Elizabeth Alexander: How Do You Keep Yourself Safe But Not Live in Fear?
In Conversation with Roxanne Coady on Just the Right Book
When we think of racism, we often think of actions, obstacles, systems. What we often overlook is the power of images, movement, art, and words. They represent the power of both harm and hope. Elizabeth Alexander in her new book, The Trayvon Generation, uses this prism to share poetry, art, and film. And along with her exquisite, evocative language, we find ourselves educated, provoked and challenged.
Elizabeth is singularly equipped to tell us this story. She is a poet. Many were introduced to her when she read her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s inauguration. She is a bestselling, award-winning author and is now the president of the Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder in the arts, culture, and humanities. But at her core, she is an educator, having had that role as chair of African-American studies at Yale University. In her new book, that is just what she does. She educates us, and the poet in her delivers the education with lyrical beauty.
From the episode:
Elizabeth Alexander: What I didn’t predict for this generation, which, again, for me, it starts with my sons, and also, having been a college professor for so many years, generations of young people who I’ve known and loved so deeply… I think one of the messages of the book is that we have to care about more than we all have to love these kids. We all have to take responsibility for these kids. We all have to listen to these kids. Everybody needs to be a parent or an auntie or an uncle beyond their own, beyond their own world. So I wanted to know how when you received this message as a young person, how do you still find joy or self-expression? How do you keep yourself safe but not live in fear? How do you take in all of the knowledge that there is this disproportionate violence out there awaiting you, but there’s other knowledge that you need to have, too, and that that knowledge needs to both keep them human and full and also collectively move the society to a better place because we got to solve this race problem.
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Elizabeth Alexander is a prize-winning and New York Times bestselling author, renowned poet, educator, scholar, and cultural advocate. Her most recent book, The Trayvon Generation (2022), is a galvanizing meditation on the power of art and culture to illuminate America’s unresolved problem with race and the challenges facing young Black America. Among the fifteen books she has authored or co-authored, her memoir, The Light of the World, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2015 and her poetry collection American Sublime was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2006. Notably, Dr. Alexander composed and recited “Praise Song for the Day” for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Over the course of an esteemed career in education, she has held distinguished professorships at Smith College, Columbia University, and Yale University, where she taught for fifteen years and chaired the African American Studies Department. Dr. Alexander is currently president of the Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder in the arts, culture, and humanities.
Roxanne Coady is owner of R.J. Julia, one of the leading independent booksellers in the United States, which—since 1990—has been a community resource not only for books, but for the exchange of ideas. In 1998, Coady founded Read To Grow, which provides books for newborns and children and encourages parents to read to their children from birth. RTG has distributed over 1.5 million books.