Monday, April 13, 2015

Reginald Dwayne Betts' Letter to Howard University on E. Ethelbert Miller's Termination After 40 Years

Dear Dr. Frederick:

A few days ago I was devastated to learn that Howard University is letting Ethelbert Miller go after a career and commitment to the institution that has lasted longer than the thirty-four years I’ve been alive. 

It would be simple to just recount the impact that Ethelbert has had on Howard University graduates. Many of my friends recall Ethelbert changing their lives. Friends who graduated from Howard as recently as five years ago and as long as twenty. But such a recitation of honors would not suffice. Instead I will tell you a story. When I got out of prison just over ten years ago, I met Yao Glover. I had just been hired at Karibu Books, an African-American institution that started as a book cart near Howard University. Yao knew that I was a poet. He also knew that prison is a troubling place and that coming home a young man like myself would need support. Yao would send me to a man who had a huge influence on his development as a poet and man of the community: Ethelbert Miller. 

I knew who Ethelbert Miller was. I’d been writing poetry for sometime and reading poetry for longer. Still, I did not know Ethelbert worked at Howard University. I’d been out of prison a little more than two months and had no sense of how the world of academia and arts worked. What I did know is the name Ethelbert. Years before he’d published my very first poem, a poem I typed on a prison type writer and mailed to Poet Lore with a stamp that bore the red mark of incarceration. I’ll never forget the day I received the acceptance letter and will never forget the day I went to meet Ethelbert.

Let me be frank, my affinity for Howard University as an institution begins with Ethelbert Miller. When I received a full tuition academic scholarship to attend Howard University, I wanted to go because I’d read Ethelbert’s memoir. And when the university rescinded my scholarship because I checked a box admitting that I have three felony convictions and spent time in prison, it crushed me. Not just because I wanted to be a Bison – but because the institution fundamentally seemed to respond to me in the exact opposite way that Ethelbert did. And I had always believed that Ethelbert represented all that was great about Howard University. In fact, in the face of that huge personal disappointment, it has only been Ethelbert’s connection to the institution that led to my continued support.

Probably, I should be able to think about this in a way that is not so personal. Probably, I should not think about the disservice that has been done to Ethelbert in a way that makes me talk about myself. But I can’t. At two very important moments of my life Ethelbert Miller was, in very real ways, the voice of the Black community that helped me understand and believe in my own worth. He did this with his presence. And I am fortunate that he did. Because as I have gone on to be accepted by a number largely white institutions, receiving a full tuition scholarship at the University of Maryland, a Radcliffe Fellowship at the Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, and being admitted into the Yale Law School – as I have gone on to do these things, I do them remembering Ethelbert’s voice asking me if I’ve talked to my dad lately. I remember Ethelbert’s voice talking to me about fatherhood. Helping me to develop myself in a way that I once believed Howard was dedicated to as an institution. 

Sadly, it seems that I was mistaken about Howard.  There is a bitter irony that I write this letter from the Yale Law School, a legal institution that accepted me with all of my past failures and flaws. Here, they value their icons. The walls are littered with their faces. It saddens me that Howard does not do the same. I cannot bring myself to believe that financial concerns justify such a disservice.  

Reginald Dwayne Betts
J.D. Candidate, 2016
Yale Law School 


Simone Roberts said...

Yes, Mr. Betts, this is the very epitome of travesty. Thank you for this letter. I hope Mr. Miller is uplifted by it. I hope Howard U hears you loud and clear.

Jacquelyn Pope said...

Beautifully written. I too hope that Howard University hears and understands that Ethelbert Miller is a truly amazing man--in any terms, a tremendous asset to the university.

sinbad said...

I am shocked beyond belief. Why is it that howard university destroys and gets rid of its best: ethelbert miller, claudia tate, toni morrison, just to name 3 of so many. They even mistreated the great poet, amiri baraka when he came to look at his own papers in the library basement--they would not let him go down to see them unless i, as a faculty member, went with him!! This termination of ethelbert is the worst thing i have heard of; he made howard's name with his own creation, THE AFRO AMERICAN RESOURCE CENTER. I SAY, FIRE THE PRESIDENT OF HOWARD U. AND REPLACE HIM WITH ETHELBERT. prof. sam hamod, princeton university and howard univ, retired.

Ife Kilimanjaro said...

This is disappointing. As an HU alumni whose experience at the university was made better by Professor E. Ethelbert Miller i am deeply disappointed. Thank you Mr. Betts for your letter. This is only one of many decisions that HU leadership has made in the past decade that is problematic, including the attack on liberal arts (attempts to shut down the Philosophy and Sociology departments to name a couple).

I agree with the prior statements.

Loraine Hutchins said...

Just sad, just very sad. Ethelbert has inspired me for years, in many ways, poetically, politically, and as a visionary connector of peoples, ideas, art, love, humanity. Academentia doesn't know what it's throwing away.

Anonymous said...

I have known Ethelbert Miller as a fellow poet and friend and activist for many years. He should be treasured by Howard and by us all for his literature and his wisdom and his quest for justice. Howard demeans itself by terminating him. Does that University want to be known as the Terminator of Beauty?
Ariel Dorfman.

Tuere Marshall said...

Reginald, so proud to know how far you have come -- I'll be looking for you to do even great things in your future. Your letter confirms what many folk in the community know about Ethelbert. He has been able to identify and encourage the best in us. Let us not forget -- HUniv has become a part of American history with the profits over people bottom line.