Beinecke Library for Yale News

American poet, essayist and playwright Elizabeth Alexander ’84 will deliver the 2023 Class Day graduation address. 

Alexander was a professor of poetry at Yale for 15 years and served as the chair of the Department of African American Studies. Her involvement in education has far from ended since her departure from Yale, however. Alexander currently serves as the president of the Mellon Foundation, America’s largest benefactor of the arts, humanities and higher education. 

Class Day is one of two commencement ceremonies that take place on Sunday, May 21. In the morning, seniors attend a baccalaureate ceremony, which includes remarks from the University president and deans. There is an interlude brunch, after which seniors gather by residential college on Old Campus for Class Day exercises.

I am proud and excited to be selected as Class Day speaker and have the opportunity to address Yale’s graduating seniors and their loved ones in May,” Alexander said. “The seniors I met with who serve on the commencement committee were full of the hope and heart I encountered in Yale students every day as an undergraduate myself, faculty member and recent Yale parent. I cannot wait to experience commencement this year and look to the future together.”

With a history spanning two centuries, the naming of the Class Day speaker has roots as a long-standing tradition at Yale. Recent speakers for Yale College have included high-profile politicians, writers and other influential individuals, from Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks to former vice president and current U.S. president Joseph Biden.

According to the graduation committee and Alison Coleman, a special events director and lecturer in the Yale English department, this year’s ceremony speeches will center on love, gratitude, community and comedy. Though a set theme is not chosen for any given year, there is often a common fabric that connects the speeches. 

Coleman added that Alexander had met with the committee members to hear about the projects they are working on for class day, and to listen to what topics would be “meaningful for [the class] to hear about” in her speech.

Alexander will speak for approximately 25 to 30 minutes during the ceremony, Coleman said. While speakers are only obligated to provide a speech, they often stay longer to “enjoy the ceremony.”

Alexander’s poetry explores themes like race, politics and motherhood. Notably, her poem “Equinox” explores the experience of contending with the death of a beloved family member and “Race” discusses the interdependent relationship between race, family and poetic language. 

Having grown up in a household immersed in politics — her father serving as the former United States Secretary of the Army and chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, her mother as a writer and professor of African American women’s studies at George Washington University and her brother as a senior adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign — she has spoken extensively on using art and writing as mediums to overcome discrimination and violence

Through her writing, scholarship, and philanthropic leadership, Elizabeth Alexander has long exemplified values that are at the core of a Yale education: the pursuit of light and truth and a commitment to serving society,” Dean of Yale College Pericles Lewis said. “In poetry and in prose, hers is one of the most eloquent voices of our time, and her Class Day address will be a highlight of commencement weekend for our graduating students and the wider community.”

Coleman also spoke about the class anthology, a keepsake book that includes visual and written artistic submissions from students. Crediting Zaporah Price ’23 for the organization and soliciting of pieces, she alleged that this year’s collection, featuring short anecdotes, longer reflective pieces, a comic, art and photography, will be “unusually poignant” due to the diversity and vibrancy of submissions. 

Price has also compiled a new section called Departing Proverbs, which will feature words of wisdom from University faculty and administration across all 14 residential colleges.

The Class Day committee emphasized that they are “trying to include as many students as possible in Class Day,” and are still accepting submissions for the class history.

“The spirit is that … it is a day for everyone — and so I’m really excited about the work everybody’s doing because they are pulling in so many different perspectives, whether it’s individual, or organizations and groups that are meaningful parts of the class experience,” Coleman said. 

Reshma Saujani LAW ’02 was named Yale College Class Day speaker in 2022.

Correction 4/12: The article was updated to clarify the chronology of Class Day events and to clarify that the Class Day committee is not responsible for selecting the final speaker.

William Porayouw covered Woodbridge Hall for the News and previously reported on international strategy at Yale. Originally from Redlands, California, he is an economics and global affairs major in Davenport College.
Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!