Elizabeth Alexander 5037661

Elizabeth Alexnder. Photo by Slowking. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Elizabeth Alexander
Born May 30, 1962 (1962-05-30) (age 58)
Harlem, New York City, United States
Occupation Poet, essayist, playwright
Notable work(s) "Praise Song for the Day"

Elizabeth Alexander (born May 30, 1962)[1] is an African-American poet, essayist, playwright, and academic.



Alexander was born in Harlem, New York City and grew up in Washington D.C. She is the daughter of former United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chairman Clifford Alexander, Jr.[2] and Adele Alexander, a teacher of African-American women's history at George Washington University and writer.[3] Her brother Mark was a senior adviser to the Barack Obama presidential campaign and a member of the president-elect's transition team.[2] She currently lives in New Haven, Connecticut with her husband Ficre who owns the Ethiopian restaurant named Cafe Adulis located on College Street near the Yale campus. They have two sons.

After she was born, the family moved to Washington D.C. She was just a toddler when her parents brought her in March 1963 to the March on Washington, site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous I Have A Dream speech. Alexander recalled that "Politics was in the drinking water at my house". She also took ballet as a child.[4]

She was educated at Sidwell Friends School, graduating in 1980. From there she went to Yale University and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1984. She studied poetry at Boston University under Derek Walcott and got her Master's in 1987. Her mother said to her, "That poet you love, Derek Walcott, is teaching at Boston University. Why don't you apply?" Alexander originally entered studying fiction writing, but Walcott looked at her diary and saw the poetry potential. Alexander said, "He gave me a huge gift. He took a cluster of words and he lineated it. And I saw it." [5]

In 1992, she earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. While she was finishing her degree, she taught at nearby Haverford College from 1990 to 1991. At this time, she would publish her first work, The Venus Hottentot. The title comes from Sarah Baartman, a 19th century South African woman of the Khoikhoi ethnic group.[6][7] Elizabeth is an alumna of the Ragdale Foundation.


While a graduate student, she was a reporter for the Washington Post from 1984-1985.[1] She soon realized that "it wasn't the life I wanted." [5] She began teaching at University of Chicago in 1991 as an assistant professor of English. Here she would first meet future president Barack Obama, who was a senior lecturer at the school's law school from 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004. While in Chicago in 1992, she won a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.[8]

In 1996, she published a volume of poetry, Body of Life and a verse play, Diva Studies, which was staged at Yale University. She also became a founding faculty member of the Cave Canem workshop which helps develop African-American poets. In 1997, she received the University of Chicago's Quantrell Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching. Later in that year, she moved to Massachusetts to teach at Smith College. She became the Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence and the first director of the college's Poetry Center.[9]

In 2000, she returned to Yale University, where she would teach African-American studies and English. She also released her third poetry collection,Antebellum Dream Book.[9]

In 2005, she was selected in the 1st class of Alphonse Fletcher Foundation fellows and in 2007-08, she was an academic fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.[10]

Since 2008, Alexander has chaired the African American Studies department at Yale. She currently teaches English language/literature, African-American literature and gender studies at Yale.

Private lifeEdit

According to research done by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard University, in 2010 for the PBS series Faces of America, it was revealed that, according to DNA analysis, she is a lineal cousin of another of the guests on the show, Stephen Colbert. Her paternal grandfather came to the United States in 1918 from Kingston, Jamaica. On the maternal side, her roots can be traced back 37 generations through notable ancestors including her 23rd great-grandmother Joan, Princess of England, 24th great-grandparents King John I of England and Clemence, Mistress of the King, and 37th great-grandfather Charlemagne, first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. [11]


Alexander's poems, short stories and critical writings have been widely published in such journals and periodicals such as: The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, The Village Voice, The Women's Review of Books, and The Washington Post. Her play, Diva Studies, which was performed at the Yale School of Drama, garnered her a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship as well as an Illinois Arts Council award.[12]

Her 2005 volume of poetry, "American Sublime" was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize of that year.[13] Alexander is also a scholar of African-American literature and culture and recently published a collection of essays entitled The Black Interior.[7]


Alexander received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry in 2010.

2009 U.S. Presidential inaugurationEdit

Elizabeth Alexander Inaugural Poem "Praise Song for the Day" 1 20 09

Elizabeth Alexander Inaugural Poem "Praise Song for the Day" 1 20 09

On January 20, 2009 at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, Alexander recited the poem "Praise Song for the Day", which she composed for the occasion.[2][7] She became only the 4th poet to read at an American presidential inauguration, after Robert Frost in 1961, Maya Angelou in 1993, and Miller Williams in 1997.[14]

The announcement of her selection was favorably received by her fellow poets Maya Angelou, Rita Dove,[14] Paul Muldoon,[2] and Jay Parini, who extolled her as "smart, deeply educated in the traditions of poetry, true to her roots, responsive to black culture."[13] The Poetry Foundation also hailed the choice, "Her selection affirms poetry's central place in the soul of our country."[14]

Though the selection of the widely unknown poet, who was a personal friend of Obama, was lauded, the actual poem and delivery were met with a poor reception.[15] The Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times Book editor, and most critics found that "her poem was too much like prose," and that "her delivery [was] insufficiently dramatic." The Minneapolis Star-Tribune found the poem "dull, 'bureaucratic' and found it proved that "the poet's place is not on the platform but in the crowd, that she should speak not for the people but to them."[16]



  • The Venus Hottentot. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1990; St. Pul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2004.
  • Body of Life. Chicago: Tia Chucha Press, 1996.
  • Antebellum Dream Book: Poems. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2001.
  • American Sublime: Poems. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005.
  • American Blue: Selected Poems, Tarset, Northumberland, UK: Bloodaxe Books2006.
  • Praise Song for the Day: A poem for Barack Obama's presidential inauguration, January 20, 2009. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2009.
  • Crave Radiance: New and selected poems, 1990-2010. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2010.


  • The Black Interior: Essays. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2003.
  • Power & Possibility: Essays, reviews, and interviews. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press ("Poets on Poetry"), 2007.
  • The Light of the World: A memoir. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2015.


  • Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color (with Marilyn Nelson; illustrated by Floyd Cooper) (young adult poems). Honesdale, PA: Wordsong, 2007.
  • Little Pumpkin's Big Surprise (illustrated by Janee Trasler). New York: Golden Books, 2008.
  • The Grasshopper Hopped (illustrated by Joung Un Kim). New York: Golden Books, 2010.
  • Praise Song for the Day: A poem for Barack Obama's presidential inauguration (illustrated by David Diaz). New York: Katherine Tegan Books / HarperCollins, 2012.


  • Melvin Dixon, Love's Instruments: Poems. Chicago: Tia Chucha Press, 1995.
  • The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks. New York: Library of America, 2005.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[17]

Audio / videoEdit

Elizabeth Alexander reading poetry

Elizabeth Alexander reading poetry

  • Denise Duhamel / Elizabeth Alexander, February 26, 1992 (cassette). Washington, DC: American University, 1992.[18]
  • The Light of the World: A memoir (CD). New York: Hachette Audio, 2015.
  • Elizabeth Alexander and Kevin Young: Kinds of blue, two poets (audiobook). Los Angeles: Los Angeles Public Library, 2016.

Except where noted, discographical information courtesy WorldCat.[17]


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Elizabeth Alexander". The Africana Research Center. PennState College of the Liberal Arts. Retrieved 2009-01-15.  Template:Dead link
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Katharine Q. Seelye (2008-12-21). "Poet Chosen for Inauguration Is Aiming for a Work That Transcends the Moment". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-15. 
  3. Biography Today. Detroit, Michigan: Omnigraphics. 2010. pp. 9–10. ISBN 978-0-7808-1051-8. 
  4. "Biography Today", pp. 10
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Biography Today", pp.10
  6. "Biography Today", pp. 10-11
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 "Yale Professor Elizabeth Alexander Named Inaugural Poet". Yale Bulletin (Yale University). 2008-12-19. Retrieved 2009-01-15. 
  8. "Biography Today", pp.11
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Biography Today", pp.12
  10. Corydon Ireland (2008-05-08). "Radcliffe Fellow, poet Elizabeth Alexander reads". Harvard University Gazette Online. Retrieved 2009-01-15.  Template:Dead link
  11. "4". Faces of America. PBS. 2010-03-03. No. 4, season 1.
  12. "Elizabeth Alexander: Biography and CV". Retrieved 2009-01-15. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 Jay Parini (2008-12-18). "Why Obama chose Elizabeth Alexander for his inauguration". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-01-15. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Michael E. Ruane (2008-12-17). "Selection Provides Civil Rights Symmetry". Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-01-15. 
  15. Schmich, Mary (2009-01-25). "Big stage amplifies poet's critics". Chicago Tribune.,0,5305166.column. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 Search results = au:Elizabeth Alexander, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Sep. 18, 2016.
  18. au:Search results = Denise Duhamel, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, July 16, 2014.

External linksEdit

Audio / video
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