I was sitting in the Performing Arts Center of CT State Community College at Housatonic, listening to a brilliant art scholar tell about her fifty year career that many are just now discovering because well, the appointed time.
She was always and already painting, as she told us, she had earned the requisite degrees, her title was Dr., she was a lecturer all over the world, and to so many, she seemed to come out of nowhere.
Dr. Cheryl Miller is a woman, like many of us whose ancestry is traced to the horrors of the TransAtlantic Trade, whose being is a mixture of time and place. She has Danish, Filipino, and Ghanian heritage as well as Portuguese and the nuance of the Dutch West Indies as heritage. With maternal ancestry in the U.S. Virgin Islands and an African American father who was a renowned Howard alum, she has a pedigree that was more common that understood in the Washington D.C. of her coming-of-age.
A college education was expected, she being a high school graduate in 1970. Once-upon-a-time, Washington D.C. was the place of the strivers and becomers of Black America. It is no accident that Prince Georges County was home to more Black professionals and millionaires. It was a possibility.
In her lecture, she shared with us her acceptance to art school, with the support of her father who essentially told her she had to go do something and who didn't fall into the assumed pressure of telling his daughter she must study medicine or law. She just had to be the best at what she did.
Through her encounters through the post-Civil Rights Era, she told us about the stages of Black curiosity that ensued after the 1977 broadcast of Roots and during the 1980-1990s heyday of corporate social responsibility and diversity programs. Listening to her, me being about a decade behind her in my coming-of-age, I was on the edge of my seat as her lecture was peppered with the images of her paintings that she said was her trying to figure it out.
To initially look at her, this senior beauty with a slightly quirky personality, would initially be to miss the genius, if one only looked at where you meet her now. In the after-lecture, her husband, another couple, and I were chatting about her brilliance when he said, "Yes to so many, she was just a Jack-and-Jill Mom because she took time off to raise the kids. They didn't know all this." I was in awe. I had only recently become acquainted with her through my husband's connection with her husband through the Boulé. We hadn't been in this state or the Northeast long so lots of people where new to us. I was mesmerized.
She talked about her observations, her travels, and how she is on a quest to reclaim the origins of so much art - including graphic and commercial, marketing and advertising - that held origins in West Africa. Speaking unapologetically and in the ways that a professor can sometimes drop nuggets of wisdom while the student least expects us, she kept us enthralled for the hour-and-a-half experience.
Her thesis, she mentioned, has become an industry standard and was "published before the Internet was a thing." It was reminding me of how so much is left unearthed because we have all somewhat become accustomed to what can be an easy search or what is "content" or "Instagrammable."
Ultimately, her thoughts and lectures were about being true to one's self and one's calling. That one thing you were put here to do, even if it tarry or more apt, if people tarry in finding out about you, just keep doing it.
So I asked her the question about the arch of time and ones relevance, not in those words, but how society, this American society, tends to deem people irrelevant if they are past 30 or 40, when they have more than half their life in front of them, if God says the same. I asked her to answer to both the students in the room and the seasoned folks who were still on discovery paths. In her gracious manner, she did and talked about not rushing through it, to learn the craft, to sit with it, and for her, how she sometimes takes long periods of rest to think and hear what the art wants from her. The world, she essentially said, is just now catching up.
For me personally, it was a confirming and reassuring moment. I, took, took time away from my fledgling career to raise the children, the last two were girls. I felt that they needed me and after my second daughter was diagnosed with a debilitating illness, it proved right. In the decades that ensued, I worked around their schedule, was always writing and mentoring, but did not have a linear trajectory of upward career mobility or rise. Dr. Miller said, "you can have it all, but not all at once," also in response to my question. She is on a new series now as an empty-nester. I, too, am a new empty-nester and on a period of discovery.
Go back to that one thing. What is the undone thing.
I've written a manuscript - thoughts, memoir, story - and am in edits to prepare it for release to the world. Right at a time when my children are beginning their journeys and my husband is taking the helm as Interim President of a major university. The last almost twenty-five years of my life have been in a second, supportive role.
And it has given me space and time to journey, think, and be confident of what I need in life.
We do not stop creating at 23 when most young people graduate from college or at 25 when most are at the apex of a career. We are not finished at 30, despite that 1980s era series "Thirty Something" that was Boomer Angst of juggling life, career, marriage, and family trying to be modern and relevant. We are not finished. That was also a message of her work. There are stories upon stories upon stories that make up a lifetime, that also seemed to be an undercurrent of her lecture. We aren't just one thing.
Life is a journey.
Let is take you.
And at the appointed time, your moments will find you.
Discover Dr. Miller's Work
©2023 Antona B. Smith