celebrating people of color in the arts

The 5th Inning

In books on January 6, 2009 at 5:44 pm



In March, poet and literary activist, E. Ethelbert Miller will release his second memoir, The 5th Inning. In an exclusive essay for of note, Miller reflects on the family photo that inspired the cover art for the book. “Years before Michelle and Barack, we were the Millers,” he recalls of that ‘family-next-door’ moment.  

But as he unwraps the story behind the photograph – the story of a family and of years passed, he crafts a narrative about the fragments, the spaces, the isolation within our lives. “This is what we do as writers,” he says, “We write about the smiles we can no longer wear and the suffering that we do.”

I’m looking at the book cover of my second memoir, The 5th Inning. The cover features the artwork of my friend Andy Shallal, the owner of Busboys and Poets in Washington D.C. Andy was able to create a collage from a photo taken by Dan Moldea. He took the picture back in 2005 on the day my son Nyere-Gibran graduated from Gonzaga High School. It’s a remarkable photo in that it captures my entire family laughing and in a moment of complete joy. I have no memory of what we were laughing at, other than Dan perhaps saying just relax and disguise yourself for history. We are all standing in the backyard of our house on Underwood Street. In the picture with me are my daughter, mother, sister, son, and wife. What the picture doesn’t capture is what took place in front of the house before Dan arrived. 

It’s my son’s graduation and he is happy. My wife has fixed up the entire house, ordered chairs and tables for the backyard, cooked food and made arrangements for about 50 people or more. Standing in front of the house waiting for people to arrive, my son and I soon realized very few people were coming. I could feel the disappointment in his voice overshadowed by the jokes we  passed back and forth. We both knew that this special day was another day in our lives–that connected us more than blood or flesh. If I was a blues singer I would have presented my son with a guitar and congratulated him for graduating into my world.

Read more

Dan Moldea was the person who drove both of my children home from George Washington University Hospital shortly after they were born. That was in 1982 and 1987. I think this is what made him so interested in taking this picture. In many ways he is the architect putting this African American family together. He is framing us, and this is why we are all smiling. We have been framed. Years before Michelle and Barack, we were the Millers.

My mother, Enid Miller creates the center of the photograph. My father died back in February 1987.The women in the picture out number the men, four to two. This is the score as the game goes into the fifth inning. The women are in charge, defining things, shaping the world in their own image. The four women in the picture are all very strong women. They are fiercely independent. I have argued with all of them, perhaps too much so. I think they are smiling in the picture because they are winning. But what have I lost?

When you look at the cover of The 5th Inning the house we live in is gone. The images have been reduced to fragments. Broken?  We are all isolated and distant from one another. My mother now residing in a nursing home in Yonkers. My son is a head above everyone – and maybe he will escape his “blues” inheritance. This is why I requested the color of the book to be blue. Many games called after the fifth inning end because of rain and darkness.

Above the heads of my family one will find the faces of  baseball all-stars: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Carl Yastrzemski . They represent a pantheon of baseball Gods. They are men who played the game with a considerable degree of grace. Each one has a magical moment in baseball lore. They blessed our nation and in many ways gave us dreams. How often did I run around the South Bronx with my cap flying off like Mays? I always wanted to throw like Clemente. Which brings me back to my literary career and my search for the glorious season. There comes a point in our lives when we know we’re pitching just as hard but the ball isn’t getting to the plate as fast. That’s where things are right now for me.

The 5th Inning is the book I’ve written without the Dunbar mask. The baseball is metaphor only if you understand the game. Baseball embraces silence and space. The loneliness of the player after making an error. The walking in of a run with the bases loaded. The foul-tip that’s dropped…

At the bottom of the cover, Andy Shallal has a baseball figure caught sliding. The face is etched out. You don’t have to see a face. One knows it’s Jackie Robinson stealing home. This is a moment of ancestral memory. It’s the type of play that’s simply daring and unapologetic. I want to write that way. Jackie never had it made. He created his own path. This is what we do as writers. We write about the smiles we can no longer wear and the suffering that we do.

– E. Ethelbert Miller 


  1. I really enjoyed reading these thoughts about your book cover, Mr. Miller, just as I have admired the work you have done in the past. I’m not able to get all the baseball references, but I do know Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem and I’m looking forward to seeing what your memoir looks and sounds like without the mask of “grins and lies.” Thanks!

  2. Hello,
    everything dynamic and very positively


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: