Last semester, Elizabeth Alexander ’84 introduced the presidential race into the curriculum for her African American Studies course “Freedom and Identity in Black Cultures.” She added President-elect Barack Obama’s book, “Dreams from My Father,” to her syllabus and invited guest lecturers to speak about the significance of race.
And then Obama won.
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“It was really a terrific convergence,” Alexander said. “To have the big moment itself and then to have a class the next day.”
But when Obama takes office on Jan. 20, Alexander will not be a bystander. The inaugural committee asked her to write and deliver a poem at the inauguration ceremony. Only three other poets have read at presidential inaugurations: Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s, Maya Angelou at Bill Clinton’s LAW ’73 first, and Miller Williams at his second. Alexander, a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is the youngest poet to be bestowed with this honor.
While Alexander did not start writing the poem until after she got the phone call from the inaugural committee on Dec. 17, she said the language for the poem started forming as she followed Obama’s campaign.
“The whole campaign and election have put me in this zone of thought,” she said.
The choice to feature Alexander at the inauguration — while the previous two ceremonies lacked poets — embodies the spirit of this historic election.
“Obama’s decision to give precious moments of the inaugural occasion to poetry is a signal that he believes art has an important place in modern life, important enough to be part of this occasion,” Penelope Laurans, associate dean of Yale College and special assistant to University President Richard Levin, wrote in an e-mail to the News.
Laurans, who also lectures in the English Department, added that choosing an African American poet, Alexander, also has symbolic value.
Next week, Alexander will read an occasional poem, a task she has tackled before. She has been both Yale and Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa poet, has read at some of her friends’ weddings, and wrote a poem for former Yale Dean Richard Brodhead ’68 GRD ’72 to read at his Baccalaureate address about seven years ago. Brodhead, now president of Duke University, taught Alexander in a non-fiction prose writing class when she was a sophomore, he said, not anticipating that poetry would become her primary genre. Brodhead said she wrote an “ABC” poem, each verse beginning with a letter of the alphabet, which he called “a wonderfully lively, witty poem.”
“You could say I’ve had some experience, but of course the magnitude is much different,” she said. “For other events I could think about locality, I knew very much who I was speaking to.”
Alexander is not totally unfamiliar with the President-elect, though. She became friends with Obama when they were both teaching at the University of Chicago in the 1990s.
Alexander, who wrote her doctoral thesis about 20th century African American poets at the University of Pennsylvania, said this opportunity is especially meaningful given her family’s work on civil rights. Her father, Clifford Alexander Jr., a lawyer, was the first African American secretary of the Army in President Jimmy Carter’s administration.
When the news became public that Alexander would give the address she received e-mails from former and current students, strangers and even her fourth-grade teacher. Her colleagues and former colleagues at Yale, some of whom were also her teachers, expressed enthusiasm about the honor.
Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon taught Alexander in a section of English 125, the poetry class required for all English majors.
“Her essays were always something to look forward to,” Gordon wrote in an e-mail to the News. “At that time, I had no idea that she herself was a poet, but it was a great pleasure to me when ‘The Venus Hottentot’ came out to discover that she had a really original voice — or rather many voices, which over the years and the further volumes, have spoken in a range of tones, registers, and genres, but always authentically and often.”
Rodney Reynolds ’10 let the entire Davenport College library know about Alexander’s momentous honor when he read the news in an e-mail on his Blackberry. He jumped up and shouted.
Reynolds, who has taken both “Freedom and Identity in Black Cultures” and “20th Century African American Poetry” with Alexander, said she has a “following” among some students, but he hopes this will give her more prominence on campus.
As the next chair of the African American studies department, Alexander said she wants the public exposure to raise the profile of the work in the department at Yale.
Of the inauguration in itself, Alexander said she expects to be paying close attention to details.
“I just want to keep very, very careful note of everything so that I remember it, because I know that there will be a million small details that will just make this one of the most memorable days of my life,” Alexander said.
But, she added, she is also looking forward to hearing prominent musicians, such as Yo-Yo Ma and Aretha Franklin, from a few feet away. She expects that to be “mind blowing.”
Alexander will deliver her poem directly after Obama gives his inaugural address.