“Revealing Her Story: Documenting African American Women Intellectuals” is a two-year project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to arrange and describe the personal papers of nine African American women writers, artists and musicians. Collections included in the project are the Pearl Cleage papers; additions to the Delilah Jackson papers; the Samella S. Lewis papers; the Almena Lomax papers; the May Miller papers; the Undine Smith Moore papers; the Geneva Southall papers; the Mildred Thompson papers; and the Sarah E. Wright papers. To read the press release announcing the project, click here.
As I worked with poet, playwright, and author May Miller’s collection of writings, one thing was quickly apparent: she began working toward her successful career very early. One of the great discoveries in working through this series was a group of notebooks that Miller kept as a teenager growing up in Washington D.C. The typical teenage notebook jottings are nowhere to be found. Instead the notebooks are full of handwritten drafts of one-act plays, poems, and short stories. At a young age, Ms. Miller knew what she wanted to spend her life doing. In fact, these notebooks serve as a precursor for the wide-ranging scope of Miller’s writing throughout her life. Working in plays, prose, and poetry, the different aspects to Miller’s writing are included in the writing series of her collection.
Miller published her first poem and play before graduating high school, where playwrights Mary Burrill and Angelina Grimke were faculty members. She then continued onto Howard University where she graduated at the top of her class in 1920 (a draft of her valedictorian speech is included in the series) and won an award for her play Within the Shadow. In the subsequent years she wrote some of the most important plays of the Harlem Renaissance. Her 1925 play The Bog Guide won 3rd prize in a contest held by Opportunity magazine that also awarded works by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen. The following year her play The Cuss’d Thing was an honorable mention in a drama contest sponsored by Opportunity. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s she wrote more than twenty plays before writing her last play, Freedom’s Children on the March, in 1943 and turning her attention to poetry. The writing series contains twenty of her plays, including The Cuss’d Thing and The Bog Guide, nearly all of which have multiple handwritten and typed drafts, providing a valuable glimpse into her writing process. Going through the boxes, I was constantly surprised at the wealth of complete drafts that I was pulling out.
While perhaps not as well-remembered for her poetry, Miller was just as prolific as a poet. She published nine poetry collections, and her poetry was found in the pages of well-known literary magazines. She read her poetry at the inauguration of Washington D.C.’s first home-rule mayor, Walter Washington. The following year she read at the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter. Once I began going through her poetry folders it became quickly apparent just how much poetry she wrote. A large volume of unpublished poems was in one box, while another was filled to the brim with poems in a range of states: some typescript drafts, some handwritten on the back of envelopes. Many of the poems include multiple drafts, most of which have her editorial marks and annotations.
The series was a welcome introduction to a writer who I’d heard of but, frankly, didn’t know that much about. The range of genres that Miller worked in was incredibly impressive, made even more so by their quality, be it a poem, play, or short story.