Things My Father Told Me

Things My Father Told Me

Long before terms like role model and conferences
about the black family, and black masculinity
and why so many black men are incarcerated, my father
turned down the volume of the television and casually told
me how he could leave my mother, how he could be like other
men who walked out the door and never came back.

I was too young to understand what he was saying
because he was speaking to the future in me.
My father always kept his hat by the door.
There were nights when I could not sleep, when I walked
from the back of the house to the front door, when I went looking
to see if my father’s hat was still sleeping, that it had not found
its shirt, pants, shoes, or coat.

I once held my father’s hat in my hand like a crown
I could not wear. My age undeserving of its weight and not 
understanding the beauty of its pain.

The Sickness of Sails 

When did middle age become the 
Middle Passage? You measure the distance
from the shore by the number of friends
who died. You measure the deepness
of the ocean by how many struggle
to survive.

Our chains are too often our jobs
and disappointments. Our chains
are our fears, the darkness, the unknown.

We all one day will stand on the block
waiting to be sold. What is old age but
the slave of youth and death a curious
thing called freedom.


  • E. Ethelbert Miller was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1950. He attended Howard University and received a BA in African American studies in 1972. A self-described “literary activist,” Miller is on the board of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive multi-issue think tank, and has served as director of the African American Studies Resource Center at Howard University since 1974. His collections of poetry include Andromeda (1974), The Land of Smiles and the Land of No Smiles (1974), Season of Hunger / Cry of Rain (1982), Where Are the Love Poems for Dictators? (1986), Whispers, Secrets and Promises (1998), and How We Sleep on the Nights We Don’t Make Love (2004). Miller is the editor of the anthologies Women Surviving Massacres and Men (1977); In Search of Color Everywhere (1994), which won the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and was a Book of the Month Club selection; and Beyond the Frontier (2002). He is the author of the memoir Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer (2000).

  • In the 1970s the Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, with the help of NASA Ames Research Center and Stanford University, held a series of space colony summer studies which explored the possibilities of humans living in giant orbiting spaceships. Colonies housing about 10,000 people were designed and a number of artistic renderings of the concepts were made. For more information see The Public Domain Review at