Inaugural Poet Stresses Importance of Literature, Black Studies

D.C. Native Elizabeth Alexander Describes Herself as a ‘Student of Racial Politics’

President Obama’s inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, spoke passionately about the importance of literature in the area of Black Studies and how it is shaping America today during a recent visit to Howard University.

“I am a follower and student of racial politics, because there is so much history that is worth studying,” Alexander said. “Much of that has been distorted or hasn’t been told at all, and I can’t imagine ever running out of resources in that particular field.”

Many of her poems focus on themes of race and African-American traditions that shaped her life growing up in the civil rights generation. Alexander was only a year old when her parents took her to see the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

“When I start a poem, I don’t know where it’s going to end,” Alexander explained to a small audience of about 40 people gathered in the Browsing Room of Founders Library. The Howard visit was one of a series of speaking engagements in Washington, where the Harlem-born poet grew up.

Alexander graduated from Yale University and went on to complete a master’s degree at Boston University. She returned to her alma mater and became a professor in African-American studies and English literature. She has also taught at the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania and Smith College where she has received numerous awards and honors including the Jackson Prize for Poetry, awarded by Poets and Writers.

She has published six books of poems including “Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration” (2009), “The Venus Hottentot” (1990), “Body of Life” (1996) and “Antebellum Dream Book” (2001). Her book “American Sublime” (2005) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and was one of the American Library Association’s “Notable Books of the Year.” She also has two collections of essays, “The Black Interior” (2004) and “Power and Possibility,” along with a play titled “Diva Studies,” which was produced at the Yale School of Drama.

Her extensive knowledge of African-American Studies has led her to read her poetry, short stories and essays around the country and in parts of Europe, South America and the Caribbean. Alexander has been featured in American Poetry Review, the Washington Post and the Paris Review.

During the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, Alexander recited her poem “Praise Song for the Day” in front of the millions of people who attended the ceremony. This has made her only the fourth poet to read at an inauguration after Miller William in 1997, Maya Angelou in 1993 and Robert Frost in 1961.