E. Ethelbert Miller’s tribute to James Early. Busboys and Poets (Takoma) - May 4, 2015Su Andi | May 8, 2015
Yet, there are things we many never know about him. There are rumors that this man has more passports than Jason Bourne. It is believed he will live forever because of a Santeria ritual that took place in Harvard Hall. Why should a man help plan a Folk Life Festival when he is already the folk?
And so this is where we begin because there are no endings. James Early has retired from the Smithsonian Institution. What does this mean? Are there only 10 minutes left, like the name of a show he once hosted on WHUR-FM?
Do Morehouse men ever really truly retire or do they simply continue to work after work? Consider Benjamin Mays, Lerone Bennett or the King himself. For James, it seems his days always consisted of another nation to visit, another conference to address, and no rest for the activist traveler.
But the Early life has always been filled with music and laughter - late into the night. He has always been surrounded by friends, his wife and his boys. If you pass his home on 13th Street, the frontyard seem protected by spirits from the Gullah or ancestors from an ancient time or maybe simply a page from a Henry Dumas story. If there is a lull in traffic one might just hear the ghost of Mongo Santamaria playing those drums as if 13th Street was some kind of crossroads and perhaps even Marion Barry could find a way back to the living.
From the Center for Folklife and Cutltural Heritage, the Anacostia Museum, the National Endowment for the Humanities, TransAfrica, IPS and Howard University, from places near to places far, there is that river Vincent Harding often talked about; that river forever moving and changing, and what Baraka might in his terribleness called the changing same. What we knew in the past is what we know now -today - James Counts Early is our bright and shinning star. For years we looked to him for direction, insight and knowledge. He has guided us out of darkness so that like DuBois we might see the dawn, like Mandela our feet will know that long walk to freedom.
Or as June Jordan would write - James - “let us turn the face of history to your face.” We thank you with the words written inside our hearts. We thank you with our love now made visible by your strength, by your dedication and service not just to an institution but to life itself.
Which brings me to my final comment before I introduce Bernice Reagon, the woman whose voice made me understand that the ear was an organ made for love.
If you get a chance, search the Internet until you find a photograph of James Early, Amiri Baraka and myself walking across the Howard University campus. It is James, on the left doing all the talking. The picture is important because it documents that James Early walks with the poets. It was his love for Sterling Brown that made Brown the poet laureate of Washington, D.C. It has been our friendship that has often pulled me out of my own despair.
So, I conclude my remarks by reciting the words from the poet all poets love.
Here is Neruda’s Sonnet 27. This is a poem I think everyone in this room would dedicate to you - dear James. It captures what you mean to us…
I love you without knowing how or when
or from where
I love you simply without problems or pride
I love you in this way because I don’t know
Any other way of loving
But this, in which there is no I or you
So intimate that your hand upon my chest
Is my hand
So intimate that when I fall asleep
It is your eyes that close
What I like about this poem is how it embraces the mystery of love. In the poem love is to be found in humility. Love in this poem is intimacy and oneness. In Neruda’s work this type of love embraces not just man and woman, it also represents one’s love of land, life and country. It represents a love for the people.
This is what you have always given us James Early. This is why we praise you today and tomorrow.