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Elizabeth Alexander on the intersections of identities

This interview with Elizabeth Alexander comprises part of The 1701 Project, a venture led by The Yale Historical Review.

Dr. Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, cultural advocate, and mother. After growing up in D.C., Alexander came to Yale as an undergraduate. Alexander then received
an MFA from Boston University and her PhD from University of Pennsylvania. As a graduate student, Alexander published The Venus Hottentot, her first collection of poetry. Since then, she has authored or co-authored thirteen books. Dr. Alexander is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement, and recipient of the Jackson Poetry Prize. She delivered her poem “Praise Song for the Day” for the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009. Dr. Alexander teaches as well as publishes. She has held distinguished professorships at Smith College, Columbia University, and Yale University. Upon returning to New Haven, Dr. Alexander was a faculty member in rebuilt and chaired Yale’s African American Studies Department for over 15 years. As the current President of the Mellon Foundation, Dr. Alexander has shifted the organization towards social justice through initiatives such as the Million Books Project. In this scintillating conversation, the brilliant Dr. Alexander outlines her intellectual development as well as her hopes for the Trayvon Generation.

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Elizabeth Alexander on the intersections of identities

  1. 1. INTERVIEW ELIZABETH ALEXANDER On the intersections of identities Interview by Henry Jacob and Alex McCraven Transcribed by Grace BlaxillJuly 23, 2020 (Henry Jacob) Let's start with a warm up question: how would you describe yourself in two sentences, one per- sonal, one professional? Honestly, for the personal one, I am Solo and Simon's mother. As to the professional, I am an educator, a poet, an advocate for culture, and my own kind of freedom fighter. I want to dwell on the first part, on the personal, on the mother of Simon and Solo. One of the most vivid sen- sory memories of my youth is of spending time in your garden. Of course, I remember the profusion of bright flowers and graceful trees; but what I remember most is the smoky smell from the grill. What is your most vi- vid memory of a scent from your early childhood? I'm glad you mentioned New Haven. Before we even go to my childhood, we should discuss New Haven. I went to colle- ge at Yale in the early 80s; when I came back, I started a family. I had a long, joyful career teaching at Yale, helping to build African American Studies. Even when I left for New York New Haven still wouldn't let me go. Both of my children made the choice to come back and study there, and all of the friends and commu- nity and scale of New Haven feels eternal to me. New Haven is in my bones. I feel lucky to be a citizen of New Haven and of Yale in three different roles: student, faculty, and parent. I was born in New York, but I grew up in Washington D.C. I remember the intensity of the ambient heat and humidity in the D.C. summertime. Washington had a southern feel; you would be on the street and speak and say hello to folks. That’s how I think about my childhood, homas E. Donnelley Professor of African American Studies, Elizabeth Alexander is,in her own words,a mother,educator, poet, advocate, and her own kind of freedom fighter. Among her many accomplishments,she is president of The Andrew W.Mellon Foundation, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and Biography, and the author of fourteen books.The YHR had a chance to sit down virtually with her over the summer to discuss her past,her poetry,and her thoughts on the present. T 1YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW 1701 Project
  2. 2. Elizabeth Alexander is also a Chancellor for the Academy of American Poets as well as the former chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale. Photo courtesy of as people talking to each other in public spaces. That was always very, very important: being part of a community. You have tied the two threads of advocacy and public spaces together. I recall that you have said that politics was in your “drinking water” while growing up so now I have a much more vivid image to relate to that phrase. But now I would like to shift to your formative years as a poet. What was the first poem that you wrote? How didyourinteractionswithyourcommunityintheswel- tering streets inspire you? I have always been a storytel- ler and very attentive to the storytelling of others. I was a huge, huge reader of all kinds, and I was a very serious dancer when I was growing up. I think that that sense of what it took to commit to your art form, what it meant to have artistic discipline, led to freedom of expression, which is a vital part of making poems or making any kind of writing, I didn't discover it till much later. I wrote fiction in college. I worked at the Washington Post as a journalist, but it wasn't until I later, as you've re- searched, presented myself to Derek Walcott that he really saw a poet in me. I think that it was a culmination of that sense of ear, of language. of discipline, and of discovery. When you write poems, when you enter the garden, you do not follow a straight path. You make your way through and exclaim “Why, look! Here's a rose bush and here’s a woodland creature.” it's all about discovery to get to the finished product. Alex, do you want to ask a question about either the political engagement or the intersection of the creative and political, because I know you had a lot of thoughts on these themes, both for Dr. Alexander’s Yale expe- rience and otherwise. (Alex McCraven) Yes, I'm really curious about how you envisionphilanthropyasanagentforsocialchangeand how you see this new shift of the Mellon Foundation being at the forefront of that. Leading into that and, again, linking together place and politics, advocacy and justice, I grew up in Washington DC, a place where the government is very close. We lived on Capitol Hill, six blocks from the Capitol, a few blocks from the Supreme Court. Also,myfathercommittedhimselftocivilrights.Toname just a few things, he was President Johnson's advisor who liaised between the civil rights community and the White House. With the passing of John Lewis, we found a pho- tograph at the White House with my father, Dr. King, and John Lewis. Dad had brought those people to help advise the president. Watching him play such a central role at that extraordinary moment where history seemed to be moving very, very quickly inspired me. I learned that you need to fight for things, you need to ad- vocate for other people, that anything that you might have yourself was only meaningful if that privilege extended to other people. You had to metaphorically and literally bring people with you into the room and make space for them. My parents raised me on the philosophy of not clo- sing the door behind you. I brought this lesson to my time as a professor in African “I learned that you need to fight for things, you need to advocate for other people, that anything that you might have yourself was only meaningful if that privilege extended to other people.” ON THE NEXT PAGE 2 ELIZABETH ALEXANDER
  3. 3. American Studies. I took recovery as my duty and told the marginalized stories. I brought forward the extraor- dinary poets and writers who did not fit not within the canon of the English Department — this has always been the good fight. It feels natural to continue this work at the Mellon Foundation. I take it as my duty to be an advocate for different cultural voices, for the complexity of Ameri- can narratives. I also address the unfair distribution of resources in Ame- rica.Enslavedlaborbuiltthiscountry;weneedtoconfront this history at wealthy institutions such as Yale and the Ford and Mellon Foundations. The initiatives I led and lead at Ford and Mellon respectively might differ from what the original Ford or Mellon families envisioned. In the same vein, the founders of Yale couldn’t imagine what it looks like now. The Yale that Elihu conceived has evol- ved. There is no steady state that's not with an element of design, evolution, and advocacy. I have always operated with this epistemology and I can see it more clearly now in retrospect. (HJ) I love the word you’re using, your “epistemology.” I want to press a bit more on your epistemology using your comments on seeing artists as workers for souls as a springboard. I find a spiritual resonance within your own poetry and in your public speeches. Please com- ment on the role of transcendence, or even the sublime oftheeveryday,asarecurringconceptinyourlife.That's a beautiful question. Transcendence and the sublime are to be found in the everyday. Sometimes it speaks to us in very large and dramatic ways. We may stand before a physically large painting on a larger-than-human scale in a museum like the Met and feel transcendent. But you can also feel transcendence at a much smaller scale. Transcen- dence can be intimate. Transcendence, to me, is about being attentive to the mi- raculous aspects of this life. Art makes something out of nothing, it gives form to the human and the soulful in a way that can be communicated and be meaningful to others. The different aspects of craft allow us to do this; but we also shouldn't mistake that we bring forward mys- terious moments of the soul. I'm glad you mentioned my public statements about the uses of art. We need artists and historians to confront the very, very, very, very challenging time that we're living through. Last night, I watched the movie “Just Mercy” about Bryan Stevenson. and there was that extraordinary moment when the gentlemen who are incarcerated talking among themselves and one man, Mr. Richardson, is soon to be executed, and he has PTSD, he's a Vietnam War veteran, and he becomes periodically tremendously anxious. Wal- ter McMillian, the lead character played by Jamie Foxx, asks Mr. Richardson to breathe with him, to close his eyes, and to envision the Alabama pines. At that moment Mr. Richardson transcends as terrifying a circumstance as I can imagine. That is what art does. I also want to note one of the grants that I'm the most excited about: The Million Book Project. Dwayne Betts, a PhD candidate at Yale and YLS graduate, will put 500 books, books like the ones we read and love, in every prison in every state, Puerto Rico, and Washing- ton DC. If we believe that transcendence is to be found in books—and again, here I'm talking about books as li- terature, but I'm also talking about history—if we believe that critical thinking with which we can make sense of our world in our lives is to be found in books, if we believe that we can, in some way, become free by reading and ac- quiring knowledge and learning, for whom could that be more important than someone who is incarcerated? Be- cause that person is a part of larger society, [and] we can't think that by locking people away that they are no lon- ger part of families and communities, and that they will not hopefully come out into families and communities, so what do we hope they come out with? I hope that they 4 ELIZABETH ALEXANDER “If we believe that we can,in some way,become free by reading and acquiring knowledge and learning,for whom could that be more important than someone who is incarcerated?”
  4. 4. come out with some of the critical thinking and transcen- dence that is to be found in literature, including poetry. (HJ) Wonderful. I know that Alex wanted to ask about The Trayvon Generation, but I know that we don’t have much time. Please ask, I’ll answer you succinctly! (AM) Perfect! I am very curious to hear what moved you to write your latest piece, The Trayvon Generation and then, as a mother and as an educator, what has it been like raising black children in America, and what has it been like recently in this current moment that we're living in? In addition to my parenting—again, I keep coming back [to it], but it's so perfect to be talking to you all to be talking to a Yale publication—my devotion to my students over the years. In fact, now that you all, and thus Simon, will be finishing up pretty soon, I think to myself, I'm not going to have college students in my life for the first time! Think about it, the first time in 100 years! So that's kind of crazy. But, I am attentive to your demographic. It's been my job to do so. And what I've seen in what I call the Trayvon ge- neration—I think that you could say there's the Emmett Tillgeneration,andI'vewrittenaboutthat,[with]Emmett Till, not only his murder but also his mother's decision to open the casket and then the photograph being published in Jet and widely circulated, that was a marker of a gene- ration in understanding racial danger and racial subjec- tivity that had so much peril attached to it. Or perhaps for my generation, there were things that we learned with the Rodney King videotape, which I've also written about. And that was at the beginning of when people started re- cording things and circulating them—but for your ge- neration, all of this, some of it police violence, some of it civilian violence, against black people, not only black men, but black black women, girls, boys, all of this danger has been recorded, because everything's recorded now. Young people see this violence on their phones in addi- tion to on TV. You could have come home from school on the school bus and see someone who looks like you being brutally murdered 100 times before you're even in the safe space of your home. I want us to take stock of this. Darnella Frazier made me think of this, the 17 year old who filmed George Floyd's murder. I can't even imagine this 17-year-old. I myself have never had four police officers this close to me. I my- self have never witnessed a murder. This child, as it hap- pened, opened up a global movement, a global civil rights movement by being steadfast and brave in the face of ter- ror. So the rhetorical question that’s also a real question that answers why the Trayvon generation is: what about Darnella Frazier? Who's thinking about Darnella Frazier? Who's thinking about all of the young people for whom a trip to the store can be perilous, and how do we teach and support our young people to feel free, mighty, and bold? We want you to figure things out that we haven't been able to figure out yet, [but] how do we also protect you and keep you safe? And what does it mean to feel unsafe in your body? One of the responsibilities of being a mother is “I gotta keep this creature alive.” As you all get older, what does that mean, how do you translate that to what it means to support young people to thrive when there is very real danger and, to take us to the last four years, when we have violent, divisive, racist, hateful rhetoric from the highest offices of the land? This isn't just hipster stuff. I am concerned about depression, I am concerned about people retreating into themselves, because we're facing a great deal these days. How can we be helpful to you all, to help you all be mighty and strong, but also smart and safe? And I wanted to put that on a historical timeline. I want to end by reiterating that this period is so hard, but that you are also meeting this extraordinary challenge. The racial strife of this time differs from before because the allyship across races stands in an entirely different place than it was when I was coming along (and for this, I say, African American Studies!). Growing up, I had plenty of white friends in school, but none of them knew anything about black culture, black li- terature, black anything. Today, I am heartened that more people recognize the beauty and power of black culture and history. We always taught that this truth lies at the center of understanding the country you live in — so there it is. Go to it. I think you are part of a really, really hopeful generation. You have the tools. Show us where to go, and we'll just keep on pushing alongside you. (HJ) As this conversation has shown, you, Dr. Alexan- der, guide the path for Solo and Simon, for Alex and myself, as well as the current and future generations. We need only listen to the final stanzas from Praise Song for the Day: “In today’s sharp sparkle, this win- ter air,/ any thing can be made, any sentence begun./ On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,/ praise song for walking forward in that light.” 5YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW