Elizabeth Alexander represents the youngest edge of this generation of poets following the Black Arts Movement. Her work is deeply engaged with black history and culture, inseparable from America at large. She has published five books of poetry, a play, two collections of essays, and a children’s book (coauthored with Marilyn Nelson). She is currently professor and chair of African American Studies at Yale University. In 2008, she was asked to read an original poem at the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States on January 20, 2009, pulling her into national and international prominence. The poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” typifies her themes and aesthetics, mediating national and African American tropes through individual details and experiences in an accessible lyric voice.
Alexander was born on May 30, 1962, in Harlem, New York, and raised in Washington, D.C. Her parents were among the black professional elite; as such, her childhood included education, travel, and involvement in civil rights issues. Her poems and essays depict an upbringing in a loving family with an abiding belief in racial affiliation. She earned a BA from Yale University in 1984, an MA from Boston University in 1987, and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992. At Boston University, she studied with Derek Walcott. She was an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago from 1991 to 1997. Alexander married Ficre Ghebreyesus, a native of Eritrea, in 1997, and they have two sons. She was a poet in residence and the director of Smith College’s Poetry Center from 1997 to 1999, moving to Yale’s African American Studies department as an adjunct associate professor in 1999.
Alexander’s earlier work charts the experiences of girlhood and young womanhood, yet always within broader contexts of race, class, and national issues (such as aids). Her interest in history is apparent from her first book of poetry, The Venus Hottentot, written from the perspective of Sartje Baartman, the young Xhosa woman who was lured to Europe and then