History and Hope: Elizabeth Alexander


Elizabeth Alexander was a fitting choice to write and read a poem for Barack Obama’s inauguration. In her five books of poems and two books of essays and interviews, Alexander’s writing has centered on African-American history and identity. She is a poet aware of her place in a tradition and community for which writing

has always been part of the civil rights struggle; her style is intimate and accessible, pared down and lucid, its elevation an effect of precise but ordinary speech. On Inauguration Day 2009, she read from the podium, but her poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” spoke of the history and hopes of the people assembled on ground level, stretching from the Capitol steps to the Lincoln Memorial—where, as a child, Alexander heard Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech.

The poems presented here are full of that historical consciousness. Stokely Carmichael, the dedicated revolutionary and pan-Africanist for whom the Black Panthers were finally not radical enough, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and longtime Harlem congressman, represent different political attitudes and strategies. The power and wit of Alexander’s duet, “Stokely and Adam,” comes in joining, without quite reconciling, their contending voices. Stokely says, “Black Power”; Adam says only,“Power.” Stokely’s perspective is “Global.” For Adam, “Harlem is the center of the world.” In the end, though, they are bound by race and injustice.

Alexander, who often works with archival material, shows us Robert Hayden in the library writing “Middle Passage,” his lyric collage and meditation on the slave ships. Hayden’s readiness to identify himself as an African-American poet stands in contrast to Jean Toomer, who, after publication of his poem and story cycle Cane in 1923, a classic of the Harlem Renaissance, became a follower of the mystic Gurdjieff, and preferred to speak of himself not as black (his racial identity was complexly mixed) but as a member of the “American” race. The last lines of “Toomer” whirl in a circle, “like a dervish,” leaving its speaker not so much beyond as somewhere deep inside racial identity: “Oh, / to be a Negro is—is?— / to be a negro, is. To be.”

The politicians in this suite of poems are as bound up with rhetoric as the poets are with politics. Obama is captured in “Rally” at a moment before “the weight of the world” will rest on him, and he takes the stage, lithe as the basketball player he was in youth. Alexander focuses on the crowd, which listens and responds with a roar like the sea. The social vision that makes Alexander a fit laureate for this president shines in her rhyme: “human beings ever tilt toward we.”

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Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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