Though his office was filled with stacks of books sprouting from every inch of the floor, Professor of English and American Studies James Miller always made room for his students and colleagues. His mentees would wind through the towering piles of volumes by Ralph Ellison, Booker T. Washington and Richard Wright and sit with Dr. Miller to talk about assignments, ideas and thoughts on literature. Often, the conversations lasted hours—Dr. Miller was the most generous when it came to his time.
The longtime professor died last Friday after an illness. His colleagues remembered him as more than a scholar of African American literary and cultural studies. He was a mentor dedicated to both the George Washington University and the wider D.C. community.
“Jim Miller was always a schoolteacher and one of those quiet giants. He preferred to talk about others than himself. Such are those with supreme confidence in themselves and in their missions,” said Maurice Jackson, a professor at Georgetown University and longtime friend of Dr. Miller.
Dr. Miller came to GW in 1998. He brought with him years of experience writing about 20th - and 21st-century black literature—the title of his Ph.D. dissertation is “The Struggle for Identity in the Major Works of Richard Wright.” One of the authors he respected most was Ralph Ellison, whom he had met as an undergraduate student at Brown University.
“Ellison was an absolutely decisive figure in my intellectual career,” Dr. Miller told GW Today in 2014. “He always had something rich, powerful and insightful to say about American life, American culture and American character.”
He channeled his admiration and respect for the writer into several courses, including a dean’s seminar centered on Mr. Ellison’s 100th birthday last year. In that class, he challenged students to analyze whether the concept of invisibility presented in Mr. Ellison’s seminal novel, “The Invisible Man,” applied in contemporary times.
His educational mission was always to engage every individual, recalled Melani McAlister, chair of the department of American studies.
“The students would always talk about his hand gestures—he’d make this gesture in a circle, as if to say, ‘We’re all in this conversation, and we’re all in it together.’ He was very generous about getting everyone’s issue on the table,” she said.
Dr. McAlister also noted Dr. Miller’s leadership style when he served as the chair of the American studies department from 2006 to 2010, calling him a model of support to faculty. In addition, Dr. Miller was director of the Center for the Study of Public Culture and Public History, and he chaired the Africana studies department from 1998 to 2006.
But his contributions went beyond GW’s campus. Dr. Miller’s class on black culture in the nation’s capital would take students directly into the D.C. community to learn about the city beyond its reputation as a political hub. The syllabus left no stone unturned: Students explored everything from go-go music venues to Ben’s Chili Bowl and Washington’s links to Marvin Gaye.
Dr. Miller also strengthened Washington scholarship by penning chapters about D.C., including his notable piece, “The Changing Face of Shaw.” His 2009 book, “Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial,” received recognition from the D.C.-based Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, and he frequently lectured around the city. He also reviewed African American literature in The Washington Post and The Washington Post Sunday Book World.
“Washington was made a better city because of Jim Miller,” Dr. Jackson said. “Maybe we will learn more about this city and about music and literature and good food and good company if we follow his dignified, kind and quiet example.”