A.T. grew up in a large, active, musical, creative, overeducated, and socially-engaged family with many siblings and cousins found on the shores of two–one very large, and one very small–Midwestern U.S. lakes in the Chicago area. Museums and libraries, outdoor adventures, along with concerts and plays both on stage and in the audience, were a constant part of his childhood. His father’s family has a long Quaker heritage to which A.T. maintains a commitment, serving as an adult in the leadership of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. In his video, you can see the top of the chair of Ebeneezer Miller on which A.T. is sitting, a chair brought from Connecticut, where Quakers were not welcome, to Salem, New Jersey in the 18th century. One, of many, famous Quaker sayings is, “Let us see what Love can do”, a quote which inspired one of the songs A.T. has written and sings with his husband, Craig Kukuk, in their folk duo, Bridgewater.
With much of his time devoted to interpreting and seeking to influence the world he encounters through poetry, religious philosophy, music, public action, and social justice teaching and cultural awareness, A.T.’s life is centered in the humanities. That didn’t prevent him from being elected as a Bernie Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2016, his first return to active electoral politics since the Rainbow Coalition of 1988.
A.T. has a long association with various African communities. In the video, one can see the prominent Touareg necklace, a traveler’s protection, that A.T received on a visit to Mali in West Africa. He was there twice, first for the engagement of his niece to a Malian doctor, and then for their wedding. On both occasions, a maternal uncle plays a significant role, and A.T. was happy to do so. As a young person, A.T. had spent eight years on the opposite side of the continent in East Africa helping to establish a secondary school that now bears his name, and devoting time over a number of additional years to working with the National Music Festivals of Kenya. Some from those communities called him “mukhwasi”, meaning “an in-law” and in later life it is interesting how his niece has made that distantly true. Not wishing to objectify his African friends and work, his Ph.D. study was devoted to African American cultural studies, but informed by his experience of rural Africa, as well as his commitments to a view of the North American continent that connects to justice and love.
My essay, Present, which features narrative vignettes coupled with poetry, is found in the volume published as a part of this Scholar as Human project. For this web-based work, text is minimized in favor of video, photo imagery, and journalistic links, together with poetry. Please click on the various links, listen, watch, read, and explore.
Here is the introduction to the printed essay:
“May I have your attention, please? I’d also like to give you mine. It’s something that we can do together, and, in fact, be fully present to each other, as a gift, as mutual exchange, as food for thought, inspiration, some level of relationship, perhaps. We share stories and interpretations of our lives and worlds in ways that require one to be present. I actually need to go to the gallery, to attend the concert, to become part of the audience in the theaters of dance and drama, to visit the historic site, to actually read the book, to engage in the discussion, or to share my ideas, to tell my story and to hear others, and to listen, to protest. My opinions and my analysis are informed by, and shaped by, and depend upon my presence. One of the pleasures of our seminar has been being with each other on Wednesdays, in the same room, and of bouncing our ideas off of one another, mixing the serious ideas with the humorous asides and the excited interruptions. Amidst the rising tide of mediated messages and manipulative iconography designed to make us jump to quick and uncritical conclusions at their bite, we still wish to get together and exchange ideas and to be witnesses to each other’s making of meaning in the stories we tell about our lives, this world, ourselves.”
During the seminar, a controversy arose on campus connected to an art installation. I chose as part of my session in October of 2016 to bring our group out to look at the work and discuss the controversy in its presence. You can read about the controversy, the work, and its artist here:
Below, in a photo taken by Ella Diaz, you can see my hand and the plaque describing the installation, with the plaque itself obscuring a member of our group.
It stands near a grove of pine trees, trees important to the Cayuga people, and the type of tree we planted in 2014 when I led the effort to bring Graduate Horizons to Cornell.
The Graduate Horizons program seeks to increase the presence of indigenous people at the heart of the research university in graduate and professional study and ultimately as faculty members.
Here is the letter in which the university President, in response to the controversy, makes a commitment to acknowledge the Cayuga presence in this place. My poem, Solidarity, follows.
We stand above Cayuga’s waters
Here upon Cayuga’s land
The people here who keep the beauty from so long ago–
Can we adopt the ancestors, can we with honor
Stand upon these heights that are not ours?
Come down, bend near, rock low
For sun and earth are loaned to us for these days here with you
And how injustice lingers, listen, notice, even now as you reclaim the shore,
With us, if we so dare to say, take us with you,
Oh bear us up, with knee and arm and shoulder square
We honor you, Cayuga, we.
All the deepest cracks within the earth, and
All the falls that run the rocks
The tumble and the splash
The violent rush, the diving tempting fear upon the bridge
Yes, all the cooling waters that reflect the day, the falls, the fall, the trees
The burning branches, cooling evenings there
The nights, the dropping droplets flow
To one, the lake, that bears us up
The boats, the float, the know–
We ride the depths upon the fracture filled,
The will to one, the cracking full,
No further fall, the all, the water’s wide–
We wade, we drink, we live.
Alone we never sing
For it is not a song without a hearing one
In harmony the notes belong
And tune to one another, yes
Anticipate the time
Compose the power of our beauty
In d’Artagnan’s mode
The one in all, the all, the one
And when we reach divide, no conquer then,
No long division comes because
We know the waters
Yes, we know the falls become the lake,
The chasm filled, we cross,
And of the French, as kin, say we/oui
A.T. Miller, October 2012
I serve as the Principal Investigator on the federal grant supporting the McNair Scholars at Cornell, a program to bring many individuals from under-represented identities into the professoriate. Building on the work of events and organizations like Graduate Horizons, we do the following in McNair at Cornell:
Aspirations—For the McNair Scholars
There is a tower here on campus
One whose door is open many days
A spire to climb its many steps
And hear the bells, the call to learn
Of heights and sounds, the sights afar
You see the waters edge and on to sail
You see the rolling hills, the trees, the land
The sky, the clouds, the spire is solid, tall.
And inspiration leads us up the stair
The questions answered on the way
We rise in curiosity and hope
That many others have the energy to climb
And by degrees to see horizons wide
Perhaps the whole of earth above this space
Perhaps the smallest atom piece or spark
We learn together, each one adding more.
So now you join the arching, climbing
To the top, the many bells, the chimes
That ring a thousand thousands songs
The possibilities are yours and also ours
The shared in knowledge, in the joy
Of adding new to treasures stored
We’re here to add your sounding tone
A gift, a wonder, work, a truth to know.
A.T. Miller, April 2015
The Intergroup Dialogue Project
And for the conflicts and misunderstandings that inevitably arise during this conscious shift of power and presence, I brought to Cornell the Intergroup Dialogue Project [VIDEO] (See right)
IDP depends upon the skills to work effectively across difference. I wrote this poem about facilitation when I first started assisting graduate student instructors in gaining solid facilitation skills for an inclusive, intercultural classroom at the University of Michigan, where I was faculty director of the Center for Global and Intercultural Study.
On this journey we all walk,
A day, a time, a purpose
Hopes us into here together
To learn, to be, to talk
And find the how of helpfulness
To challenge, hold, not walk away
The insights sit inside us all
Waiting for the key that lets them in
To wider spaces, shared,
Not bursting on a private pillow
Crushed or vented in the night apart
The skill we seek can make the secrets known
Can bring to light, or make the sable darkness richer
And move the rock to clear the path
How do we crack the ice
Without our falling through?
How do we swim the depths,
But still all reach the shore?
A.T. Miller September 2003
Truth and Reconciliation
These skills have some of their greatest exercise in the practices of truth and reconciliation developed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. He sought to develop and support a local human and humane process of building a new nation from the horrifying legacy of apartheid, and I had the honor to be involved in an occasion to honor him for that, as seen in the article below and the poem I wrote to introduce him to my class.
Praise Poem for Archbishop Desmond Tutu
It’s a little name you wear
A smile that’s small
That fits your dancing soul
With room for both of us and yet another also
And points out where we’re going–
Oh, take us with you, merry man.
The dream you had
For all of us
Came really true
And planted seeds of other dreams
In soil of clay and rock, both desert dry and fertile, too,
Inspiring songs from notes and bars, the prophet’s voice–
The chorus grew.
And let us pause with love for ancestors,
The grandfathers whose dreams were never known,
But were the gold they buried in the mines
and never sold.
When hope is hard
A spirit speaks,
But needs a voice of steady pitch
And principles are paths that must be walked with strength,
Though where they lead, the walker only dares to know
By moving forward in the front of fear,
A bramble only faith can clear.
The life you’ve lived for all the ones whose lives were lost
In times where color killed, was read all over.
It’s your humility that gives us pride
Your power in the stand the disempowered held.
Across the sea, in other worlds far south
Where spring is blooming, just as here the winter comes
What balance do we find in opposites?
It’s only ‘til they’re reconciled, the tipping stops,
And that which would have sunk is steadied in a calming sea.
The struggle in the life to which we’re born
Cannot be dodged, but also when the round is through
The fighter knows the count, and after ten
Must leave the vanquished on the mat,
But who can shake that bloody hand?
There are the saints who show us all
What is the victor/victim’s wound that must be seen
To then be healed
And tears can cleanse the hardened heart that did the wrong,
But only in the light of truth,
The glaring white that finds its match
In sable darkness, comfort of forgiven crimes.
The little girl…
That youthful dream…
And grandma’s hope…
The men…, the fists…, awetu!
How did you gather pieces all, each tragedy
And build a home, from shards, a glass
Reflecting on a world anew?
You were the one who went to school
And made your education free for all
And taught the ones we thought would never learn.
And so we build
We honor lives both lost and found
And give to those who gave, a prize.
Take wisdom from the dancing stars
The southern cross
A bishop’s prayer.
Equality has many names
And glory comes when truth is told,
No gilding words, but boldly paid
In stories where we kiss the ring, we find the gold.
Inspired, the young embrace the old
Will live within our hearts
And ripen in a wider world of gratitude
For what will come.
A.T. Miller, October 2008
These are just a few examples in my work and efforts on being present. Others are described in the print essay. Thank you for being present in this virtual way to our seminar, our thinking, and the many ways we all can be.
- You can hear more of A.T. and his husband singing here: www.reverbnation.com/bridgewaterfolkduo
- In 2014, A.T. actually presided at the adoption of this document, “The World We Seek
FCNL’s Statement of Legislative Policy”: https://www.fcnl.org/updates/the-world-we-seek-25
- A.T.’s faculty page is here: http://english.cornell.edu/at-miller