E. Ethelbert Miller



I told her...she had very nice hips.
She told me...I shouldn't be looking around

I said...I like to see where I'm going.



When you were in elementary school
no one told you about the black laws
of cause and effect. Your science teacher
failed to teach you about why a police
club struck against a black man's head
in the south results in a house burning
down in the north or how prejudice can
make a store clerk's smile turn into a
coldness below freezing. You often
wonder while waiting in line how you
can become invisible to every atom in
the world. You try to understand the
reason for your condition. All the
blues you know cannot defy gravity. All the
jazz you hear cannot keep you from
exploding like a star.

Stevens Carter, "The Embrace"

see more of Stevens Carter's work




   sometimes after someone has hit a foul
   the umpire will toss a new ball back to the pitcher
   the pitcher will catch it look at it rub it
   then toss it back and ask that umpire for a new ball
   just the other night i'm making love to helen
   and it feels strange
   helen got her eyes all closed
   she's squirming and moaning
   but you can tell she's thinking about someone else
   i run my fingers down her back like i'm tracing
   the seams on a ball
   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?
   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
   sometimes my daddy argues with my momma
   sometimes it's about rent
   or why my shoes suddenly grew small
   my momma tell me one thing
   my daddy tell me something else
   which is why I don't do too good in school
   especially with math problems like
   how long will it take you to get to cleveland
   if you left the day after tomorrow and the
   train only runs on the weekends and the bus
   cost $21.00?
   so how am I to figure if it's day or night?
   my daddy tells me to just look out the window
   and we don't have family in cleveland--anyway
   I tell this to my teacher
   and she thinks i'm a smartass
   she don't say this
   but I know what she's thinking
   she's thinking
   why can't I be like omar
   omar says yes ma'am and no ma'am
   I like omar but he doesn't know everything
   just yesterday I ask omar about jesus
   I ask omar
   did jesus have a dog?
   omar says
   he don't know
   I tell omar
   you stupid
   you don't know
   how a man gonna walk on water with a cat?
   so he must have a dog
   a dog be a real disciple
   I don't know what my momma believes
   she thinks i'm just foolish in the head
   my daddy thinks omar is strange
   boy too old for his face
   he tells me
   looks like he knows everything
   no--I whisper to myself
   omar doesn't know the train to cleveland
   only runs on the weekends


E. Ethelbert Miller is a poet and the author of five collections of poetry, including Where Are the Love Poems for Dictators? and most recently, Whispers, Secrets and Promises. He is also the editor of In Search of Color Everywhere. Miller's memoir, Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer was published in June 2000 by St. Martin's Press.

Published in Volume 1, Number 3, Summer 2000.


To read more by this author:
Miller's Tribute to Sterling Brown: The Memorial Issue
E. Ethelbert Miller: The Wartime Issue
E. Ethelbert Miller: DC Places Issue
E. Ethelbert Miller on Ed Cox: The Profiles Issue
E. Ethelbert Miller: Evolving City Issue
E. Ethelbert Miller: Split This Rock Issue

E. Ethelbert Miller: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue