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May Miller

(1899—1995)


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(1899–1995), poet and playwright.

May Miller was born on 26 January 1889 in Washington, D.C., to Annie May Butler and Kelly Miller, a distinguished professor of sociology at Howard University. At Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, May Miller studied with prominent African American dramatist Mary Burrill and poet Angelina Weld Grimké. As a drama major at Howard University, she directed, acted, and produced plays while collaborating with Alain Locke and Montgomery Gregory in the founding of a black drama movement. Later, she taught speech, theater, and dance at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, Maryland, and was a lecturer and poet at Monmouth College, the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and the Philips Exeter Academy.

Most of her plays were written between 1920 and 1945. A number won drama prizes, including Within the Shadows, Bog Guide, and The Cuss'd Thing. Four were published in the anthology she edited with Willis Richardson in 1935: Negro History in Thirteen Plays, a collection that firmly established Miller's national reputation. Of these, Sojourner Truth is notable for its inclusion of white characters who are changed by their contact with a black character, but this play seems somewhat wooden compared to the powerful Harriet Tubman, about a spurned mulatto suitor attempting to betray other slaves in pursuit of money with which to buy his own freedom. The plays set in the African Sudan (Samory) and Haiti (Christophe's Daughters) lack the verisimilitude of her other work. Miller's Ridin’ the Goat uses humor to challenge the values of the black middle class and to suggest the importance of community rituals and cultural practices. Other important plays include Scratches (1929) and the antilynching Nails and Thorns (1933).

By the mid-1940s, Miller devoted most of her attention to poetry. Fairly traditional in their form and language, Miller's volumes of poetry include Into the Clearing (1959); Poems (1962); Lyrics of Three Women: Katie Lyle, Maude Rubin, and May Miller (1964); Not That Far (1973); The Clearing and Beyond(1974); Dust of Uncertain Journey(1975); and The Ransomed Wait (1983). Editor of Green Wind (1978) and My World (1979), she also authored a book of children's poems, Halfway to the Sun (1981). Her poems frequently engage in significant spiritual and ethical questions. “Late Conjecture,”for instance, questions the meaning of Christ's sacrifice, while Miller's “The Dream of Wheat”envisions “unnumbered rows of ripened wheat”that “March to greedy ovens.”The poem ends by demanding starkly “Who will eat?/ Who go hungry?”Her poems have been published in Phylon, the Antioch Review, the Crisis, the Nation, the New York Times, and Poetry, and have been praised by Gwendolyn Brooks as “excellent and long-celebrated”and by Robert Hayden, who has said of May Miller that she “writes with quiet strength, lyric intensity. She is perceptive and compassionate, a poet of humane vision.”Miller read her poetry at the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter, and is included in a 1972 Library of Congress collection of poets reading their own works. May Miller, who died on 11 February 1995, lived to see the manifestation of her own prediction of the importance of the movement she encouraged, the “little one-act play groups that performed in churches and schools [and which were] a forerunner to what we're doing now”(quoted in DLB, vol. 41, 1985).

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Subjects: Literature.


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