Arthenia J. Bates Millican

(b. 1920)

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(b. 1920), poet, educator, short fiction writer, lecturer, and humanist of the rural southern folk.

Born Arthenia Bernetta Jackson on 1 June 1920, in Sumter, South Carolina, this African American woman of the South rose above her obscure place in letters in the 1980s. Her parents, Calvin Shepard Jackson and Susan Emma David, were both professionals who embraced education and religion. The mother, however, was extremely class-conscious, a quality Arthenia Bates never adopted. In fact, a hallmark of her writing is her love of the folk, evident in her themes and the dialect and rhythms of her short stories. Her exposure, on an intimate level, to common people came through her two marriages to nonprofessional men, Noah Bates on 11 June 1950, and Wilbert Millican on 14 August 1969. The marriage to Bates ended in divorce in 1956, and Millican's mother never forgave her for marrying the laborer Bates and the dockworker Millican, thus removing herself from the privileged African American middle class.

Millican's early career was as a teacher and department head in South Carolina and Virginia public schools. She finished Morris College in Sumter, South Carolina, in 1941, earned a master's degree from Atlanta University in 1948, and earned a PhD from Louisiana State University in 1972, writing a dissertation on James weld on Johnson, “In Quest of an AfroCentric Tradition for Black American Literature.”This was a long-deferred dream. While in Atlanta, she studied the art of poetry writing with Langston Hughes, a major influence.

In 1969, after a lifetime of writing, Millican published her Seeds Beneath the Snow: Vignettes from the South. Much of her literary reputation is based on this work, a collection of short stories that has steadily gained a national reputation. Millican thought of the people of Virginia as late-blooming seeds that survived in spite of a blanket of snow.

Critical reception of Seeds Beneath the Snow was highly favorable, and Millican was compared to Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Zora Neale Hurston, and Thomas Hardy. The Washington Post, in a 1970 review, praised Millican for her “primitive themes.” CLA Journal, in 1973, cited the writer for her unusual ability as a “local colorist.”Millican's ability to sketch characters may be attributed to her immersion in Henry James and her direct involvement on the front porches with people of the community during her first marriage.

Millican's critical and scholarly articles have appeared in the Southern University Bulletin, Negro American Literature Forum, and CLA Journal. Harlo Press of Detroit published her The Deity Nodded in 1973, and Millican published Such Things from the Valley in 1977. Her fiction has appeared in Black World (July 1971), Obsidian (1975), and Callaloo (December 1975).

As an educator, Millican gave most of her career to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she taught from 1956 until her retirement in 1980. In an unusual town-gown initiative, she and others at Southern University formed a group called the Academic Humanists in order to bridge the wide gap between college and community.


Subjects: Literature.

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