May Miller, the Silence
by Brian Gilmore
“May Miler is a teacher and culture bearer with a great heart and soul;
she has never withdrawn from the complexities and contractions of the
“To read across May Miller's life is to read across the history of 20th century America.”
“May Miller writes with quiet strength, lyric intensity. She is perceptive and compassionate.”
“May Miller is a Washington institution as well as a Washington poet…”
“a poet who strikes an authentic note of love and wrath…”
—The Washington Post
“What a fine teacher, what a gracious woman, what a talented poet she was.”
“She wrote with feeling about people and places in and around Washington and about memory and folk tales from her childhood.”
“I cannot imagine anyone who knew May Miller Sullivan ever forgetting
her, or even keeping her out of mind for any length of time.”
May Miller is the dissonance between the notes; Duke Ellington’s piano taps. John Edgar Wideman once wrote about the dissonance between Thelonious Monk’s notes. This is May Miller.
Like those notes, her words persist. She was born the same year
as Duke Ellington. Three years after Plessy v. Ferguson created
separate but equal. She understood meanness in her poetry:
Rider, turn away in the wind
You of the frozen face
And cruel hands
It is vengeful steed you mount.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
slept in her bed when she was a child. Dunbar, the poet laureate of
Black America at the time; Dunbar who came here and energized an
already burgeoning black poetry scene. May was just a girl and
her father, Kelly Miller, the educator from Howard University, the Capstone, was Dunbar’s good friend.
How could she miss then? Dunbar, the greatest black poet of that time,
perhaps the most important black poet of all time, stays at her house
and is a friend of her father, the man she admits was her greatest
influence. How could she not have wanted to be a poet after her father
brings the poet of all black poets to his home? This tells her
what he respects.
But it wasn’t all so clear: “I wanted to be a dancer,” she once
said. “We went to dancing class and the Howard Theatre. I wanted to be
the girl at the end of the chorus line kicking up my heels.”
Yet the poetry torch carried by Dunbar would be handed to her.
In 1911, an African-American cultural organization Mu-So-Lit selected
as the first person to honor Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar had
passed away just five years prior tragically from tuberculosis. May
Miller’s father, Kelly Miller, was a member of Mu-So-Lit and involved
in arranging the Dunbar tribute. Three years later, on October
14, 1914, the seed that had been planted bloomed. May Miller made her
literary debut in The Washington Post, with a short story called “Wireless in Squirreldom,” the adventures of Shadetail, the squirrel.
The torch had been passed.
In 1920, May Miller graduated from Howard University at the top of her
class and was collaborating with Howard University professor Alain Locke
in the Howard Drama Players. Her life as a writer would excel
initially as a dramatist in the silence between the notes not the
limelight. It would be her play, “Harriet Tubman.”
TIME: About the Middle of the Nineteenth Century.
PLACE: Eastern Shore, Maryland.
SCENE: A neck of marsh land on Eastern Shore, Maryland.
When the curtain rises, the
gray mask of twilight hangs over the swamp. Dark shadows play among the
tall, straggly trees and touch threateningly the young NEGRO GIRL and
FELLOW seated on a fallen log. Only the disconsolate sobbing of the
girl breaks the awful stillness. The FELLOW puts his arm about the
GIRL's shaking shoulders. She clings to him hysterically.
HENRY: Come on, Cath'rine, thar ain't no use n' yo' breakin'
yo'self up lak that. Ain't Ah tole you Ah'm comin' back to git you?
CATHERINE: [In a tear-choked voice.] You can't git back.
HENRY: Ain't Harriet comin' back, wid ev'ry slave town 'twixt heah an' Canada off'ring forty thousand dollars foh huh?
CATHERINE: But the Lord leads Harriet. She says she talks wid God.
HENRY: An' why can't the Lord lead me? Ah'm Harriet's brother,
an' besides Ah love you. Ah won't neber close mah eyes in peace, Ah
won't neber dream no sweet dreams, even in Canada, 'till Ah gits you
'way from heah. Freedom won't be nothin' widout you.
CATHERINE: Ah knows, but Ah'm scared. Mas'r Charles am so mean!
HENRY: Well, it ain't too late. You can still make up yo' mind to go wid us. Harriet'll take you.”
- May Miller (from ‘Harriet Tubman’)
Washington DC, from the earliest of May Miller’s days is “the” or “a”
capitol of Black America. It is where the well to do black
professionals made their lives, and where they built a world of culture
and respect in a city of segregation and expanding government.
This is May Miller’s city. Duke Ellington’s city. But more importantly
for May Miller, Washington DC is the city of Sterling Brown and Jean Toomer,
two black writers who would become celebrity writers in the trade. It
was these poets who would unintentionally would push Miller to the
silence. Brown and Toomer and all of those great writers who came to
live and work in the city. But May Miller accepted her own space and
made it sing at her own pace, and with its own enduring aesthetic
“If out of silence, I can fill that silence with a word that will conjure up an image, then I have succeeded,” Miller once said.
Sterling Brown’s blues; Jean Toomer’s people; A city full of other
writers, all those African-Americans professionals all who had
something to say, some idea of the direction for the race.
Today, 420 College Street NW, the house where May Miller, the poet and
playwright was born into a family of high intellect and ambition, no
longer stands. It has been consumed by campus property and now is, in
fact, part of Howard University in the real sense. It seems appropriate
considering that her father, Kelly Miller, was a professor and dean at
the university during its early days of excellence.
the local Washington DC writer and scholar, who knew Miller personally,
describes Miller well from a distance even though she had been close to
her as well:
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.
Dunbar was a friend with Miller’s father, Howard University professor, Kelly Miller, and it was at Miller’s home that Will Marion Cook,
the famous composer, came across Dunbar while working on one of his
many projects. Just to know that Dunbar once stayed in your room had to
be quite powerful to a young May Miller. So it seems no accident that
May became a poet and a writer and one of the more significant poets in
her day living in the city.
It isn’t likely that May Miller got to know Paul Laurence Dunbar very
well because he was out of the city early in her life, and had died by
1906. But May Miller was the recipient of the black poetic legacy that
Dunbar helped forge in just a short time here at the turn of the
She seems to be a caretaker in a way; a writer who was connected to
African-American literature nationally and locally and as a result
provided a connecting thread for the local Washington D.C. to the rest
of the nation.
III. The Silence Between Notes
But I prefer to call May Miller the silence: the silence between
notes. Like that famous dissonance between Ellington’s piano’s
tappings or Monk, May Miller is that. This isn’t because she was
silent in her writings; it is because of where she was born and raised
and where she learned her craft, a city and community of enormous
possibilities and expectations for African-Americans.
Clearly, her efforts paid dividends in the literary world. On March 4, 1972, Cassandra Willis
interviewed Miller on her long career in writing and teaching. The
interview is now part of the legendary Hatch-Billops Archives at Emory
University in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the major depositories of
African-American art and culture. There is May Miller there with
other great playwrights such as Ed Bullins, Langston Hughes, Owen Dodson, and Alice Childress.
In a December 1, 1982 feature by the Washington Post, Miller continued to rise in stature. Writer Isabel Wilkerson
described Miller, in the article, as a “writer with saucer like eyes, a
turn of the century child born into the protective palm of Washington’s
early black elite, reared among the Negro intelligentsia...on the
Howard University green.”
Later, the next generation of Washington DC writers began to embrace
May Miller. There were more readings, more exposure, and she became
synonymous with the city’s thriving literary history.
In a December 1986 feature in the Washington Post, Patricia Gaines Carter wrote of May Miller’s lifelong dedication to the word, culture, and art:
For 45 years, Miller has
lived in the same expansive apartment filled with antique furniture,
art and memories. She writes at an oak desk given to her when she
was 10 years old by her father…The desk, in the library, stands against
a wall covered by paintings by her good friend, noted artist Charles Sebree, who died last year.
May Miller endured across the 20th century. Jean Toomer passed away in obscurity in 1967 but his legend immediately began to grow. Sterling Brown
died 1989 but by then was a giant. May Miller owned the space alone at
last. She is still there. That beautiful space between the words spoken
in the cafes and clubs of the city that still ring true each night in
the capital of the world. May Miller’s city. A city where
the silence lives.
Source MaterialThe Washington Post
The African American Review
May Miller, Collected Poems, Lotus Press 1989
Kathy A. Perkins, Black Female Playwrights, Indiana University Press 1989
Myra Sklarew, Collected Papers
is a Washington, DC poet, writer, and public interest attorney.
He currently teaches at the Michigan State University College of
Law. He is the author of two critically-acclaimed collections of
poetry, elvis presley is alive and well and living in harlem (Third World Press, 1993) and Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags
(Karibu Books, 2001). He has been a regular columnist with The
Progressive Media Project since 2003. He has published in The
Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The Detroit Free Press, The Albany
Times Union, The Charlotte Observer, The Sacramento Bee, The Prince
George's Post, The Washington Informer, The Progressive, The Nation,
The Utne Reader, American Songwriter Magazine, Jazz Times, Jazz and
Blues, The Crisis, Emerge, Book Forum, Jubilat, Callalloo, The
Washington Review, Icarus, the Red Brick Review, The Bridge, and the anthology In Search of Color Everywhere.
He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2007 and received an
Individual Artist Award from the state of Maryland in 2001 and 2003.
earlier version of this essay was first presented at the 2011
Associated Writers and Writing Programs Annual Conference in
Washington, DC, in a panel entitled "Four by Four: Beltway Poetry Quarterly Celebrates the Poetic Lineage of the Capitol City." The panel was moderated by Holly Bass, and the presenters, in addition to Gilmore, were Regie Cabico, Kim Roberts, and Dan Vera.
in Volume 13:4, Fall 2012.
To read more by this author:
Brian Gilmore's Introduction to Vol. 2:4 (Fall 2001)
Brian Gilmore on Waring Cuney: Memorial Issue
Brian Gilmore: DC Places Issue
Brian Gilmore: Evolving City Issue
Brian Gilmore: Split This Rock Issue
Brian Gilmore: Audio Issue
Brian Gilmore: It's Your Mug Issue
Brian Gilmore: Tenth Anniversary Issue
Brian Gilmore on Drum & Spear Bookstore: Literary Organizations Issue
Brian Gilmore: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue
To read more by and about May Miller:
Myra Sklarew on May Miller: Memorial Issue
May Miller: DC Places Issue
May Miller: Audio Issue