Spotlight On: Elizabeth Alexander


By Kailei Richardson

This past February, I had the pleasure of attending an event featuring poet, playwright and professor, Elizabeth Alexander, Ph.D at the Yale Club in New York. There, Dr. Alexander gave a thought-provoking talk about the parallels between African American studies and poetry during Black History Month. While listening to her speak about her experiences and thoughts on the subject, it was clear why she was selected to recite one of her poems (“Praise Song for the Day“) during Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration. In fact, just about everything that came out of her mouth sounded poetic. After hearing her share her perspective on how poetry has helped her in other aspects of her life, it seemed fitting to profile her for National Poetry Month.

Going back to the event in February, along with the topic at hand that evening, Elizabeth shared some of her poetry and described how being involved in poetry and dance helped her hone her crafts and be more disciplined. Some of the highlights of her lecture included introducing her father, Yale law grad of 1958, and providing us with somewhat of a “FAQ” about her experience reading at the inauguration. When asked if the inauguration was “fun” she replied with an emphatic, “No!” She did say, however, that it was one of the most incredible experiences she has had in her lifetime.

About Elizabeth Alexander, Ph.D.

Elizabeth was born in Harlem, New York and grew up in Washington, DC. Her father was not only an Ivy League law grad back when many people with that level of education did not look like him, but also led a tremendous career as a former United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Elizabeth followed her father’s footsteps and also attended Yale for her undergraduate degree and subsequently attended Boston University where she received an M.A., and the University of Pennsylvania where she received a Ph.D.

Teaching has been somewhat of a home-base for her over the years, as she has taught at numerous prestigious institutions including Northwestern University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, Smith College and Yale University, where she is currently both a professor of African American Studies and the chair of the department. Among numerous other awards, The University of Chicago awarded her with the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching – the highest and oldest teaching award given by the university. Despite her “day job” of teaching, she has continued to develop her talent for the literary arts. Fellow poet Rita Dove has said that Elizabeth’s “poems bristle with the irresistible quality of a world seen fresh.”  In fact, her 2005 poetry collection entitled, American Sublime was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. You may have even seen Elizabeth earlier this year when she was one of 12 people profiled by in “Faces of America” on PBS where Henry Louis Gates explored family history and genealogy to uncover information about where and from whom those profiled “came from.” In this program, it was discovered that Elizabeth and Stephen Colbert had shared lineage.

Elizabeth Alexander has become both a face of modern poetry and an advocate for the literary arts, demonstrated by her involvement with numerous poetry workshops and organizations as well as countless mentoring of students and poets old and young. In an age when forms of the literary arts do not get as much emphasis and attention as they should, it’s refreshing to see inspiring people like her remind us if their importance.

Find a list of Elizabeth Alexander’s work here.

Photo courtesy of Duke University.

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Filed under Art and Culture, Phenomenal Women

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