Elizabeth Alexander
Poet
04:53

Elizabeth Alexander on the Importance of Race to the Obama Presidency

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Elizabeth Alexander on the power of racial identity.

Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander is Professor of African American Studies and future Chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale University. In 2008, Dr. Alexander was selected by President-elect Barack Obama to compose and read a poem for his inauguration.  She is the author of four books of poems, The Venus Hottentot, Body of Life, Antebellum Dream Book, and American Sublime, which was one of the American Library Association’s 25 Notable Books of the Year as well as one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

Her collection of essays on African American literature, painting, and popular culture, The Black Interior, was published in 2004.  Her verse play, "Diva Studies," was produced at the Yale School of Drama in May 1996.

Alexander has taught at the University of Chicago, where she won the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program, and Smith College, where she was Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence, first director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, and member of the founding editorial collective for the feminist journal Meridians.

Professor Alexander is an inaugural recipient of the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.” She teaches courses on African American poetry, drama, and 20th century literature, as well as the survey introduction to African American Studies and is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.

Her collection of essays on African American literature, painting, and popular culture, The Black Interior, was published in 2004.  Her verse play, "Diva Studies," was produced at the Yale School of Drama in May 1996.

Alexander has taught at the University of Chicago, where she won the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program, and Smith College, where she was Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence, first director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, and member of the founding editorial collective for the feminist journal Meridians.

Professor Alexander is an inaugural recipient of the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.” She teaches courses on African American poetry, drama, and 20th century literature, as well as the survey introduction to African American Studies and is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. 

Transcript

Question: Does Obama’s presidency mark a post-racial age?

Alexander:    Well, if I ruled the world, the term post-racial would not exist.  I don’t see post-racial as a goal.  Let me clearly say what I mean here, I don’t think race is to be transcended.  Race itself is not a problem.  We all have race and history and region and gender and class, you know, we all have histories, we’re all from some place and I don’t think that the goal is to say that we’re now all in this fabulous neutral happy place but rather say, “Well, can we hear each other’s stories?”  Can we… can we, sort of, take the weave and the overlap of the experience and really understand it as one thing with a lot of strands that sometimes really have clashed and mumped up against each other.  Can we reconcile a violent history?  Can we reconcile the inequities of the present?  Post-raciality doesn’t accomplish anything per se and I think that what it would also mean is rushing past that which has not been altogether resolved.  Now, on the other hand, are we in a place where, you know, if there is such a thing as the National Conversation on Race is… has maybe moved forward?  Yes.  I think we are in that place and I think that part of it is, you know, that the country has elected, done something that it has never done before, it’s elected an African-American president, it’s elected an African-American president who, in his own background, reflects the incredible and fascinating diversity of African-Americanness, of Blackness, if you will.  Yes, Blackness can be brought up in Indonesia, you know, I mean, I think that that’s actually a very, very interesting that he still places himself under the sign of Blackness but there are different pieces to it because there are different pieces to being Black.  So, you know, that’s very important that we have done something different from what we’ve done before and also very importantly, that White people have all of the millions of White people, you know, you can’t even speak of that as a collective, it seems absurd so it’s absurd to talk about Black people as a collective.  But what people did was, they made, to my mind the excellent choice, right?  That they did not let racial thinking interfere with making what they felt was the choice that was best for the country.  Now, that’s liberation actually, that’s very, very powerful.  To say that I’m not going to let this old thinking in fact lead me to make a poor choice, that I think is a very, very important thing.  And so now, in ways both that Obama himself has lead us to, his extraordinary speech in Philadelphia, the so-called race speech which, you know, I think will be taught for hundred of years to come as a very important American speech.  In a way that really recognizes a lot of paradigms in a racial conversation but also says, “Let’s have a different conversation.”  So he’s helped us move forward in that regard and also there’s some stuff that happens just because he and his wife and his children and his mother-in-law are in the societal spaces that they’re in now for all to see.  It is incalculable and when I say incalculable I say that, you know, I don’t know, you don’t know, nobody knows the kind of cultural work that that’s doing.  You know, Black women, for so many hundred of years defamed and kept outside the category of lady and now the First Lady of the United States is an African-American?  That these people are living in a house in part built by enslaved Black people?  Maintained by Black people?  And they are living in that house?  I mean, the symbolics are very, very, very, very powerful.  And I’m fascinated to see how it’s going to unfold. 


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