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We were at opposite ends of the political spectrum: May Miller Sullivan was from the old school, still calling herself a Negro in the ’80s. I was fed cultural nationalistic ideology, wearing my hair naturally kinky. But those differences were minor. It was May’s art, the movement of her words and messages on the page that compelled me and other writers to respect her and to sing her praises.
I first met May through Pageants and Plays, an anthology published in the early part of the century. A history buff, I was fascinated by the rich contribution the District of Columbia had made to the canon of African-American letters, and baffled that so few knew about the city’s literary giants, some of whom went on to find support and attention in New York. Learning that May Miller Sullivan was still alive and well in the District was like discovering the main vein in a gold mine. At her little apartment on S Street NW, May held court for a new group of young writers—and I was among them. We quizzed her about everything: segregated life in the city, teaching in Baltimore, being a dancer. But her stories about literary life were the most fascinating.
May was the daughter of educator and essayist Kelly Miller (for whom a D.C. public school is named), and such notable writers as James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois knocked on her family’s door. Paul Lawrence Dunbar lived in the Millers’ house when he worked at the Library of Congress. Later, soirees of the “Saturday Nighters” were held at Georgia Douglas Johnson’s house on S Street, not far from where May Miller Sullivan, 96, died on Feb. 8 from pneumonia.
That I could become pleasurably inebriated on the abundant history May poured for us to drink was not what endeared her to me. Her books of poetry, including Halfway to the Sun, Dust of Uncertain Journey, Clearing and Beyond, and Not That Far, demonstrated her mastery of metaphor, phrasing, and rhythm: “We never knew/the earth is blue/until a fellow called/from outer space/half-way to the moon,” she wrote in “The Great Gem,” which appears in a collection of her children’s writings, Halfway to the Sun. She seemed to be on a self-ascribed mission to immunize D.C.’s children against hardship by inoculating them with literature. As chair of the literature panel for the D.C. Commission on the Arts, she advocated the Poets in the Schools program, sending professional writers to guide young imaginations to a life of poetry. And when her time on that committee ran out, May conducted workshops and readings at neighborhood libraries.
During the past three or four years, life as a journalist took me physically away from May and the comfort of her living room. While she never earned a Pulitzer or was perceived as a national writer of stature, for me and other poets in the District, she was the grande dame—a woman who could weave a poem simply with her generous smile.