Fathering Words

Fathering Words


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



This memoir is literary and lyrical, a “standard” American story of how a man came to find and express his voice . . . that might have easily thwarted his development. It is a bildungsroman keenly aware of the literary tradition of African American writers


Books by E. Ethelbert Miller


How We Sleep on the Nights We Don’t Make Love  /  Fathering Words  / In Search of Color Everywhere


First Light: New and Selected Poems Where are the Love Poems for Dictators?  /  Whispers, Secrets and Promises


Beyond The Frontier: African-American Poetry for the 21st Century  / Season of Hunger/Cry of Rain


Synergy: An Anthology of Washington D.C. Black Poetry


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Fathering Words

 E. Ethelbert Miller’s First Memoir

By Julia A. Galbus

In 2000, Washington D.C. poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller (b. 1950) quietly published a memoir, Fathering Words: The Making of An African American Writer, with little supporting fanfare from the publisher, St. Martin’s Press.  On April 7, 2003, the Washington D.C. public library system selected Fathering Words for its second annual DC We Read program, part of a national campaign that promotes literacy through the reading of a common text that suits a local community.  The choice of Fathering Words signals a public acknowledgement that this autobiography appeals to a general audience. 

Fathering Words derives its poetic complexity from the multifaceted influences on Miller’s life.  A memoir about family, it draws upon metaphors from sports, music, and African American history to reveal the heart of loss and the poetry of healing.  Both Miller’s father, Egberto, and his brother, Richard, conceded to being trapped for the sake of other family members’ survival. The narrative is as much a testament to their lives as it is to the chronicle of Miller’s career.  

Ethelbert Miller’s brother Richard supported Ethelbert’s dream to become a writer by encouraging him to leave New York and escape the controlling grasp of their mother.  Ethelbert’s father supports his son in the quiet way of many fathers, by working to pay for the family’s basic necessities.  Both men die before Ethelbert is forty.  The book portrays their mysterious unspoken love and the loss felt by the younger son.  Miller’s mother, Enid, monitors the family’s behavior and prevents her children from being lost to the influences of the streets.  She fails to leave family members room to discover themselves. 

His sister Marie offers a counterpoint to the narrator’s, giving the perspective of a girl and a young woman who can live her mother’s dreams and who can watch her brothers’ lives develop. Although this memoir can be read for the literary history and chronology it offers, and its explanation of networking and choosing writing as a career, the book offers a number of avenues that transcend a traditional literary audience by connecting to a cultural milieu and to a specific, complex family dynamic.  Ethelbert Miller is known for his ability to write from a variety of perspectives in his poetry. In Fathering Words, Miller imagines a voice for his sister Marie. He also considers what his parents’ lives were like before they met and married.  

This memoir is literary and lyrical, a “standard” American story of how a man came to find and express his voice in spite of circumstances that might have easily thwarted his development. It is a bildungsroman keenly aware of the literary tradition of African American writers but also of ordinary people who manage to piece together a life. It acknowledges the price of spiritual and artistic poverty in a household within which a boy could become a writer.  Its power is derived from the poetic language, the depth of emotional texture, and the persistent mystification of making one’s way. Loving without lapsing into sentimentality, this is a view from someone actively engaged with twentieth-century American culture.  

How does a person fashion a life for himself and know he’s made the right choices? Here’s how it happens for Ethelbert Miller:

One night a poem comes to me. Words. Revelations. In the beginning I was a small boy standing on a corner in the Bronx waiting for my father. The sky is gray. I start praying. Suddenly words are escorting me across the street. I reach the other side, proud of what I’ve done. I can write. My prayers are songs. I can make music. I can give color to the world. This is my life. This is my gift (67).

Writing also has an origin in family history. Speaking of his father, Miller explains, “I became a writer because he lived a quiet life and my mother was afraid for us to speak, to draw attention to ourselves, to walk out in to the world and perhaps cross a street or a sea as wide as memory” (175). Langston Hughes’ The Big Sea is one literary father who spoke to Miller when his literal father was nearly silent. 

Considering the passages in this book as a series of related stanzas or prose poems is not misplaced.  Images recur to weave the parts together in a coherent, compressed whole, though some symbols are whispers, unexplained and haunting.  Fathering Words features a compressed, nonlinear narrative order.  Miller draws on a number of recurring images to unite the vignettes that form each thematic chapter. The memoir is a quilt, with “parts taken from the past, present and future” and his brothers and father’s lives exist as “small patches resting next to each other” like their graves (27).  He writes the memoir to preserve their stories and to understand them better. 

The blues provide another element of secular spirit:  “When you can’t find love, your heart stops and listens to music. You walk out of your house and you can’t decide which way to go. So you wait for your ears to lead your eyes. When you hear jazz or the blues, it doesn’t matter how much money you have . . .” (34).  Music is solace, marker, emblem. Music conveys emotion when a person has no one to talk to, or when one needs something external to signify one’s emotions.

The memoir begins with the loss of a father and a brother: “Sorrow and grief can be found in that place within the blues where words end and moans begin. The singer is speechless because the hurt is so bad. The only thing one can do is ride the song” (2). The songs, singers and players support the tale.  Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, Miles Davis and Nina Simone suggest a soundtrack for the memoir.  

Rather than a chronicle of enlightenment, Fathering Words poses questions, suggesting perhaps that pain may lead to creativity. For example:

How do you know who will influence your life?  Suddenly, a cat walks cross your path and you think about your luck and maybe that a spirit is watching over you. Chance, a toss of the dice and you gamble or maybe you finally realize what faith is. How do you begin to embrace the unseen? (158)

Family members affect each others’ lives in countless ways.  The mystery of their actions might cause a person to wonder about his future and to search his past for omens. Whether one reads this book to unearth literary history, or for the connection to popular culture, or to consider the ties between fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, mothers and husbands, the grief is balanced by moments of humor and hope.

Work Cited

Galbus, Julia A. “Fathering Words and Honoring Family: E Ethelbert Miller’s First Memoir.”  Re-markings. 2.2 (2003) 7-19.

Miller, E. Ethelbert. Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.

Julia A. Galbus, Ph.D. University of Southern Indiana

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The 5th Inning by E. Ethelbert Miller

The 5th Inning is poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller’s second memoir. Coming after Fathering Words: The Making of An African American Writer (published in 2000), this book finds Miller returning to baseball, the game of his youth, in order to find the metaphor that will provide the measurement of his life. Almost 60, he ponders whether his life can now be entered into the official record books as a success or failure.

The 5th Inning is one man’s examination of personal relationships, depression, love and loss. This is a story of the individual alone on the pitching mound or in the batters box. It’s a box score filled with remembrance. It’s a combination of baseball and the blues.

To see a clip of Ethelbert reading The 5th Inning click here:

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update 2 August 2008



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