When E. Ethelbert Miller heard in April 2015 that 84 staff positions had been cut at Howard University, he never considered that his might be one of them. If he had lost his job, wouldn’t somebody have actually told him? But after he found himself locked out of his office computer, Miller—who for 40 years had overseen Howard’s renowned archive and reference collection, the African American Resource Center—started to wonder what was going on. Five days later, he still couldn’t get a straight answer.
Eventually, he learned he had been let go. The botched layoff, followed by an apologetic call from university president Wayne Frederick, drew heated criticism. Supporters of Miller—a longtime activist, poet, and archivist—accused Howard of not grasping the significance of his role as a mentor and community leader. The school responded that the decision was purely financial.
With his soft voice, bold glasses, and signature sartorial flair (he often sports a fedora), Miller cuts a figure somewhere between 1940s jazz musician and tweedy professor. Sitting in the dining room of his red-brick Colonial in Brightwood not long ago, he was still grappling with the end of his career at Howard. “Many people there had no idea what I did,” says the 67-year-old author, who attributes his termination to ageism and what he sees as a creeping corporate mentality that has shifted Howard’s priorities. “There was no appreciation.”
But Miller is now mostly focused on moving forward. He continues to serve as executive editor of Poet Lore, the nation’s oldest poetry journal, and he helms a weekly morning radio show on WPFW called On the Margin. This month, he also releases his 16th book, If God Invented Baseball, a collection of 49 poems about America’s pastime. It’s a subject that’s particularly meaningful to the longtime fan of the sport and devoted Nationals follower. “When I look at baseball, it is about winning,” he says, “but it’s also about the beauty of the game.”
Baseball isn’t just a source of inspiration—it has also helped Miller get through some of his toughest moments. “The day I cleaned out my office at Howard University, a couple of hours later I was at the ballpark,” he says. “It was very meditative. Sports can be really comforting at key points in your life.”
A brief but evocative meditation on sports and mortality from E. Ethelbert Miller’s new book, If God Invented Baseball:
Spring training again
Young players replace the old
The game is too short
Copyright © 2018 by E. Ethelbert Miller. Reprinted by permission of City Point Press.
This article appears in the February 2018 issue of Washingtonian.