Presidential Inauguration

C.J. Gunther

Elizabeth Alexander, President-elect Obama’s Inaugural Poet

January 08, 2009
by Isabel Cowles
Elizabeth Alexander was chosen by President-elect Obama to serve as America’s fourth inaugural poet. Alexander will write and read an original poem on January 20 to honor the swearing-in of America’s first African-American president. Alexander is a professor of African-American Studies at Yale and has written four books of poetry.

Finding the Inspiration

Elizabeth Alexander, President-elect Obama’s pick for inaugural poet, was there when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1963. She was a year old.

On January 20, 2009, Alexander will be speaking at the other end of the Mall, honoring the inauguration of America’s first black president with an original poem of her own composition.

The 46-year-old Alexander will be the fourth inaugural poet in history, after Robert Frost, who read when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, and Maya Angelou and Miller Williams, who read when President Clinton was sworn in 1993 and 1997, respectively.

Alexander told the Washington Post on the day of her selection that she was “honored and thrilled.” She explained, “This incoming president of ours has shown in every act that words matter, that words carry meaning, that words carry power.”
To prepare for the challenge of writing a poem specifically to the occasion, Alexander has focused on the work of W.H. Auden and Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize.

In an interview with The New York Times, she said that writing a poem specific to this important event must “attend to the moment itself, but what you hope for, as an artist, is to create something that has integrity and life that goes beyond the moment.”

About Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem on May 30, 1962, but grew up in Washington, D.C. Her father worked as a prominent D.C. lawyer who advised President Lyndon B. Johnson, and was named the first black secretary of the Army. Alexander’s mother teaches African-American women’s history at George Washington University and her brother teaches at Seton Hall Law School. An expert in campaign finance, he served as a senior adviser to Mr. Obama’s campaign and is part of the President-elect’s transition team.

Politics was, “in the drinking water in my house,” Alexander told The New York Times. She grew up an intellectual, though more inclined towards the arts than politics. Currently, Alexander is a professor of African-American Studies at Yale University, where she teaches courses in African-American poetry, drama, and 20th century literature, among others.

Alexander has written four poetry books, “The Venus Hottentot,” (1990) “Body of Life,” (1996) “Antebellum Dream Book,” (2001) and “American Sublime” (2005). She has won several prizes, as well as recognition from the American Library Association and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. More information about Alexander and her work is available on her Web site, including sample poems from her books.

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