When asked how it felt to have President Barack Obama request she write a poem for his first inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander humbly responded: “I was just happy there was going to be a poem for the inaugural.”
Alexander is a rarity—friend of presidents, daughter of civil rights leaders, Yale professor and Pulitzer Prize nominee. But above all, she is a great lady—wise, compassionate, generous. And, of course, she is gifted with an incredible ability to put words to meter and create profound meaning.
In light of this, the president and first lady honored Alexander’s extraordinary achievements at the White House Friday as part of the president’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. The Root caught up with Alexander as she was preparing to attend the event, which included a reading by Alexander from her new memoir, The Light of the World, as well as a poetry workshop for 45 Washington, D.C., high school students. We spoke about the joy of family and friendship. And words, of course—their importance, their necessity; their power to hurt or work for good.
The Root: Your newest book, The Light of the World, chronicles, among other things, the death of your beloved husband. Was it difficult to write this memoir?
Elizabeth Alexander: The writing of it was certainly very, very wrenching, but it was also necessary. It was something that I now see that I had to do. Writing, and being an artist, is the way I understand myself in the world. And my husband’s belief in me as an artist pushed me forward to do something new, even now, when he is no longer living. His faith in me is something that will never leave me.
TR: How did you meet your husband?
EA: I was living in Chicago, but was in New Haven [, Conn.,] writing a play for the Yale School of Drama. He and his brothers ran the restaurant that gave us the opening-night party. We sort of eyed each other, and then met properly shortly thereafter and that was it. We committed to each other pretty instantly. It was absolutely gut level, in a way that I had never experienced before. It torqued my innards. It made me feel something had shifted on its axis.
TR: Do you believe he was your soul mate?
EA: I do believe he was my soul mate. And I think that sometimes, if we are lucky, we have more than one soul mate relationship in life. I certainly feel like I have soul mate relationships with each of my children.
TR: How has motherhood influenced your writing?
EA: Being a mother to my sons was everything about The Light of the World. They are the ultimate gift that my late husband gave me. The life that we made together was all for them. The insights that come—not only with motherhood, but also from raising children with an extraordinary and committed partner—are part of what animated the book.
TR: What was it like to be asked by President Obama to write the poem for his inauguration?
EA: I was just so happy there was going to be a poem for the inaugural. It wasn’t a given. American poets were hoping that this would happen—it was only the fourth time in history an inaugural poem was read. The president’s decision to have poetry and music said that art had a place on the national stage.
TR: You and the first family go way back—to when you and President Obama were both teaching together at the University of Chicago. How has it been watching their evolution from the Senate to president and first lady of the United States?
EA: Being faculty members together was a wonderful way to begin a friendship. I have so much faith in my close friends. I think they are wonder women and wonder men. I think they can do anything. I knew that the president and first lady were going to continue to shine no matter what they did. And that they would continue to be the very profoundly grounded people that they are.
TR: How did this reading and poetry workshop at the White House come into being?
EA: This is through the president’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and the first lady’s ongoing support of the arts and humanities. It is also National Poetry Month. They decided to invite me—their first inaugural poet—to read and do a poetry workshop for 45 D.C. high school students. How amazing that these kids will have the experience of doing a poetry workshop at the White House.
TR: You are the mother of two young black men just past high school-age themselves. What do you make of this climate of violence against black lives? How do you navigate it?
EA: That the life force we have as a culture that has survived against all odds is extraordinary and beautiful. That is why I teach African-American studies. And my babies—two tall young men, walking around in these tall bodies, made vulnerable by their skin color, that is a parent’s nightmare. You teach children to be safe and smart in the street. But you need to teach them to stand up straight in themselves in their gorgeous, mighty culture. That they are fierce people from fierce people. The worst damage racism can do to our children is to raise them up to be fearful.
TR: How did you gain so much wisdom?
EA: My parents taught me about consistency. They taught me about honesty. They taught me about knowledge and intelligence and the hard work to earn those things—because once you have those they can never be taken away. They taught me to stand up and speak out against injustice always—even when it was hard and you think no one is listening. They taught me to be good to your family, take care of your family and love your children. The simple value of love. And that love is the ultimate power.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.