The Collective Pride of Commencement
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Ernie Barnes used his canvas to celebrate black American life in elongated, vibrant strokes. “The Graduate” (shown above) is one of the professional football player-turned-artist’s best-known paintings, which is part of a body of work Barnes called “The Beauty of the Ghetto.” Barnes passed away in 2009.
According to his long-time assistant Luz Rodriguez, “The Graduate” is rooted in Ernie Barnes’ experiences growing up in segregated Durham, North Carolina during the 1940’s and 50’s:
“Because it was rare at that time for a member of the family to graduate from high school, it was commonplace and an honor for the new graduate to walk home from campus still dressed in their cap and gown. As the new graduate walked home, people on their front porches stood and clapped, which instilled a sense of pride in the graduate as well as the community. This image always remained in Barnes’ psyche.”
The creative inspiration for “The Graduate” came many years later while Barnes was in his car, parked at a stop light. Peering out the window, he noticed a young man striding across the street. “He expressed the attitude and confidence that Barnes captured for the mannerism in ‘The Graduate,’” says Rodriguez.
Even though “The Graduate” depicts a solitary figure, it tells a story of collective pride and accomplishment. For Barnes, who attended North Carolina College on an athletic scholarship and graduated with an art degree, the graduate’s achievement buoys a family and a community. One person’s success may inspire a succession of possibilities.
Valedictorian Lawyna Taylor, one of 11 students displaced by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, celebrates after commencement was held in Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in the Ninth Ward. (photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
“The Color of Ideas”
Krista Tippett, host
Artist Kara Walker installs her work “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (photo: Cameron Wittig/Walker Art Center)
I’ve heard E. Ethelbert Miller’s essays and short interviews on Weekend Edition Sunday and always learned something new. He has been at Howard University, first as an undergraduate, since it was a crucible of Black Power in the late 1960s. I’ve heard him observe political and cultural events — like the election of Barack Obama as president — through a fascinating lens, from that vantage point, and also from his vantage point as a poet, a “literary activist.” And I wondered what would happen if I sat down with him for a whole hour to explore the nexus of the political, the artistic, and the spiritual in the dramatic trajectory of black history over the last half century — a trajectory he has both been shaped by and has shaped.
The result is an unpredictable, playful, and challenging program. For starters, he is not eager to engage in a head-on discussion of Obama and race — the discussion many in our culture have both longed for, and not found a way to have, throughout his candidacy and now his presidency. For E. Ethelbert Miller, Obama’s election says interesting things about how white people in the U.S. have changed. He does not buy the language of a “post-racial society.” Yet he sees that both Barack and Michele Obama have made a lasting impact on global cultural associations between blackness, elegance, excellence, and beauty. And in the long run, he seems to feel, that may be more than enough, for now.
We hear the trumpet of Miles Davis and the saxophone of John Coltrane as Miller guides us in an entertaining, if not linear, way through the evolution of what he calls “blackness” in the last half century. His words and the sounds of this music join the poetry of Lucille Clifton “won’t you celebrate with me”) and the prose of Buddhist novelist Charles Johnson and Muslim activist Malcolm X to evoke the eclectic range of influences that nourished the black consciousness that first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Our cultural memory has taken in some of these influences and forgotten much of the rest, though they have all continued to ferment in E. Ethelbert Miller’s being and in the diverse universe he inhabits.
He likes to imagine a healing role for African-American Muslims, for example, in the global encounter between Islam and the West in this century. He also suggests that, in this globalized world, the noun/adjective “African American” is too small. His own heritage is West Indian, and the term African American in fact obscures the far-flung immigrant story inside the story of race in the U.S. alone. But in using the word “blackness” — which culturally might seem a reversal — E. Ethelbert Miller is talking about much more than the color of one’s skin. He is talking about “the color of ideas.”
Listen for yourself, and enjoy.
Also, I recommend reading Miller’s “My Language, My Imagination.” It’s a beautiful essay based on a speech he delivered on the campus of Western Oregon University in 1998. It is a vivid, personal, concise, and energizing introduction to the turning points and inner dynamics of African-American life in our time. And it is terrific background for going on to read Miller’s memoirs — especially his first, Fathering Words — and his poetry.
Behind the Scenes: Picking Poems
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
This week’s show, “Black and Universal” with poet E. Ethelbert Miller, features a rich smattering of readings — from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to the poetry of Lucille Clifton, and some poems by Miller himself.
We spent a lot of time deliberating about these selections: which ones to include, how long they should be, who should voice them (Krista? Our managing producer Kate? An outside reader?).
Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” is one of the poems that made the final cut. The poem is short, easy for a listener to grasp, and flows nicely out of Miller’s musings about blackness, beauty, and Michelle Obama. Here’s the clincher that sealed the deal: audio of Clifton reading the poem in her own voice. The power of her delivery took those words on the page to a whole new level.
We also considered Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “John Col” for this same slot in the show. Alexander explores the wrought beauty of John Coltrane’s music — music that has influenced Miller personally and poetically. Kate was particularly enamored with this poem, and it’s one of my all-time favorites. I especially like these lines and how they read like Coltrane’s music sounds:
a terrible beau-
ty a terrible
beauty a terrible
beauty a horn
“Ethelbert is Coming” — Naming Ourselves
by Colleen Scheck, senior producer
African-American descendants of slaves ponder it, as do descendants of immigrants that arrived at Ellis Island. Expecting parents deliberate it, as does a bride going from maiden to married (or vice versa). Artists muse it, as do people with political or religious intentions. “It” being the meaning of the personal name — or the process of giving, taking, or receiving a name that we experience in multiple ways as giving definition, and sometimes control, to our individual identity.
I’ve been thinking about this since hearing Krista and E. Ethelbert Miller talk about the significance of naming in this week’s show. I appreciated both the weight and the humor in Miller’s description of the experience of naming his children. In his first memoir, Fathering Words, he writes about his own name change:
“…I changed my name my sophomore year at Howard. I reinvented myself. Maybe everything I am writing now is a continuation of that 1969 decision, like the Brown, Supreme Court decision of 1954. I was Gene to my parents, especially my father. I enrolled in college as Eugene E Miller, but like the legal blow against segregation, I became more social and outgoing under the name E. Ethelbert Miller.
How did it happen? Was it as quick as my grandmother changing my father’s last name from Williams to Miller when they came to America? A new identity, an escape as good as anything Houdini could do. The magic was first discovered in the lounge of Drew Hall. A number of us were thinking about running for student government as a ticket. I was selected to run for freshman class treasurer. It was obvious that no one had checked my poor math grades from elementary to high school. A consecutive record of failures with numbers that established a Ripken-like streak. The person handling my campaign was a young coed from Chicago. She had a nice afro and shape, and she was funny and smart. We sat on the floor in the lounge trying to come up with slogans for posters and we couldn’t. She asked about my middle name. Ethelbert, I told her, and she laughed. She came up with this silly expression about ‘Ethelbert Is Coming’ and soon made posters with an airplane, which struck me as stupid, but what did I know about politics. Many students found the expression funny and voted for me and I won.
So I was Eugene Ethelbert Miller after a few weeks away from the Bronx. But folks would call me Eugene until I ran for sophomore class president and decided to cast myself as a new politician. I had resigned from being freshman class treasurer because I refused to spend money on a class party and folks wanted to party and so they did so without me. Just as Richard Nixon became the new Nixon to some, I changed my name to E. Ethelbert Miller…”
In his first memoir, Miller also peppers in writings from his sister, Marie. A nurse, she shares her candid assessment of his name change:
“I thought the entire name change thing was as crazy as getting an afro, or wearing African clothes, or going to Africa. E. Ethelbert Miller, please! What was he getting into down in Washington? All that black stuff was crazy. I saw it on television. It didn’t have anything to do with my life. When you’re thinking about working in a hospital, all you see is red, the color of blood. Folks don’t have no time for race relations when they are sick or dying; and why didn’t my brother take an African name if he wanted to be so black and different? He could have been Kwame, or one of those principles associated with that thing called Kwanzaa. You know, he could have called himself Umoja or something like that.”
I made the traditional choice of taking my husband’s name when I got married, primarily for practical reasons, but also because my maiden name reflected a history of family adoption, so I felt no innate connection to it. It didn’t take long for me to get used to it; in fact, I think the process of changing my social security card took longer. With my son, we chose a name that was simple, sounded regal (to us), and was connected to family heritage. I hope Owen will embrace it, though I’ll be prepared for the reality that he may amend it.
I wonder: What stories, choices, meanings are behind your names? In what ways and in what places do you find yourself pondering the meaning of your name and how it defines you?
Joseph Lowery’s Benediction for Barack Obama’s Inauguration
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
As I was listening to Dr. Lowery’s benediction, I couldn’t help tweeting about how smitten I was with his understated delivery. Rather than placing a surging emphasis on each word, he expressed a quiet dignity with a wry smile and a confident pause. There’s something to be learned by his choice of opening words from the historic anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” his use of humor and, perhaps more importantly, his subtle call-and-response that cleaved people to one another as fellow humans rather than distant observers.
scoured the scoured the Web looking for a transcript and finally found one by the Federal News Service to complement the video of his speech:
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way, thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee. Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand — true to thee, O God, and true to our native land.
We truly give thanks for the glorious experience we’ve shared this day. We pray now, O Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant, Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration. He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national and, indeed, the global fiscal climate. But because we know you got the whole world in your hand, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations. Our faith does not shrink, though pressed by the flood of mortal ills.
For we know that, Lord, you’re able and you’re willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor or the least of these and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.
We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that, yes, we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. And while we have sown the seeds of greed — the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.
And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.
And as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.
Bless President Barack, First Lady Michelle. Look over our little, angelic Sasha and Malia.
We go now to walk together, children, pledging that we won’t get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone, with your hands of power and your heart of love.
Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.
Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around — (laughter) — when yellow will be mellow — (laughter) — when the red man can get ahead, man — (laughter) — and when white will embrace what is right.
Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.
REV. LOWERY: Say amen —
REV. LOWERY: — and amen.
AUDIENCE: Amen! (Cheers, applause.)
What did you think? What did you think of Rev. Warren’s words? Let’s discuss.
A Witness to History, One Day Shy
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
At the end of each day (or often during), my spouse Shelley and I often talk about articles, blogs, and photographs we’ve read and viewed during work. Her reading anchors me to the world outside of the news and journalism business. In my circles so many times, the news is cited at you — ‘Did you read the article about the Ugandan man in the Times?’ ‘Wasn’t that report on breast cancer on CNN…’ and so on — serving as fodder for a potential story we might cover.
This is as it should be, in some respects, but sometimes I feel like the larger point is lost — relating to others, to people and their joys and their sorrows. On Friday, while we were driving, Shelley told me this story about Eugene Allen and his wife:
They talked about praying to help Barack Obama get to the White House. They’d go vote together. She’d lean on her cane with one hand, and on him with the other, while walking down to the precinct. And she’d get supper going afterward. They’d gone over their Election Day plans more than once.
“Imagine,” she said.
“That’s right,” he said.
On Monday Helene had a doctor’s appointment. Gene woke and nudged her once, then again. He shuffled around to her side of the bed. He nudged Helene again. He was all alone.
“I woke up and my wife didn’t,” he said later.
Some friends and family members rushed over. He wanted to make coffee. They had to shoo the butler out of the kitchen.
The lady whom he married 65 years ago will be buried today.
The butler cast his vote for Obama on Tuesday. He so missed telling his Helene about the black man bound for the Oval Office.
Well, we looked at each other, found ourselves choked up, eyes welling and reaching for each other’s hand, and our two boys in the back seat wondering why their mommy and daddy were sad. Through this story, we truly understood the power of this election and its impact on our sons’ generation. But, as importantly, they’ll know how their parents understood each other more deeply and more personally — all through several paragraphs of a single news story.
(photo: Kevin Clark/The Washington Post)
Mississippi on My Mind
Krista Tippett, Host
I spent three fascinating, moving days in Oxford, Mississippi at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in August — the site of the first scheduled presidential debate. I was honored with an invitation to speak to the remarkable Honors College of Ole Miss by its dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales. Oxford was the home of William Faulkner, and it is one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited — marked by a loveliness of people as well as place. Even then, in mid-August, the Secret Service and other affiliated debate authorities had begun to tear up and rearrange that beautiful campus — building elaborate security perimeters and state of the art communications facilities for thousands of journalists. The august building in which I was to speak, the appointed site of the debate, had already been locked down and quarantined. I couldn’t help but think of all these practicalities — at public expense — as I heard John McCain’s announcement of his wish to postpone the debate yesterday. I imagine many hearts sank in Oxford.
And it’s been a wild ride for them all along. The first debate was originally planned to focus on issues of domestic policy and the economy. The Ole Miss faculty and administration created an interdisciplinary semester curriculum around these issues. They lined up an astonishing array of visiting lectures and extracurricular seminars. Then just as school began, the McCain and Obama campaigns agreed to shift the Ole Miss debate focus to foreign policy. Right now it looks like the original plan was more prescient. The university took the change in stride, moving forward with its own well-laid plans, though with some understandable frustration. I joked — but not all in jest — that by November the students at Ole Miss will be the best-informed, most well-rounded thinkers in the nation.
But there are deeper issues at play around this debate, in particular, a convergence of more fundamental national dynamics that could easily be missed in all the politicking around this ultra-politicized event. In 1962, the nation’s eyes focused on Oxford and Ole Miss, as race riots accompanied the integration of the university by a determined African-American student named James Meredith. In just a few days there, I learned that for people who live in and love Oxford even in 2008, history’s subdivisions and ephiphanies still fall on either side of this living memory: time is divided into “before Meredith” and “after Meredith.”
I remember especially one woman who stood with me at the monument to James Meredith at the center of the campus — a wonderful dean at the honors college from an old Oxford family. Her grandparents were close friends of William Faulkner and his wife, icons of a paradoxical past — at once immensely gracious and essentially cruel. She spoke of how after the riots hearts and minds changed individually and ultimately collectively. She suggested, softly, that Oxford has become something of a model for how people and communities can evolve. This is not a story so often told. She said, “We had to realize that we had been wrong — and wrong about a way of life we loved.” I was humbled to be in her presence. I have not spent much time in the Deep South in my life, though I grew up in Oklahoma, where issues of race and bigotry have not often enough met with profound public reflection. In Oxford, I saw people wrestling carefully, searchingly, self-critically, and gracefully with the unresolved American encounter with race. I was impressed.
And so hosting this historic 2008 civil debate between a white candidate for president and an African-American candidate for president means more to the people of Oxford than most of us can imagine. The current chancellor of the university was himself a student “during Meredith.” History is present at Ole Miss, and it is history that we have scarcely found ways in our common life to name and discuss even in the midst of Barack Obama’s historic candidacy. I for one will be watching the people of Oxford tomorrow, not just the candidates. I hope very much that the debate happens.