Myra Sklarew on MAY MILLER
(January 26, 1899 - February 8, 1995)
To read across May Miller's life is to read across the history of 20th century America. May Miller was born in Washington, DC and raised on the Howard University campus, one of five children of Kelly and Anna May Miller. May often told about having to give up her childhood room for visits by W.E.B. Du Bois, author of the prophetic masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk, and the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. She spoke of visits by Booker T. Washington, Carter G. Woodson, and Alain Locke. She told about her father Kelly Miller who once wrote:
When a child learns the multiplication table, he gets a clear notion of intellectual dignity. Here he gains an acquisition which is his permanent, personal possession, and which can never be taken from him. It does not depend on external authority; he could reproduce it if all the visible forms of the universe were effaced.
(photo by Brian Parry) .
That same father--who narrowly escaped slavery, born less than a year after the Emancipation Proclamation--described himself as one of the "first fruits of the Civil War, one of the first African Americans who learned to read, write and cipher in public schools." He was the first African American to attend Johns Hopkins University, where he studied advanced mathematics, physics and astronomy. He also essentially invented the field of sociology.
The teachings of Kelly Miller were not lost on his daughter. But May's use of those lessons was entirely her own, surfacing in every poem she wrote--and in her life as a model for us all. May's poem, "Blazing Accusation" was written after the murder of four young girls in the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Denise McNair, 11, Cynthia Wesley, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, Addie Mae Collins, 14. One of those responsible has finally been brought to trial all these years later. After less than three hours of deliberation, a jury found Thomas Blanton guilty of four counts of first degree murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment on May 1, 2001. The poem contains the words "blazing" and "blazon"--to proclaim. The "unforgetting hill" refers to the place of crucifixion.
BLAZING ACCUSATION by May Miller
(In racial upheaval in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963, four young girls died in the blasting of a church.)
Too early a death for those who young
have lost prophecy in blast and flame.
The broken have been assembled
as best could be to pose for burial.
The man in bleak authority intones
the word that cannot tell
when last the girls stood singing
under the sweetest tree,
how remote from nightmare
they giggled secrets believing
death was the end for the old.
After the moans are choked
and the flowers gone petalless,
the girls will be with greatgrandparents,
themselves not long in that last room.
Mothers and fathers,
grandfathers and grandmothers
still pace the waking street
though few are the footfalls
that echo where the children lie.
But walk they will
the sixty-odd more years they're due.
Beyond allotted time and self
the four of them will go
down red gullies of guilt
and alleys of dark memories,
through snagging fields of scarecrows,
and up an unforgetting hill
to blazon accusation of an age.
from The Ransomed Wait (Lotus Press, 1983)
May Miller wrote poetry from an early age and often wore a pair of earrings she had purchased with her earnings from her first published poem. At Dunbar High School she studied under such noted writers as Mary P. Burill and Angelina Weld Grimké. She graduated from Howard University in 1920, receiving an award for her one-act play "Within the Shadows." The Bog Guide (1925), a prize-winning play, helped to establish May Miller in the Black cultural scene and as a participant in the Harlem Renaissance. An award for another play she had written, sponsored by Opportunity Magazine in 1925, was presented at a dinner attended by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, and Jean Toomer. Scratches (1929), Stragglers in the Dust (193), and Nails and Thorns (1933) addressed racial issues. Four of her historical plays, including Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, were included in Negro History in Thirteen Plays (1935), an anthology she co-edited with Willis Richardson. May Miller studied at Columbia University and American University. She taught English and speech at the Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore for twenty years, (during which time she was an active member of Georgia Douglas Johnson's Saturday evening salons) and she acted, directed, and collaborated in the writing of two volumes of plays and pageants through her work with the Negro Little Theatre Movement. May married Bud Sullivan in 1940, a school principal in Washington DC who had earlier played with a musical group, The McKinney Cotton Pickers, well known for traditional jazz and vocal blues during the '20s. After her retirement from teaching in 1943, and her return to Washington DC to live, she began concentrating solely on writing poetry, publishing widely in journals and anthologies and giving readings throughout the region.
As O.B. Hardison, former director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, wrote, "May Miller is a Washington institution...a leader of Washington's poetry community." May served as poetry coordinator of the Friends of Arts program in the District of Columbia Public Schools. When the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities was established, May was named chair of the Literature Panel for three terms.
During the Civil Rights Movement, May Miller--who lived long enough by then to have known other civil rights movements--was sometimes faulted by young African Americans for not taking a more active stance against racial injustice. Shortly before his premature death, Adesanya Alekoye, a young poet who lived in Washington, after a poetry reading by May Miller and Ahmos Zu-Bolton, looked up at May and smiled and said: "Either you're looking prettier to me or I've mellowed." A long battle dissolved as the generations embraced. The truth was: May Miller Sullivan never stopped her fight against injustice. She just had her own way of going about it.
If you want to know about the meaning of the life of a poet, there is only one place to look: at the poetry. If you want to understand our country and where May stood in relation to its currents, its upheavals, its powerful surges, its painful destructiveness, and its efforts to improve, you must read her poetry. It's all there.
Included among the works of May Miller Sullivan
Into the Clearing (The Charioteer Press, 1959)
Poems (Cricket Press, 1962)
Lyrics of Three Women (Linden Press, 1964)
Not That Far (The Solo Press, 1973)
The Clearing and Beyond (The Charioteer Press, 1974)
Dust of Uncertain Journey (Lotus Press, 1975)
Halfway to the Sun (Washington Writers Publishing House, 1981)
The Ransomed Wait (Lotus Press, 1983)
Collected Poems (Lotus Press, 1989)
Willis Richardson and May Miller, eds., Negro History in Thirteen Plays.
New York: Associated Publishers, 1935.
Willis Richardson, ed., Plays and Pageants from the Life of the Negro. New York: Associated Publishers, 1930.
Note: Thanks to Lotus Press for some of the biographical information included in Collected Poems, and to The African American Registry on the internet http://www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/1334/Playwrite_May_Miller_wrote_Scratches.
I no longer recall the source of Kelly Miller's words and hope that a good reader might assist.
(Myra Sklarew, May 30, 2003)
Thanks to Miller Newman, May Miller Sullivan's niece, for permission to reprint "Blazing Accusation." Thanks also to Brian Parry for the photo of May.