Elizabeth Alexander on Moving Forward in the Face of Adversity
Elizabeth Alexander views her work as an urgent political act. A poet, educator, and scholar, and the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the largest humanities philanthropy in the United States, she moves forward with courage, a great sense of hope, and unwavering determination. In many respects following in the footsteps of her father, who was a civil rights advisor and special counsel to President Lyndon B. Johnson and contributed to legislation including the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, Alexander has witnessed, in her 59 years, the sometimes exasperatingly slow pace of progress, particularly when it comes to racial equality, and the resoluteness required for the vital work of pressing on. She now wakes up each morning as if “from a cannonball,” she says, “feeling like I don’t have time,” ready to do as much as she can, with all she has.
Alexander, who holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, built the foundation for her current role as a philanthropic leader through her teaching, scholarship, and poetry. She has held professorships at the University of Chicago; Smith College, where she was the first director of the school’s Poetry Center; Yale University, where she worked for 15 years and chaired the African American studies department; and Columbia University. From 2015 to 2018, she served as director of creativity and free expression at the Ford Foundation, where she oversaw its contributions to art, culture, journalism, and documentary films, and co-designed the Art for Justice Fund, an initiative that addresses mass incarceration by way of art and advocacy. Last year, in her current role at the Mellon Foundation, she launched the Monuments Project, a $250 million initiative that aims to transform and rethink America’s commemorative landscape.
Alexander constantly champions the telling of more stories—specifically complicated narratives that involve multiple truths at once—from varied perspectives. And in articles for publications such as Time, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, she has reflected, with great acuity, on various episodes of racial violence in America, including the murders of Emmett Till, Rodney King, and George Floyd. She recognizes that who tells their stories and how, and the mediums in which they’re told, can play a large role in shaping how society responds.
Her poetry and essays exhibit a similar sense of consciousness, care, and compassion, often weaving together biography, history, and memory, both personal and collective, to potent effect. American Sublime (2005), a collection of delightfully varied, vivid poems, and The Light of the World (2015), a memoir on love and loss, are among the 14 books she has authored or co-authored, and were both finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. At President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, she recited her optimistic, clear-eyed poem “Praise Song for the Day.”
While moving forward in the face of adversity can be daunting, Alexander is not one to waver. “It’s hard to know how to move forward,” she says. “But in our traditions, there is so much power and strength, so many lessons of ingenuity, of wile, of perseverance, of patience, of overcoming, of rebelliousness. We can’t imagine that we are the first people to have to figure our way through.”
On this episode, Alexander talks with Spencer about the vast possibilities of social justice, using language to promote change, how monuments and memorials shape collective memory, and the profundity of grounding oneself in the present.
Alexander speaks about the violent photographs and videos of Emmett Till, Rodney King, and George Floyd, and the roles they have had in leading to profound social change and racial justice.
Alexander discusses the motivations behind the Mellon Foundation’s Monuments Project. She also talks about the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Alexander recalls the Washington, D.C., community she grew up in. She also describes her first encounters with poetry, and the enduring influence of poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton.
Alexander reads her 2001 poem “Crash,” and discusses the ideas and experiences rendered. She also speaks about the lasting impact of her late husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, and how practicing yoga keeps her grounded.
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SPENCER BAILEY: Joining me today in the studio is poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and cultural advocate Dr. Elizabeth Alexander. She is currently the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder in arts and culture and humanities in higher education. Welcome, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Thank you for inviting me.
SB: I wanted to start on… a very, um, intense subject. And I would like to frame it as the subject of eighty years—particularly the past eighty years; that specific period of time—and what it means when considering the fact that Emmett Till would have been eighty years old this year.
SB: How should we consider this period of history and the chasm left by Till’s murder?
EA: Well, that’s a great question that makes me immediately think of the era of my parents, who are 83 and 88. So we’re sort of talking about their lifetime. In the case of my specific parents, and the people who raised me, and so many of the people who I have admired and looked up to—those people worked and believed that, in fits and starts, they were moving our country forward. Away from racial hatred. Away from pervasive racial discrimination. Away from a caste system that has defined this country from its inception. And I think also, into the light of historical embrace. That is to say, we are who we have been at many different points in time. We can’t sanitize it or change it, looking back at it. We have to know more as we look back, to understand all the simultaneous strands of stories that bring us to this moment in time.
I think that this era has been very, very hard for those truly noble people, because what they’ve seen is that what felt like the progress that they contributed to—especially when you think about the momentum of the 1960s and the 1970s, when you think about all of the social movements, when you think about all of the good changes in government…. In the case of my father, in particular, working as a special advisor with President [Lyndon B.] Johnson in the White House on the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act, and all of the Great Society, and heading the [U.S.] Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That was the job he had in my most formative years. To think, every day, my dad is going to work for this concept: equal opportunity employment. We all have to go to work. We all have jobs. What does it mean to work together? And, by the way, with a very, very interracial team, in that belief, in that hope, and towards that light.
So, given that we are still rife with violence, discrimination, given that the last four, five years in particular have unleashed not just a rhetoric of violence, but also a violent language that’s leapt out of the box—that means that people are treating each other with increasingly unchecked incivility because we saw that from the top for so long. It authorized so very, very much. Those people shouldn’t find themselves in this time, when they’ve worked so hard and now should be enjoying a bit of the fruit of their labor and sacrifice.
That doesn’t mean that I think that we haven’t made any progress at all. I think that certainly the memorization of, and telling the histories of, Emmett Till and the Emmett Tills, and the conversations that talk about the Emmett Tills in the context of the present moment—that is more of a mainstream conversation than it was, which I think, coming from my perspective, that’s one of the amazing contributions of Black studies, and of all of the hyphenated studies that also emerged from the late 1960s in universities and colleges.
But what do we have to learn right now? Perhaps that progress is very, very fragile. Can it be undone in a lifetime? I think obsessively about succession. I think obsessively about generations. I think obsessively about: What does it mean to build strong, knowing that, whatever it is, we’re moving forward, we’re not going to be around forever to do it, and we need to have troops of people doing it?
That’s kind of a meditation on right now, to Emmett Till himself, which, as you know, is something I’ve written and thought a whole lot about, and an incredibly important story to us. I think it’s movement forward that there is a memorial to Emmett Till, and to that story. I think it’s movement forward, even though it’s a disgraceful truth to take in, that we now know that Carolyn Bryant lied from her mouth. We knew that before. I felt that we understood that before. But now, she’s told us that that’s the truth? So yeah, we have the truth. A child is dead. But I think what’s important to say is, even as we are telling the story better and more widely … and I think that perhaps the way that his casket is displayed at the [Smithsonian] National Museum of African American History and Culture is the most enduring legacy, because Smithsonians last as long as anything does in this country, right? And it is so sanctified when you go to visit it. You cannot photograph it because it’s sanctified. It’s a pilgrimage. But I can’t help but mention that the sign of Emmett Till’s memorial is often riddled with bullets. So I think that’s where we are: in a space that calls upon us to just keep on keeping on, right?
SB: As you’ve written about and noted, the Till story wouldn’t be the Till story without this Jet magazine photograph that became iconic in its own way, and was so viscerally.… I mean, it moved a generation. It in many ways helped push forward the civil rights movement. So I wanted to speak about that picture in the context of this sweeping, eighty-year history, and also within the context of another figure who’s part of what you’ve called this “very long historical continuum” of public violence against Black people in the U.S., Rodney King. This year marks thirty years since his videotaped beating by four white L.A.P.D. officers. In 1994, you wrote a most incredible essay on King called “‘Can You Be Black and Look at This?’ Reading the Rodney King Video(s).” Could you speak to how you view this event now and its impact, that video, those eighty-one seconds of videotape?
EA: Thirty years. My goodness, that’s a long time. First of all, just to finish with Till, I think that each generation has its object lesson. Each generation has its public story that feels emblematic, meaningful—that we identify with.
I remember asking my father once about what the Emmett Till story meant to him. He said, “Well, it was horrifying. It was terrible.” He said, “But because I didn’t have roots in the South,” or immediate roots—he’s a Harlemite New Yorker—“and because I was older than he was, I didn’t identify with it. The story I identified with was Medgar Evers.” Because Medgar Evers was a friend of his, was his age, had children and a family, was working and fighting for civil rights within the context of an organization. He was part of the Mississippi N.A.A.C.P., my father working within the context of other organizations. And so it felt to him like, Oh, that’s what happens to someone trying to do what I’m trying to do. With someone like me. To my friend. That is what the object lesson is.
Moving forward to Rodney King: When that happened, I was a young professor. It was the first story that we knew about because it was filmed: George Holliday’s eighty-one seconds that he filmed from his apartment window across this street. Having that filmed evidence in an era, of course, before—now we’re in a different era, where everything is recorded on our phones, and I’ve thought about that as well in my writing, thinking about the “Trayvon Generation,” and the fact that these kids, the kids who are my kids’ age, are seeing these images over and over and over and over and over again, infinite times, on their own devices, often alone, because they can access them that well. Which I think what’s different about Rodney King. We watched it on television—
SB: Or even the Jet picture, which was printed and—
SB: It was a flimsy piece of paper. It didn’t immediately go on the internet.
EA: No, that’s right. And also in the life of Jet magazine…. Jet magazine exists on coffee tables in families, and in barbershops and beauty shops. It exists in Black space. It exists in community space. A kid in the house wouldn’t have their own Jet; it would be the family’s Jet. So there’s already a context for processing the horror, which I think is what we’ve moved away from with all of the—
SB: Yeah, it’s isolated, individual now, versus family or community.
EA: I think that’s very, very important, because it also means…. Thinking experientially, what it meant, for example, for my kids, is that they would have watched it twenty times on the school bus before I could even talk to them about it. I remember when Philando Castile was on the front page of the newspaper, I had this wild-eyed mother thought, where I thought like, I’m going to hide all the papers. Because that particular photograph had the police officer’s gun coming in through the window, it had his bloodied T-shirt, and—I can’t remember—there was a three- or four-year-old in the car, along with his partner. You were just right in that tableau. I just thought, like, If they’re going to see it, we have to talk about it together—but realizing the futility of that. Which is not to say I have any issue with…. I mean, this kind of technology is a good thing. But this is one of the results that we have to think about.
So back to Rodney King. It was a very focused news story. One of the things that people talk about with the trial of Derek Chauvin is: Yes, justice was done, but do we have to have that much videotaped evidence? Because, remember, when George Floyd was killed, there were many, many, many bystanders. It was a busy corner in a community. But I think people believed that the only reason that that trial went the way it did was because there was that much evidence. That much evidence. And so back to Rodney King, it seemed like that was a watershed moment where there was that much evidence. But the first trial, happening in Simi Valley where it did, in a very, very white community that the police officers came from, justice was not done. And then we saw the uprisings that followed.
SB: I was actually lucky enough to conduct one of the last interviews with Rodney before he died.
EA: Oh my goodness.
SB: And, eerily enough, the subject we were discussing was how to find inner peace. He told me that, “When I leave here, when my final day on this earth is up, I want to leave with peace. I want to have peace in my heart.”
I remember crying the morning [Jon Kelly] my editor at the Times, who I’d done the interview for, emailed me and told me Rodney had died, and I had to quickly cobble together something based on the interview we had had. And it just makes me think about the importance of storytelling, and understanding these stories and how they’re processed. We talked about gardening. We talked about alcoholism. We talked about a lot of different things.
SB: And I think we don’t get to fully understand or grasp a lot of these stories if they’re not told from different perspectives, or in the right way. It’s sort of this idea of collective memory, I guess. Maybe I’m ranting.
EA: No. But what you’re making me think about is…. Because he was a soul in search, wasn’t he? I mean, I think about—and it’s happening right now so I’ve got it on my mind—Anna Deavere Smith’s great play, Twilight[: Los Angeles, 1992], which is at Signature Theatre right now. When she made the play, she invited me to be a dramaturge on the play, and it was made in the ashes of the L.A. uprisings. And then she was acting the play, so it was extraordinary, her process. I mean, she was interviewing all these different people in communities in Los Angeles that didn’t always talk to each other. She was taking Korean lessons and Spanish lessons and doing all the body things she needed to do because she was performing all the pieces. And, with her team of dramaturges, she was shaping the play. She’d do interviews during the day. They’d be transcribed, we’d quickly read them, we’d watch the preview performance. We’d come together afterwards, and argue for hours—the play was like, five hours [long]—on how to shape it, and how to think about this kind of collective storytelling.
One of the most vivid voices in that play was Rodney King’s sister. The story that she chose to use from her, Anna titled, “Hand Fishing.” She told a story of how, when they were growing up in L.A.—I mean, in parts of L.A., and I think where they grew up when they were children, some of it was kind of country. She said, “We used to just go out to the creek, and we used to go hand fishing. And Rodney would just reach in, and pull out a fish.” Just this magical story of a child at bliss in nature, where you might not expect it, and very poignantly, you know, losing his way, but struggling, as we do. So I’m very moved by your piece of Rodney King, because I think all of it does make a collective portrait of a complicated human being who was utterly violated.
SB: I think about this now, thirty years later, in the context of George Floyd, and the conversation we’re going to be having about him in thirty years, and eight minutes and forty-six seconds, not eighty-one seconds.
EA: Well, I think actually, though, we’re having a conversation about George Floyd sooner. So maybe that is a certain kind of progress. I mean—
SB: A larger conversation, too, in many ways.
SB: Across cultures, across—
EA: That’s right. I think that’s really true. Starting with the intimate, I think about his girlfriend [Courteney Ross], and how she’s been a really interesting voice, and how, just so tragically, she connected to Daunte Wright as a school teacher, or as someone who knew him from school, in this relatively not-huge community, suffering disproportionate violence. I think about the voice of Darnella Frazier, incredibly, impossibly brave—
EA: Incredibly, impossibly brave. How do you stand in the face of police who are murdering somebody, and record it? I mean, let’s just pause with that.
SB: Seventeen years old.
EA: Seventeen years old. So there’s more storytelling that’s happening now. But also, in the trial of those officers, as with Derek Chauvin, you see a too-familiar language of bestialization, of imagining these people as having superhuman strength that then justifies their murder. The stereotypes gone to the furthest extreme—that people are not human—juxtaposed against the stories that make us all human, is something that maybe is happening a little more in real-time proximity now. And that’s good.
SB: You’ve written, “Violence that has in large part characterized our history and underscored our vulnerability actually opens an avenue to get to what is articulate, resistant, and powerful in our tradition.” I love that. I’m wondering if you could elaborate on it, and especially this lasting impact of the Till photograph, the footage of King and Floyd, how that all fits into this.
EA: I’m asking myself, Do I still fully believe that? And I do. But I feel a different sorrow, a different…. I don’t think progress is immobile, but I think that this is a tough wood we are making our way through. And I don’t think we altogether know how to do it. I think we have to each try in our own way, and collectively try together, but it doesn’t seem…. I think of my favorite guiding light, Gwendolyn Brooks, and she writes, “We must wizard a [track] through [our own] screaming weed.” I think about how weeds are not regular. Weeds are tangled. Weeds sometimes obscure the path in front of you. Sometimes there isn’t a path and you have to bushwhack your way through the weed. “The screaming weed”—to me, that’s also like, there are so many voices and needs and suffering, and sometimes we don’t hear them as articulated, separated voices or complaints, but rather as just, like, the violence made noise.
So I do think it’s hard to know how to move forward, but we just have to kind of keep moving forward. But I do also think that in our traditions, there is so much power and strength, so many lessons of ingenuity, of wile, of perseverance, of patience, of overcoming, of rebelliousness. And we can’t imagine that we are the first people to have to figure our way through some hard stuff.
SB: I love that we’re seeing a renaissance in traditional ecological knowledge. It’s great.
EA: Mm-hmm. Oh, yes. Well, last night at Mellon, we put on a most gorgeous, amazing conversation that I felt so privileged to be in with Mel Chin, Allison Janae Hamilton, and Emily Raboteau. Allison in particular was talking about coming from the land in the South, coming from that knowledge. We were talking about the climate crisis, but as it intersects with questions of racial justice. What all of those very, very wise people were saying is, this is not the first time we’ve faced catastrophe, that we’ve faced the threat of extinction, that we’ve faced forces that are larger than us. And we have a tremendous amount to learn from that ancestral, and what I would call near-ancestral, wisdom.
SB: What you’re talking about, too, is memory. On the environmental front, we could talk about Maya Lin and her “What Is Missing?” memorial. But I want to talk about how collective memory really comes into this, and this notion of memorialization. How do we remember? How do we forget? Could you speak to the notion of the memorial and the monument, and the work you’re doing at the Mellon Foundation with this two-hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar Monuments Project, a colossal effort, the largest initiative in the foundation’s history? In a way, it seems like your entire career—and we’ll definitely get to that—has kind of led you toward this particular project.
EA: Who knew?!
EA: I wouldn’t have imagined that this would’ve been the manifestation of it, but I know that when I was talking to the board of Mellon, when they were considering whether or not they wanted to bring me [on] as president, I said, “This is one of the things that I want to do. This is one of the things that I think an organization with this particular expertise in focus—arts and culture, humanities—at this moment in American history, with this size of resource and the potential of bringing together other resources—this is what we have to do right now.” And we have to start by thinking of monuments and memorials not just as statues on pedestals, but, to take it back to where you started us: What are the ways that we remember? What are the ways that we tell our stories in public? What are the ways that we say, in forms, kind of eternal and fleeting, “This is who we are”?
Where we’ve started the focus, and the aspect of memory that I think is really important, is thinking about distorted history. Thinking about lies. Thinking about the illusions of making things look like history when really they are propaganda. All of that resides in the space of the Confederate monuments, and even in my own realization. I didn’t know the extent to which Confederate monuments were erected so far after the Civil War. So if you start with the fact that, Hmm. We’re making a large, permanent thing that asks us to put our heads back and look up in admiration, to feel small, to feel dwarfed, to feel that something is better than us. And that thing that we’re asked to exalt is what? A treasonous, lost cause. I mean, that’s just factual.
EA: Treason part: factual. Lost cause: They lost the war. That’s just the truth right there. So if we start with that question, then what I think about is the reproduction of the hundreds of Stonewall Jacksons and Robert E. Lees, and the putting them in places sometimes where they never even were, where the Civil War wasn’t even fought. That leads me to the question of like, Okay, we receive this as history, but actually it’s not about this place. It’s telling us a different story. Then, when you move further to: And what was the cause they fought for? What do they stand for? And the very important fact that, at moments when civil rights were moving forward, that’s where you see more of these monuments—I’m telling you things that you know. But then you think, Okay, so what is the work that the putting up of this monument is doing? And very simply, in the face of progress, it is asserting white supremacy.
We have to start there because of the way that many very smart, reading, thinking, knowledgeable people assumed—I myself would’ve assumed that Confederate monuments were put up close to the time of the Civil War, and not, for example, in the town where I grew up, in 1953, Washington, D.C., in the windows of the National Cathedral. What is that community saying? And what are they saying about sacred space? Why do war people even belong in a church to begin with? Let’s take all the other stuff out of it.
I just find that these questions—which, for me, are teacher questions, critical-thinking questions, African American studies questions—allow you to break it down, which I just find so empowering. Then let us think about, What does it mean to tell more stories, different stories, visually varied stories? Like, no more twelve-foot stone horses rearing back with white men on them, in uniform. You know the great Monument Lab’s audit work. Acts of war—we’re going to keep saying, “That’s wonderful, that’s what we celebrate?” War is tragic.
SB: Yeah. I mean, Maya Lin[’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial], in many ways, completely shifted the conversation—
SB: To one that was about tragedy, and trauma, and loss. Not saying anything bad about the soldiers and the people who serve, but acknowledging the literal rift in the earth.
EA: Yes. I mean, that monument, total game-changer, and also that a twenty-one-year-old visioned that I think is so beautiful and so extraordinary—
SB: Asian American woman, no less.
EA: Asian American woman, no less. She was a year ahead of me, I think, in college at Yale. I didn’t know her—I don’t know her, but when she won that prize, it was just this kind of like, What? And it was a youthquake moment too, just to think, Wow. This very profound and fundamental, real full-stop intervention, in how American history is told in space and place.
SB: I love to think about that memorial as a youthquake in the [National] Mall. That’s good.
EA: Yes. Also, thinking about memorials, what does it mean to not have bodies? You know, how much those names on the walls evoke. And also, how continually activatable that space is, because of all of the people who go and touch the carved-in names of their loved ones.
SB: I don’t normally do this in an interview, but with you having said that, I have to mention that I myself was once memorialized when I was a child. It’s a statue that exists in Sioux City, Iowa.
SB: It’s very strange.
EA: Tell me that story.
SB: Well, I’ve actually told the story on this very podcast. But the brief version is that there was a picture, a photograph, that then was sort of distilling a heroic version of this tragic event, a plane crash that I had survived, along with one hundred and eighty-four others. One hundred and twelve people had died in this crash. At the memorial, now, there are no names. There’s a statue at the center depicting me, three and a half years old, being carried, and that’s it. There are some plaques with some things that were said in the immediate aftermath by rescue workers. And they’re semi-abstract and it’s interesting—it intrigues—but what’s missing is my mom’s name, the names of the one hundred and eleven other people who died, even the names of the people who were on the plane. For me, it has become this very visceral, cast-in-bronze fact of my life.
I bring this up because we’re talking about representation of how an event is understood and construed, but we’re also talking about representation of peoples. These really connect in a very major way. The Monuments Lab project, the National Monument Audit that happened recently—I have no idea if they included this memorial in the monument audit. But to me, what it depicts is a hero story. It depicts a boy being carried, a sort of almost biblical motif. The strong man, carrying the young boy. It doesn’t tell the multitudes of what happened that day. It doesn’t tell the complexity and contradiction of what took place. And it also doesn’t really reflect what’s missing, who’s missing, what was lost.
EA: We could talk about that a little more, because it’s really extraordinary. You’ve said the thing that I would press on, which is the idea of heroism. And, how do we tell our stories with more than one thing being true at the same time, and also what would it mean? For you, your mother’s name. What would that mean for you, but also, what would it mean for other people? Because people who didn’t lose folks in the Vietnam War go [to the Maya Lin memorial] and are moved by that site, and perhaps they’re more moved if they see someone who’s having a private moment. But the name as emblem, the way that all of our names are unique, that can be encountered by someone who doesn’t know the person. Names, serial names, so many names. You said one hundred and twelve?
SB: One hundred and twelve died.
EA: So that’s name after name. If you think about the way, in sometimes very moving memorial ceremonies, that they take a very long time, because you read out everyone’s name. And you know that you have to stay to the end. And you know that you have to stay through your emotions. And you know that, actually, it’s wrong to leave after your person is called. You have to stay for the whole thing. Because tragedy and accident and fate—that belongs to all of us. Also, just to take it even a little bit further, and what I think is really important about your read of the monument, is that if we only mark our own, our one or two, and if we never collectivize it, and if we never learn to have empathy for the name of a person who we didn’t even know, then we’re actually very limited in how quickly we can move forward with the force of empathy.
SB: Before we move on from memorials and monuments, connected to this, I’m curious, what are your views of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture? And what did it mean to you when it opened on the National Mall five years ago, in 2016? Because, in many ways, the institution and the building were quite literally a century in the making, and very much reflective of what you’re talking about: How do you contain multitudes? How do you show what it means to be African American? How do you define that?
EA: Okay. You know I can’t answer that question. It’s too big! But I have a lot of things to say. It was that long coming, so I think that, again, what’s important in telling the full story—and I don’t even think it takes longer to tell a full story, it’s just that we don’t want to just rely on the triumphal last-few-years-to-completion story, that we can cheer about, that we can tie it to Barack Obama’s presidency, that we can feel like there we stand on top of this hill. We have to talk about it as something that is a long journey. We have to talk about it in terms of the absences it addresses. We have to talk about it in terms of all of the obstacles and people who didn’t even think it should exist, let alone exist in its place of centrality where it exists. Some people didn’t like what I think is an extraordinary David Adjaye design, as a kind of African American vessel.
SB: Most of it, most people don’t realize, is underground.
EA: Yes. Exactly.
SB: Which I love. It’s like history coming up from below the National Mall.
EA: Yes! And the genius of how they start you there when you go down in that elevator. which is also a little scary, I think, having that experience.
SB: Yeah. I mean, to go from Emmett Till’s casket to Oprah’s set design is quite a jarring—
EA: Many things. That it’s like the most badass of all the Smithsonians, I think, is kind of fabulous. The objects and the power of those objects—so when you think about the flour sack, or you think about Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, or—
SB: Nat Turner’s Bible.
EA: All of those objects, and the way that the design of the museum truly understands the vibrational power, and the way that objects carry history forward. I’ve been there many times, and one of my proudest things, as far as this career I’ve found myself in, is that—I was at the Ford Foundation [as the director of creativity and free expression]—both Ford and Mellon were very, very major funders. Like, I helped, and that is just extraordinary.
I think about the first day of dedication, where a woman [Ruth Odom Bonner] was brought who, obviously, herself was not enslaved, but she was the daughter of enslaved people. She was in her hundreds. She came up on the stage and rang a bell, and bells rang at Black churches at that moment all over the country. That was an extraordinary tableau. What it reminded us of is that in the way that slavery is fundamental to the formation of this country—it is not so far in the past. That here was a woman who touches that. That my mother, that she knew two of her grandparents—really knew—who were born enslaved. And that she tells those stories to my twenty-two- and twenty-three-year-old children. Suddenly, these children are connected just in a whoosk from someone they know very, very well, not from a history book.
Just that kind of collapsing of time to understand what’s a long time in history, and what’s not a long time in history…. The eighty years we started with? That’s not a long time in history. To remember the ways that the United States is a young-ish country. Back to our question about memorials, the way that things are always built to look so old, and they’re not—what’s all this neo-Gothic stuff? This isn’t Europe. It’s something else. [Laughs] So I think that all of that could be understood in that extraordinary moment. It also felt like a purely good thing for everybody.
SB: About a year before it opened, I have no idea—I just feel so lucky to have been put in this position—I was writing a cover story on David Adjaye for Surface magazine.
EA: Oh, nice.
SB: And found myself in the building as a shell, with David, on the Mall.
EA: Woah, woah, woah.
SB: And walking through that building, empty, with him…. They had just put the façade on. It was like staring into a void. I still can’t really describe the feeling I had. But it was a deep understanding that this history that had been completely brushed over, ignored, to a certain extent, lost or stomped on, was all of a sudden going to be filling this cavernous space.
SB: I did want to stay in Washington, D.C., and go back to your childhood there. Your father, as you mentioned, was a civil rights advisor [and special counsel] to President Lyndon Johnson and secretary of the Army during the [Jimmy] Carter Administration. He also ran for mayor in the city’s first mayoral election. Your mother is a historian and taught African American women’s history at George Washington University. Could you speak to what your home life was like? What was it like growing up in that particular household, in that environment? That environment being both the home and the city.
EA: I’ll start with the city. It’s always fun to go back and study the place and time that you just know in your memory. Washington at the time was almost eighty percent Black. Washington was a very international place, owing to the presence of the embassy and other kinds of things. Washington had across class, across occupation…. You know, all kinds of Black people. When my parents came from New York City in 1963, it was still a segregated Southern city. But it was also a city with a deep history of empowered and educated Black people. Being in a space where Black everythingness was normal, and was non-conflictual, I feel, was the most tremendous gift I could have imagined.
One of my many theories…. I think about some of the white people who I grew up with who are very matter-of-fact about race, because they grew up in the minority and nothing bad happened. [Laughs] Kind of plain and simple. They grew up knowing all kinds of Black people, and that’s that. People are people. So I recommend that everyone grow up in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s and 1970s.
In my house, there was a sense always of civic [pride], of community, of being helpful to other people, of certainly being, if we wouldn’t have said, in a moment in history, that dad was doing important work for the race, and that he was working very hard, and we were all devoted to that sense of beautiful, hopeful progress, even when it was hard. That was beautiful and exhilarating. When he came home, it was my fun, funny dad. It was yummy dinners. My mother at the time hadn’t yet become a historian, but she is a very intense intellectual. So my mother—and this is the truth—read a whole book every night. [Laughter]
So I would say education was a value, although I didn’t at the time know or imagine that I would earn a Ph.D. But [it was] just a household where the inevitability of college, and the power and beauty of education [was apparent], but also that whatever privileges you had—and this was a very continual rhetoric—that you had to use them in service of being helpful to other people.
SB: I understand you were surrounded by books, but there were actually only, like, four books of poetry: Shakespeare sonnets, LeRoi Jones’s The Dead Lecturer, Archibald MacLeish’s The Wild Old Wicked Man, and Lucille Clifton’s Good Times.
Of course, over time, you start investigating and getting deep into poetry. Tell me a bit about the poets who had the largest impact on you in your youth, or even across time. I’m thinking Lucille Clifton, but also Gwendolyn Brooks, who you mentioned earlier, June Jordan….
EA: I didn’t know I was a poet until I started really working as a poet, until I was in graduate school, when that became the art form that I devoted myself to. But I certainly loved poetry. With those four books, what I think about is—I mean, I could practically tell you the table of contents for each of them. Because they were the only four, I read them over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.
I do think one thing that is just different from when I grew up is, you had four TV stations. You had the three networks and then you had public television, and there was also a local public TV station, Channel 20, [with] The Great Entertainer [jingle]. That’s where you would watch, like, Ultraman, and anime cartoons, and things like that. But TV went off, late on Sunday, like they would play taps on the television, and there would be no more TV. Sometimes that meant that you would return to the things you had. There wasn’t the same kind of consumer culture in the following regard: There wasn’t, like, T.J. Maxx, and all of those kinds of places where, even if you didn’t have a lot of money, you could have a ton of stuff. We didn’t have much stuff—
SB: But you had time.
EA: But we had time, and that also means you go back to the same stuff—
SB: Poetry time. [Laughs]
EA: Poetry time. I will tell you that you can read any of those books that you mentioned two hundred times, and they will still be rewarding. I think that there’s an interesting lesson in that about what it means to continue to immerse yourself, and have different experiences with work that is great enough to continue to yield.
But then later on, as you mentioned, it became Gwendolyn Brooks, who I think, both with her absolute consummate artistry and trust in her own voice, grammar, syntax—nobody sounds like Gwendolyn Brooks. No one can do as much as she does in very small space. She is not an epic poet, though she did write one long epic poem, In The Mecca, but mostly they’re tight, tight, tight, tight, tight, and a whole universe, and a whole community, exists in each of those poems. Every word is precise. And, she makes up words, and she uses strange words—
SB: I still remember the first time I ever read “We Real Cool.”
EA: Right? What is that poem, like, thirty words, maybe?
EA: “We real cool. We/Left school…” A little more than thirty. Or like [in “The Annidad,” a poem from her 1949 book Annie Allen]: “Think of thaumaturgic lass/Looking in her looking glass […] Taming all that anger down.” She just doesn’t sound like anyone else, and she trusts in that. And she was from a place—mostly her whole life lived in ten blocks on the South Side of Chicago. But in that place, in that community, was everything. So, [I] learned that from her; Derek Walcott, who was my teacher, who taught me so much about the universes in a small place, the Caribbean, Saint Lucia—
SB: “The Schooner Flight,” another poem I love.
EA: Oh, that poem is so great. Imagine—when he was my teacher, he read the whole poem to us in a little teeny, tiny, small basement seminar room. Just listening to him, reading it around the table, and his whole approach to form, more faithful to form, but bringing form together with the ways folk talk, which you see so much in “The Schooner Flight” and the movement between languages and vernaculars.
Lucille Clifton, she’ll just be the last one I’ll touch on. And for her pithiness, her philosophy, her bone truth, her meditativeness, her bodily understanding—the body is in all of those poems. She became someone who was another mother to me. So, to then have a relationship with that person, and to feel a happy responsibility for helping with her legacy…. So from this strange place in philanthropy, for example, we’ve given support to her house in Baltimore that her daughter is turning into a center for poetry and community, as it was when she grew up. Those kinds of circles are really very, very beautiful.
For June Jordan, I would say, because every day of her life was an activist day. Every day of her life was a purposeful day. Every day of her life was a face-fear day. She was just brave.
SB: Your first book of poems, The Venus Hottentot, comes out in 1990. Over the next two decades, you go on to write more collections of poetry, including Body of Life in 1996, Antebellum Dream Book in 2001, and American Sublime in 2005. We could turn each of these into its own episode [laughs], so I’ll talk briefly here about Antebellum Dream Book, which eerily blurs this line between dreams and reality to very profound effect. One of the poems, “Crash,” particularly stood out to me, and now listeners will likely know why, as a plane crash survivor myself, it just hit me on this really deep, gut level. And I was hoping you could read it here for the listeners.
EA: I would be happy to read it. Thank you for asking me to do so. And reading it in the context of your story also gives it another layer of meaning for me, too. I think what’s also important to say about the Antebellum Dream Book and these poems, which—they’re not transcribed dreams, but many of them started with dreams, because I think that, in dream space, for a poet, that’s when association is free. That’s when images are strange, and you have to decide whether or not you’re going to trust them. That’s where language juxtapositions are unexpected. I think that trying to mine that dream space, is very rich in language and image for poets. And so it meant that also sometimes, there were poems that I didn’t always understand. So this is called “Crash”:
I am the last woman off of the plane
that has crashed in a cornfield near Philly
picking through hot metal
for my rucksack and diaper bag.
No black box, no fuselage
just sistergirl pilot wiping soot from her eyes,
happy to be alive. Her dreadlocks
will hold the smoke for weeks.
All the white passengers bailed out
before impact, so certain a sister
couldn’t navigate the crash. O gender.
O race. O ye of little faith.
Here we are in the cornfield, bruised and dirty but alive.
I invite sistergirl pilot home for dinner
at my parents’, for my mother’s roast chicken
with gravy and rice, to celebrate.
This is the first book of poems I wrote after becoming a mother, and there’s a lot of early motherhood and pregnancy in this book as well, so I think that, on the one level, the dream in the poem is a maternal anxiety dream: Something terrible has happened. I have to find the diaper bag. I have to find my stuff. That way in which, when you have a child, you have to leave the house so equipped, and that parenthood is about eventualities of things that you cannot see and cannot predict. It’s like that all day long, and all night long.
So I think that it’s a parental anxiety dream, but I also think that, on the surface, this idea of, What would it mean for more people to put their faith in Black women? What would it mean not to be underestimated? What would it mean to be turned to, not because we can save the world, but because here are resources? What would it mean to see us as heroes? So here, I think about Renee Cox’s series “Raje”, which I love so much, where she photographs herself as a Black woman superhero in all of these historical situations. She’s on top of the Statue of Liberty, she’s taking Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben off their boxes. It’s so wonderful.
So thinking about that, and to me, obviously the moment where the poem pauses you is “O gender. O race. O ye of little faith,” to also ask the question, What is the cost of that lack of faith? Not just to Black women, but to society at large.
And then in the way in which there’s also always memory: “Her dreadlocks will hold the smoke for weeks.” When I was in college, I was in a car accident. And it was a car accident where I wasn’t hurt. I haven’t even said this [before], so this is for us to talk about…. But I had to break the glass and crawl through the window. After we got out—it was on the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut—we walked across, and we watched the car explode. Like, completely explode. And my hair smelled of smoke for weeks.
So that’s the kind of sensory memory that’s in there. And as I think about it again now, for the first time, I think, What does it mean to escape? The narrow escape—what does that teach you? How do you carry that? How do you process that? So that’s in there, too.
SB: Wow. There are a lot of places I would love to go with this right now, but while I still have you, I really wanted to talk to you about your 2015 book, The Light of the World, a memoir and elegy about the passing of your husband, Ficre [Ghebreyesus], and really your life with him. He was a humanitarian activist, an award-winning painter, a chef, and just an incredible Eritrean immigrant.
Time is something you constantly reflect on throughout the book. Of your fifteen years of marriage to Ficre, sixteen years together, 1996 to 2012, you note that “time stretched and stretched.… When I was with him, I felt that there was suddenly enough time: to talk, to read, to think, to sleep, to make love, to drink coffee or tea, to practice yoga, to walk.” Of becoming a mother, you write, “I remember some of the days being almost gelid in their slowness…. I had never experienced time so consciously… Time moved as though through honey.” And then you describe the experience of lying with Ficre after his death as “time that cannot be measured.” A rough poem you jotted down in the aftermath of his passing, “Family in ¾ Time,” is also about time.
I sort of just unpacked time in terms of the book, but I’d love to hear from you how you’ve been thinking about time in the years since writing it. And you moved from New Haven, in Connecticut, to New York. You left Yale, became a professor at Columbia, and then became director of Creativity and Free Expression at the Ford Foundation, which you’ve talked about. And now [you’re] in your role at the Mellon Foundation. You’ve raised your two boys. How are you thinking about time now? How do you process time in the context of the past, I guess, six years?
EA: Well, first of all, thank you for that read on the book, and for lifting out that topic so beautifully. And just answering you from scratch, I feel like time never feels gelid or “as though through honey” anymore. I wake every day as from a cannonball, feeling like I don’t have time. And some of that is, it’s a busy city—whooshy, whooshy, whoosh—but also some of it is, I was raised to understand that this philanthropic opportunity is one that must be seized with urgency because you never know when things will change. You never know when someone will catch on to actually the force of what we’re trying to do, where someone will thwart us. Things happen.
I think that the political urgency, that is sort of a direct line from my dad, is: Get your work done as though all you have is today. Do as much as you can, help as much as you can, with the day you have. I think the period of life that this represents—with two sons who are young adults now, and at my age, and having lost so unexpectedly—I just know in a very real way that time is not promised. That’s just real. That’s just the truth.
I think that, coming out of these pandemic eighteen-plus months—not quite sure how we’ll measure that—sometimes it felt like time slowed down, because we couldn’t do as many things. Certainly, when lockdown began, I probably had twenty work trips that were planned that didn’t happen. So I was used to that kind of movement. And I think there was something that was maybe okay about being home alone for months on end, but it did actually create a certain kind of time.
So, I’m a yogi. I started doing my yoga at home, at different times from when I usually [did]. There were some things like that. Like everybody else, I had my Zoom cocktail friends. I had more chats with some people, because we weren’t all running. But the anxiety was such. And I think that also remembering that the Covid pandemic didn’t have to happen like it happened. It was mismanaged. We were lied to. People suffered disproportionately because of race and because of income. It’s not just like it was a bug we had to manage. It was a fucked-up society, with fucked-up governance, that allowed people to suffer, and die, and be divided.
Really seeing that, and seeing that as it dovetailed with all of the racial conflagrations that we had, made it not a pleasurable kind of slowed-down time. But I think [it was] a reckoning, and I think that what yoga teaches you is, if you can breathe and face and move through, and if you don’t let the rising anxiety be the governance of your body and your mental state, then you can keep moving forward. And the profundity of what it means in a yogic practice to be in the present. To me, it doesn’t mean you forget the past, and it doesn’t mean that you aren’t moving toward the future, but you have to ground in that present.
SB: I wanted to end on a favorite quote of yours from [Rainer Maria] Rilke [from the poem “Go to the Limits of Your Longing”], which I also love: “Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
EA: I mean, that’s perfect, given where we just were. And I think that that is the truth. I think that that is the truth.
SB: Thank you, Elizabeth.
EA: Oh my goodness, thank you. Thank you. Let this be the beginning of a very long conversation.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on October 14, 2021. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by our executive editor, Tiffany Jow. The episode was produced by our assistant editor, Emily Jiang; managing director, Mike Lala; and sound engineer, Pat McCusker.