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?


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