who doth his better part recall,
And of his faults make funeral.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 8:15 AM
Saturday, December 17, 2011
E. Ethelbert Miller: "In "Kamadhatu, A Modern Sutra" we are introduced to Cynthia Tucker. She seems to renounce the academic life at the end of your story. Did your spiritual development ever make you want to consider doing something like that? Is Tucker a character that might appear again in a future story?"
I think it might be helpful if I unpack and explain a little of the complex personal and professional history behind the creation of "Kamadhatu: A Modern Sutra." There is often so much beneath and behind the genesis of a particular story that sometimes it is helpful if a writer explains in detail how a particular work came to be. The following explanation will be timely, I hope, because "Kamadhatu" will be published in the next issue of Shambhala Sun. It will be that popular Buddhist magazine's second feature in the issue soon to reach newsstands. (Giving a work of fiction such a high profile is something rare for their publication, though its editors previously have reprinted two of my other stories, "Dr. King's Refrigerator" and "Prince of the Ascetics.")
In my first story collection, The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Tales and Conjurations (Atheneum, 1986) there is a second-person story titled "Moving Pictures." This story was first published in North American Review in 1985, and reprinted in Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas (Peregrine Smith Books, 1986), with a statement that I wrote on this (at the time) new literary form, often called these days "flash fiction" or "blasters." It was reprinted again in Fictions, edited by Joseph Trimmer and C. Wade Jennings (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989). Here is what I wrote about the short-short story as a form in the volume by Shapard and Thomas:
"The likely father of the unusual form called the contemporary short-short story is, I'd wager, Edgar Allan Poe who, in his classic essay called "On the Aim and Technique of the Short Story" (1842), emphasized for modern fiction the virtues of brevity, priority of 'effect,' and the unity achieved by a work short enough to be read in a single sitting. Of course, the blame for fathering this form can't be placed on Poe alone. Editors like it because it means we can publish several titles in a single issue, thereby creating diversity. (Note: when I wrote this I was serving as fiction editor of The Seattle Review, a position I held from 1978 to 1998). Readers, who are doubtlessly the real culprits here, can digest the short-short in a few minutes as they sit in the bathroom, ride the bus, or wait in the checkout line at Safeway---if nothing else, the short-short is symptomatic of an Age where speed is everything, the Concorde is admired because it saves time, and where our rhythms have been conditioned by sitcoms that stop at twelve-minute intervals for commercial breaks; an Age of "digests" that churn out three-minute videos for adolescents with short attention spans, fast-food retaurants, and the 24-hour divorce. Can anyone doubt that for a tired, time-harried reader, who has dozens of things competing for his or her attention, the short-short is fiction's version of the quick-fix?
"Yet, it can be a powerful fix, like poetry which it resembles because the short-short demands compression and economy. It usually relies on narration (dramatic scenes classically structured on Aristotelian lines take too long), a bewitching voice and, given its brevity, it often achieves the lasting wallop carried by Japanese haiku and koans, as in the fiction of Jim Heynen and Barry Lopez. It is strangely pure. And all of a piece. Moreover, it is protean, assuming any shape---the sketch, fable, parable, a transcript of dialogue, a list---and, adding to its appeal, it gives writers a vehicle for expressing all those scraps of experience that are fascinating but too thin for a traditional 'rising-conflict-to-resolution' story or novella. Only a fool would rigidly define the short-short because, above all else, it must be an innovative, attention-grabbing exploration of that perennial mystery that is the origin and end of expression itself: language."
So the above statement was how in 1986 I saw the way we experienced the form of "short-short" fictions like "Moving Pictures." On the surface, that story is about an unhappy novelist-turned screen-writer who sits in a Seattle movie theater, the Neptune Theater, watching a film he wrote the script for. His life is a modern mess. His wife is divorcing him, he "sold out" his artistic dreams for the lure of doing profitable hack-work in Hollywood, etc. Clearly, when I wrote this I was being somewhat cynical about some of my experiences based on the script-writing I did for PBS in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The unnamed, second-person protagonist (the "you") is watching a film he wrote, a silly Western, and he remembers seeing what the film looked like on reels in the editing room. It is at this point that the story draws upon Buddhist epistemology to dramatize how the Dharma describes our acts of perception, i.e., Buddhist writers have often metaphorically compared the blank screen in a movie theater to the mind upon which is projected all manner of perceptions and passions and events yet the blank movie screen ( consciousness, or one's original mind "before one's parents were born," as one Zen koan puts it) remains pure and untouched by this eruption of perceptual experience. The mind remains as unsullied as the fabled Lotus flower that rises up from muck and mud. But the story's protagonist never realizes that (if he did, he would be led to awakening and liberation); he never sees that, ironically, he is "a triple-threat talent...producer, star, and director in the longest, most fabulous show of all." In other words, his life and all things he experiences are products of his own mind.
Over the years when visiting different colleges and universities, I met two professors who taught "Moving Pictures" because, I guess, the use of a film world setting appealed to them (or they thought it would appeal to their students). But they completely missed the philosophical level of Buddhist epistemology or theory of perception at the story's center. They only saw the "surface" of this story. That always disappointed me. But then the late scholar Gary Storhoff, my friend and a Buddhist, published a reading of "Moving Pictures" that explained its meaning perfectly. I always felt indebted to Dr. Storhoff for this explication of the text. And indebted, too, when at one of the meetings for the Charles Johnson Society at the American Literature Association (Storhoff was one of the Society's officers; see my E-Channel tribute to him dated November 14, 2011), he again stunned his audience (and me) with another Buddhist reading of one of my fictions, "Executive Decision." At that meeting, I swore to him that he had inspired me to take another shot at dramatizing Buddhist epistemology, this time in a story that might be more accessible to general readers. That story is "Kamadhatu: A Modern Sutra."
It was written in 2004 as one of my (now 13) stories created for the annual Bedtime Stories fund-raiser sponsored by Humanities Washington (the theme we were given to write about that year was "dreamland"). The story is dedicated to Martin Hughes, and that is an important detail. In the 1990s, I had a black student in one of my creative writing classes who was a friend of Hughes, a young, white Buddhist monk who grew up in the northwest and began Zen training in Japan when he was 18-years-old. That student introduced us. Over the years, Martin Hughes and I became friends. He worked out at the "Twin Tigers" Choy Li Fut kung-fu studio I co-directed with Gray Cassidy in Seattle. He showed me his poetry and prose, and a manuscript (still unpublished) he wrote about his experiences training in the Rinzai Zen tradition, which I gave him some editorial advice on. Our friendship was deeply rewarding for me, and I learned much about his unique life in Japan as a (white) monk.
Martin Hughes became a Rinzai Zen abbot and priest, one of only two white abbots in Japan. With that "promotion," he was able to apply for and receive his own temple in Osaka, one of many old, abandoned temples in a Japan that today does little to sustain its rich Buddhist history. Hughes named his temple Daigo-ji Temple (Anraku-ji). Downstairs, just inside the entrance at my front door, there is a framed, 100-year-old scroll written in delicate calligraphy on rice paper in Japanese (a Buddhist prayer or gatha), one of several Hughes unearthed when he began repairing and cleaning his temple, and which he sent to me as a gift. He drew up a list of international names (his friends and associates) who he wished to have as the first members at Diago-ji. Cassidy and I were among the first 20 or so people he registered as members. Then, suddenly, we stopped receiving messages from Martin Hughes. Time went by---a few years---and still we heard nothing until one of our martial arts students who grew up in Osaka, a young Japanese woman, said she would look into where Hughes was when she made a visit home. We learned that Martin Hughes was dead. He had volunteered to do social work helping young street kids in the Philippines. There, he ate something not properly cooked or sanitary, fell into a coma, and died at a too young age.
Even as I write these words, my heart is heavy. I still have manuscripts of his writing (prose and poetry) that he sent me. Some years ago, I was able to convince an editor at Manoa, a literary journal in Hawaii, with whom I sometimes correspond, to publish some of Hughes's writing in one of their special issues. What I know about the everyday practice of Buddhism in contemporary Japan is largely what I learned from my friendship with Martin Hughes, and so "Kamadhatu" is dedicated to him.
(By the way, there is a special sadness---and responsibility---that falls to someone when they are entrusted with the work of a writer friend who has passed away. Here at my house, I also have two boxes of writing by my high school creative writing teacher, Marie Claire Davis. She published three of my youthful stories---"short-shorts"---in 1965 when I took one of her writing classes. At the time, her claim to fame was publishing a few stories in The Saturday Evening Post. At Evanston Township High School in the 1990s, I funded an award in her name, "The Marie Claire Davis Award," that is given each spring to a senior for the best portfolio of writing. The English professors at E.T.H.S. select the winner each year and send me a copy of his or her work. Even after she retired from teaching and lived in Florida with her husband, Marie Claire Davis would travel back to Evanston, Illinois in the spring to shake the hand of the winner of the award named after her---she once wrote me that she felt this award vindicated the years she spent struggling to write, always juggling the demands of teaching with her desire to create fiction. A couple of years ago, Marie Claire died. Her husband just couldn't bear to have her writing around as a reminder of his lost loved one, so he asked me if I would take this material. I did. Two boxes. In those boxes are diaries and workbooks dating back to the 1930s when Marie Claire was a teenager and dreamed of becoming a writer. My hands almost tremble when I handle these workbooks, letters, drafts of her fiction, and diaries: they are a special portal into her life, a time machine that takes me back to the Great Depression. And I know, like the writing of Martin Hughes, that this work must be preserved for posterity. Whenever I give my "papers" to some university---two or three have requested them---you will find among those papers two boxes of writing by Marie Claire Davis and material from Martin Hughes.)
The protagonist of the story "Kamadhatu" is Toshiro Ogama, a young Japanese abbot who, like Martin Hughes, acquires and restores a very old temple, where he lives alone. He has a tragic past and doesn't wish to see visitors. To make a little money, he translates American books for Hayakawa Shobo (my Japanese publisher for Middle Passage). One day a visitor does appear at his temple---a young black American Buddhist named Cynthia Tucker. She comes to visit him because he is translating one of her books on the Dharma. Tucker is very much based on black American Buddhists writers such as Jan Willis and Angel Kyoto Williams. She volunteers to help him clean some store rooms at his temple. There, she finds an old movie projector and canisters of film that record life at this temple in the 1950s. Toshiro's encounter with Tucker and this film footage, which I will let readers experience for themselves, leads to my second attempt to dramatize Buddhist epistemology using the metaphor of movies. Perhaps one day I will compose another story featuring Cynthia Tucker since black women practitioners of the Dharma are seldom portrayed in our fiction.
When I finished this story, and read it at Bedtime Stories, I was so emotionally drained that I didn't even bother to send it to my literary agent. I just stuck it in one of my filing cabinets of writing (there are 4 full ones here in my study). But later, Indian scholar, Nibir Ghosh, who spent the 2003-04 academic year at the University of Washington on a Senior Fulbright Fellowship to study black American literature in general, and my work in particular, wrote me after he returned to Agra College (where he chairs the Department of English Studies and Research) and requested a story for Re-Markings, the journal of scholarly articles, stories, and poems that he publishes. So "Kamadhatu" first appeared in a publication in India, Vol. 6, No 1, March 2007 of Re-Markings. When Ethelbert Miller and Dr. Ghosh published Charles Johnson: Embracing the World (Authorspress in India, 2011) Ghosh included "Kamadhatu" in this festschrift volume. When I read it again after so many years, I realized I should give the publisher at Shambhala Sun the opportunity to read it. So I sent him a copy. He responded with great enthusiasm, bless him, and so after seven years this story will finally be available to American readers.
This, then, is the history behind the eight-page story titled "Kamadhatu: A Modern Sutra."
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 7:09 AM
Friday, December 16, 2011
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "What are you and Linda Selzer going to be doing on January 7th at the MLA Conference in Seattle? What new forms of intellectual inquiry might one look forward to?"
Today's answer will be brief. Less a regular post or a brief essay than a kind of public service announcement.
The Modern Language Association selects different cities for its annual meeting. And in each city MLA features a conversation by a local writer and a literary scholar familiar with his or her work. This year English professors will descend upon Seattle from January 5 through 8.
On Saturday the 7th from 5:15 to 6:30 PM, literary scholar Linda Furgerson Selzer, a professor at The Pennsylvania State University and author of Charles Johnson in Context (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), will join me for a session titled "A Creative Conversation with Charles Johnson." Ours is session number 584 and is scheduled to take place in room 6A at the Washington State Convention Center.
It wouldn't be fair to Dr. Selzer for me to reveal too much about what she has planned for our session. So I'll offer no specific details. But I can generally say that earlier this week I received from her a very exciting outline for all that she would like to cover during our session at MLA. Really, it's a rich outline, touching on as many aspects of my life and work as she covers in her superb critical book. Her outline almost resembles a well-crafted script that will feature fiction reading and film, lively conversation and Q&A with the audience, and a tour through philosophical fiction, Western and Eastern. Dr. Selzer has planned this carefully, like a good director. Steven Spielberg couldn't have done it better. Judging from what I see in her outline, there will not be a dull moment during session 584.
So, if you plan on attending MLA in Seattle next month, please drop by room 6A at 5:15 PM. Dr. Selzer and I will do our best to entertain, please, and enlighten.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 8:23 AM
Thursday, December 15, 2011
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "What new things about your life might critics and readers learn by going to the e-channel? What questions (sent to you) were questions you didn't want to answer? Why?"
As this year-long E-Channel project draws to a close, Ethelbert's question today is appropriate in terms of our summing up this unique literary project. E-Channel is the most intimate, candid, and revealing record (or transcript) of a writer's life, heart and mind that you will find outside of an official biography, or an autobiography. I have a very fat folder of his questions, and I counted them last night. By my ballpark estimate, he asked me 403 questions, and of those I've so far responded to 214. For those who have kindly followed these posts for a year, it's probably clear by now that the off-stage, "invisible" person asking these questions---"probes," as he once called them---brings a rich and nonpareil background to his queries. Indeed, he should be on the receiving end of a year's worth of questions himself. So let me take a moment to reflect upon this very special poet and activist for the arts who conceived and sustained the E-channel adventure for a year.
It is difficult to find someone who has not been influenced by Ethelbert Miller's unselfish contributions to American literary culture since the late 1960s. A Washington Post feature on Ethelbert once referred to him as "Mr. 411," the man who you contact if you have a question about literary artists in this country. That nickname is appropriate because he is a walking Rolodex. For two generations now, he has devoted himself, year in and year out, to the support of other writers, young and old, even lobbying for them to receive jobs. In the literary world, he is as ubiquitous as air. It is extremely difficult to find someone in literary America today who has not met or heard of him, or received his help and generous support at one time or another. Because of all that he has done for so many of us in the arts, I often call him "Mr. Wizard." At other times, I just call him "BrerBert." (And as of this year, I've been calling him "BuddhaBert.") Listen: he is the reason I and eleven other black writers appear on stamps issued in Ghana and Uganda and, of course, Ethelbert never thought of including himself among the writers he selected for this honor. That is not his Way. And it is shocking (even alarming) to me when I think about the fact that he does not keep an updated curriculum vitae.
The general public may not know all that Ethelbert Miller has done (his karma is vast, wide, and deep; the professional hats he wears are numerous), but I suspect that the Almighty does and keeps this poet's c.v. updated for him. If kept properly, it would probably run for hundreds of single-spaced pages, for he is always on the road to deliver another speech or reading, teach another class, appear on another television program as a public intellectual, or lend his support to yet another arts event. He has a heart as big as all outdoors. Unlike so many writers I've met since the 1970s, who were self-absorbed, narcissistic, vain, egotistical and always self-promoting (and uninterested in the work of others), Ethelbert unfailingly puts others first. For him art is spirit-work. He is always imagining ways to honor his kinsmen and kinswomen in the arts. In the era of Hip Hop, he is an Old School black man, one steeped in (black) American history, one who works to realize the "beloved community," here and abroad, that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of so eloquently. I think he is also much influenced by the emphasis that James Baldwin placed on the importance of bringing love to race relations. He channels Langston Hughes and Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." He works as indefatigably as W.E.B. Du Bois or ML King Jr., and his work is always in support of social justice and bringing to the community of literary artists on this continent (and other continents) a spirit of cooperation, not competition; compassion, not indifference; and idealism, not cynicism. He understands human suffering. He cares about everyone.
Since 1974, he has directed the African American Resource Center at Howard University. He chairs the board of the Institute of Policy Studies, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C. A poet, memoirist, prose writer, editor, and arts ambassador-at-large, he should have long ago received, in my humble opinion, a MacArthur fellowship (I'd wager that he would use that money to financially help other writers and small presses.) In point of fact, he is deserving of a National Medal of Honor for the countless ways he has enriched literary culture, and for the way he has done this which, to my knowledge, has no parallel in American literary history.
Ethelbert's intention with E-channel was to help students, readers, and scholars better understand my life and work. Here, one should find information about my childhood and family, the theory and practice of my art, my individual passions, my career as a professional cartoonist/illustrator and journalist, my 20 years of work as a screen-and-teleplay writer, 33 years as a college professor, my life as a trained philosopher (and life-long martial artist), my commitment to Buddhism, and even personal anecdotes that I previously have never shared with others in print. So this project he created makes visible aspects of my life's journey that were most likely "invisible" before. But one consequence of this year-long project for me is that, even though we first met in the 1980s, I believe I understand Ethelbert Miller with somewhat greater clarity now. And that is a blessing for which I am thankful. Without seeking reward or recognition, he works daily for the betterment of not only our literary culture, but also for the betterment of our social lives in general. Thus, it was inevitable that while he asked me a remarkable range of questions, many of those 403 queries focused on matters of race and politics. To the best of my ability, I tried to respond to questions on those subjects. But generally I gravitated to the questions about subjects that I have studied for a lifetime, or the ones where I could speak from direct experience. For readers curious about the questions I never got around to answering, here is a sampling:
1. You will become a grandfather in 2012. How does this compare to your literary career? What types of dreams and hopes do you have for your grandchildren? Will you encourage him/her to follow the path? What first lessons will you teach?
2. As a prominent writer how often are you asked to sign political petitions? Is this something you would rather not do? If so, why?
3. We know you like dogs. Are you a strong advocate of animal rights? Can animal rights ever come before human rights?
4. Would you donate your sperm to a lesbian couple that wanted to have children? What new moral and ethical questions might this raise regarding sex and family?
5. As a writer, do you think paper is dead?
6. I'm reading your chapbook about libraries and was curious as to whether you had the same feeling about bookstores. Recently Borders closed its doors. Do you think a way of life might die if bookstores continue to vanish? Do you have any favorite bookstores? I guess I will always be in love with City Lights in San Francisco.
7. You were recently one of the National Book Award judges (for fiction). did you notice any trends in contemporary fiction? Were you disappointed or excited by the many books you read?
8. Do you believe there might be life on other planets? How might the discovery of this other life form redefine what man is?
9. How should writers use libraries?
10. Can a good fiction writer be a poor script writer? If so, why?
11. Are there stages to human love?
12. When and why might a writer change publishers, editors or agents?
13. Herbert Marcuse had a significant influence on the philosophy student Angela Davis. What is your opinion of Marcuse's intellectual work? Did the Angela Davis case affect you back in the 1970s?
14. How important is a good cup of coffee on a writing day? Do you have a special brand?
15. How do you feel Obama has been treated or presented in political cartoons?
16. Do you feel color is still an issue within the Black community? Can we move beyond it?
17. As a philosopher what advice would you give to people in the Middle East pursuing democracy in their countries? What are the elements of democracy? Is there a Western or Eastern approach to (or view of) democracy? What role should (or can) religion play in helping man govern his society better?
18. I often read about the historical relationship between Christianity and Islam. What about the historical relationship between Buddhism and Islam? Have you spent time studying the Quran?
19. What is your opinion of memoir writing? Is it something you feel you could teach even though you've not written a memoir?
20. During my college years everyone was reading Albert Camus. Should we return to our Camus? What might this writer teach a young generation?
Anyone can see that Ethelbert invested a remarkable amount of time and energy in formulating questions for me to answer over twelve months. Really, this was a daunting challenge. He had to go through my novels, stories, essays, public addresses, comic art, the volumes of literary scholarship published about my work, and much more in order to individuate the questions he sent to me. Just for the record, I have to say that we never had a serious argument during this year-long journey. Nothing fatal, at least. And I rather suspect the reason for the ease with which the E-channel project happened can be traced to the fact that we, as black men and artists, have made much the same cultural and existential odyssey across the racial landscape of America from the end of World War II to the dawn of a new century. We speak the same language. We know the same things, and so we could talk the way the late August Wilson and I did for 15 years here in Seattle.
Ethelbert, thank you for these twelve months of spirited conversation about Everything.
P.S. Ethelbert should use his own photo as an illustration for this post, but how much do you want to bet that, in his modesty, he won't?
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 2:01 PM
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "In her book Charles Johnson In Context Linda Selzer looks at your work in relationship to "the critical issues raised by the emergence of three black intellectual and cultural formations in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries: black philosophers, black Buddhists, and "new"black public intellectuals." Might one conclude that with the election of Obama and intellectual discussions turning to post-blackness we are seeing the birth of a 4th context by which to view your work?"
Quietly, and almost too subtly for most of us to consciously recognize, Barack Obama's first term in office has, I think, made the question of his "race" irrelevant to intelligent Americans in their political and cultural discussions. Love him or hate him, the matters of importance discussed for the last three years have been those that are about his daily performance as POTUS, that is, the same questions about individual performance that we would talk about for his predecessors in the White House. How well or poorly has he been responding to America's economic problems? Do we approve or disapprove of his handling of America's interests in international affairs? Has he been good or bad as a post-9/11 defender of this nation? We, the public, have been judging him strictly in terms of the policies he promotes and those he opposes. It's interesting to note, too, that before his campaign to become the GOP's presidential candidate was derailed by accusations of sexual misbehaving, Herman Cain was primarily talked about in terms of whether his 9-9-9 plan was a good or bad idea, and if he knew enough about international affairs to be qualified to sit in the Oval office---exactly the same questions the public had about Rick Perry's competence in that area. The "race" of either Cain or Perry (or Obama) was as unimportant for these deliberations as their weight or the size of their waist-lines.
This is how progress often incrementally happens. Not dramatically, but rather in terms of what people once obsessed over in the past simply falling away from their consciousness, like skin from a snake, or is forgotten. Or the matter suddenly strikes us as being very shop-worn and very boring. One day we wake up and suddenly realize, "Hey, we haven't talked about Obama or Cain being black guys in a long time," and no sooner than the words leave our lips, it's clear to us and everybody else in the room that these two being "black guys" (whatever that is supposed to mean) is not only unimportant---it's downright uninteresting. To be honest, "identity politics" has always been uninteresting and wrong-headed. Is it really important that this administration's Secretary of State (as well as that for the last administration) is a woman? We all know the answer to that is, no. First we cheer and celebrate the historical racial or gender breakthrough, as we should. Then it fast becomes old news and joins the ranks of the Been There and Done That.
True enough, there are still Americans who cling to essentialistic notions of "blackness" and "whiteness," and to some vague feelings about "race." They are fast becoming dinosaurs in 21st century America. In today's world, people who talk in those terms just sound odd. Like they're stuck in the past or a time warp. Their eventual extinction is something we should welcome as social evolution and greater social enlightenment leaves them behind, consigned to the dust bin of history (like my tragic character George Hawkins in Oxherding Tale.). Our children---those twenty-somethings---and our grand-children in the post-civil rights era seem not weighted down by the historical baggage of race-consciousness that even some aging Baby Boomers born at the end of the era of segregation still carry to a certain degree. Is that the meaning of the phrase "post-blackness"? If it means that most Americans today see notions of "race" as being as silly, cumbersome and unnecessary to carry around in their heads as the medieval belief in angels or devils, or the 19th century search by scientists for phlogiston, then I would say: hallelujah, we are witnessing some small but significant measure of progress for our species.
In 1974, when Faith and the Good Thing was published, one enthusiastic reviewer referred to it as being "raceless." In other words, what was important in that story was not the fact that Faith Cross was black, but instead her Candide-like journey through 2,000 years of ethical ideas about the Good was the novel's focus. So it has been with my other novels, and so many of my short stories, some of which do not even identify the race of their main characters ("Kwoon," "Moving Pictures," some of the stories in Dr. King's Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories). Why have I always approached my characters that way? The answer: because whatever we call their "race" is one fact among many about them, and not even the most interesting fact about them. My stories are not blind to their racial history and background, but neither are the characters bound by that history or background. And what my best stories are about are conflicts of a philosophical kind that have (or so I hope) universal application across what we call the human condition. It is fair, then, yes, to see my literary art in terms of "post-blackness."
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 8:30 AM
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: " Might you be able to develop a short list of philosophical questions that could guide our society? I'm thinking of the "big ideas" that politicians, teachers and business people need to be thinking about. For example, what ethical questions should a police officer always be aware of?
Okay, I'm willing to take a stab at this question. I offer 12 questions for E-Channel readers, politicians, teachers, and business people to think about.
1. (For a police officer): Is the "thin blue line" of which I am a part the last defense between civilization on the one side, and barbarism and chaos on the other? If not us as unionized, public servants (like teachers), then who will prevent crime and the unraveling of civil society?
2. (Let's add one for a soldier, especially those in special ops): Am I one of the "rough men" George Orwell spoke of when he said, "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf"?" (Yes, it's OK to think of this in terms of the recent killing of Osama bin Laden.)
3). Thinking of JFK's statement, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," what as an American are my personal, daily responsibilities in regard to perpetuating civilization---and hard-won civilized and moral values in the Western world---from one generation to the next?
4. What does it mean for someone to be truly civilized?
5. Where do I end and you begin?
6. What counts as "knowledge"? What does it mean to truly "know" something or someone? What are the rigorous, empirical requirements for "knowing" something? Can we "know" anything (outside of tautologies) with absolute certainty?
7. As a teacher, am I personally responsible if a student mistakes what I say in class and uses my words to commit a crime or some immoral action? (See my short story "The Education of Mingo.") As a parent, if my child grows up to become a serial killer, am I responsible?
8. As a writer (especially a screenwriter) or public figure, am I responsible if what I create or say leads someone to do an act we would consider to be evil? (Movies has often turned up in court as the defending lawyer's justification for a person's actions.)
9. How do we define "the good life"? Depending on your definition, is a society (or government) able to deliver this? Or is its realization in the hands of the individual?
10. If, as Hobbes stated in Leviathan, men and women give up the freedom they have in the dangerous "state of Nature" in order to live more comfortably and safely by a "social contract" with others, what are the specific terms of that "social contract"? When has society failed to hold up its end? When have citizens failed to hold up theirs? What is the American social contract?
11. Should societies have a collective goal? If so, what should that be?
12. If, as writer John Gardner once said, the tension in society is always between order and permissiveness, how do we find a middle ground between these extremes? When does the impulse toward order turn into fascism and permissiveness turn into the breakdown of shared values? Was Freud on to something when he said in Civilization and its Discontents that the id or sexual impulses must be restrained for the sake of social order---or was he just an old-fangled fuddy-duddy?
This is just a short list. I could go on and on.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 11:39 AM