“Paradise is Everywhere We Build it” – Ethelbert Miller (posted to Facebook on October 25, 2014)

Saturday, October 25, 2014


Being a literary activist over the years has been very challenging. One often has to make decisions or give advice that is not popular. Hopefully one keeps the big picture in mind and thinks about the future and not simply the present. Recently Toni Morrison decided to give her papers to Princeton.

This generated “Internet static” and sunspot commentary about why she didn’t donate her life work to Howard University. This overlooks the serious situations that continues to haunt historical black colleges and universities. Many keep struggling just to survive. Those that have turned the corner often have more interest in business and science matters. Art is good if it makes money. How many black colleges would sell their art collections if it could help raise money to build a new dorm?

It makes no sense for an institution to acquire a collection if they don’t have the staff to catalog material. Preservation is very important. Climate control within buildings is essential to maintaining documents. Storage and access is critical. At the end of the day one is creating a sacred place for scholars. We save things so that memory is not lost and history does not become homeless.

I’ve worked at Howard for over forty years. I’ve given many things to the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. These items I felt were best kept at the University because they were part of an ongoing narrative. I gave everything I collected about Sterling Brown to Howard. I felt it was the proper place. I was responsible for Howard obtaining material that once belonged to Kwame Nkrumah. I donated my correspondence with June Milne to the university so that a record of how Nkrumah’s material arrived at the school would not be lost. Milne was Nkrumah’s literary executor.

Many years ago, I gave a lecture at George Washington University and mentioned the need for a DC literary archive. I was encouraged to write a proposal – which I did. The performance artist and writer Chasen Gaver (who died of AIDS in 1989) was the first person who understood how important this type of archives could become. Chasen left his personal collection to the Gelman Library at George Washington University. He turned over to me the copyright of all his work. The Gelman Library at George Washington has taken a very active role in helping to preserve Washington’s literary history. Today, I now serve on the advisory council to the Gelman Library. My own collection is part of the Gelman’s special collections and can easily be accessed by going online.

No one institution has a monopoly on black culture. In fact as we move into the future there will be more sharing of resources. Instead of complaining where material is being donated we should be encouraging our young people to develop the research skills so that the material collected will be examined and explained to the beautiful ones not yet born.

Let us not be a race of hoarders or a race that keeps believing every white person is out to steal our blackness or make money out of it. At the end of the day – what we collect and save are our stories.  They are for everyone to share, celebrate and enjoy.

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