- Alexander’s poem tells a family story at once real and imagined while creating historical and political context for the events it narrates. Try writing a poem that similarly operates on multiple levels: as a (true) family story and a larger commentary on the society and times in which the story is set. You might also interview your parents or grandparents to get a sense of their past and the eras they lived through.
- The line endings in this poem do particular work, as Stephen Burt notes in his guide. Circle the last words in each line and use them as the first words in the lines of your own poem. Title your poem, like Alexander’s, “Race.”
- Try writing a poem modeled on Alexander’s structure: in the first stanza relate a story that “many others have told, and not told.” In the second, reflect on what “the poet” does in telling such a tale. And use the third to develop the larger questions writing the previous two stanzas have led you to.
- What does Alexander’s poem suggest about the connections between poems, stories, and race? How is race a story that gets told in the poem? Who are the various characters that tell it? How does suggesting race as a story that poems can tell influence what this poem looks or sounds like on the page? Think about conversational language, line breaks, and diction.
- Chart Alexander’s use of racially inflected language; think about allusions and theoretical language for talking about race, as well as descriptive words. What work do such words do in the poem? How do they accrue meaning or develop as the poem continues?
- In his guide to “Race,” Burt notes that the three stanzas contain different kinds of language to make different points, or test different ideas about poetry, stories, and race. What differences do you see between the stanzas? How do shifts in tone or diction affect your understanding of both the story Alexander is telling and its broader implications?
- Alexander’s poem is self-consciously a “story about race.” Ask students to paraphrase or summarize the poem’s “story” in a few sentences; then ask them to summarize or paraphrase the poem’s style in a few more. If Alexander is telling a story about race, is she also telling a story about poems? (Having students read Burt’s guide might be helpful.) Ask students to research other poems that tell stories “about race.” Try to get them to think historically: you might use Alexander’s poem to do a mini-unit on poetry “about race,” starting with 19th century poets such as Phillis Wheatley or George Moses Horton and delving into the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement. Students could research individual poets or the reception of individual poems or books of poetry. After developing a sense of how poems about race have circulated and been received in American poetry, have students look at contemporary poets and poems: Nikki Finney’s “The Afterbirth, 1931” or Harmony Holiday’s “Do any black children grow up casual?” might be good places to start. What themes or concerns do your students see persisting in poems “about race”? What formal changes occur? Do the poems all tell similar stories? What can they read about America’s own struggles with the story of race in the poems they’ve collected? After discussion, you might have students compose a class cento from the poems: each student should select a line from their poem and then “build” a poem by putting all the lines together.
- Elizabeth Alexander is perhaps most famous for reading her poem, “Praise Song for the Day” at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. Have your students research and think about the civic uses of poetry in the United States. Why use poems to commemorate or memorialize special events? What has been poetry’s role in constructing American identity? How has poetry participated in American politics? Groups might research poets and poems of other presidential inaugurations (including Robert Frost’s famous performance at John F. Kennedy’s), or think about public and occasional poems such as Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus.” Have students compile a timeline and/or map of all the different locations and dates in which poetry has been used for civic purposes in the United States. What do such uses tell us about the role of poetry in America?
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Elizabeth Alexander: “Race”
With its careful humor and gentle ironies, Elizabeth Alexander’s “Race” ends up as a poem about race and family, a poem about how poems tell stories and a poem about how race can guide the stories poems tell. Alexander has written a poem in three parts, with at least three intertwined topics: the first part stands—or could have stood—independently; the second complements and partially reverses the first; and the third completes, and corrects, the first two. As she concludes this particular “story about race,” Alexander opens up larger questions about how we have learned to read any poem: about how we make, and whether we can avoid making, assumptions about race and voice, race and speakers and characters, whenever we read any poem.
Alexander begins unassumingly, with an anecdote whose emotional weight only later becomes clear. Great-uncle Paul, “who left Tuskegee,” decided to pass for white and “became fundamentally white”—if not in his sense of himself then at least in how white Americans, and perhaps black strangers, treated him. That decision controlled how he treated his brothers and sisters, and it controlled how they chose to treat him: the final words of Alexander’s first sentences—in order, “black,” “white?” “black,” “black!,” “confusion,” “tale,” and “brother”—highlight his choice. Alexander begins the poem with both a place of origin and an allusion: Tuskegee is famous for the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881. Washington wanted black Americans to prove themselves by excelling at mechanical, agricultural, and other practical occupations, striving to avoid direct conflict over civil rights. The institute embodied Washington’s vision: a black man leaving Tuskegee, Alabama, in order to “become a forester” in 1930, perhaps with a forestry degree, would be enacting that vision in one sense.
In another sense, of course, Paul was turning his back on Washington’s (and almost every other) vision of racial uplift: in Oregon, the “pale-skinned,” “straight-haired,” “blue-eyed” Paul passed for white, as untold numbers of black Americans have done since the 1600s. Daniel J. Sharfstein’s popular history The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White is one of the latest of many books to examine the phenomenon of “passing.” The three families in Sharfstein’s study “provided occasions for articulating what it meant to be black and what it meant to be white.” Whatever it means, it is not just about skin color or verifiable medical fact, as Paul’s siblings prove, since they have the same complexion and similar genes, but moved to New York and stayed black.
Race, Sharfstein continues, “is not just a set of rules. It is also a set of stories that people have told themselves and one another over and over.” The complex ironies inherent in such stories play off against the apparent artlessness, even the naïveté, of the implied speaker in the first part of the poem, where Alexander adopts simplicity as a technique. She uses long lines, most of them broken at a natural pause, as if she were simply transcribing conversation; she repeats words, as in natural speech (“siblings . . . siblings”; “confused . . . confusion”), rather than using variation through synonyms; her syntax and punctuation suggest the mild shock and amusement, the softened and habituated rue, of long-familiar history. Alexander thus becomes a diffident, transparent conduit for just one of the many similar stories known to some readers: “Many others have told, and not told, this tale.” The irregular five-beat line becomes a sort of home chord, repeated throughout.
But Alexander doesn’t want just to tell a “tale” already familiar to her readers; she is trying to understand the ramifications of the story itself to discover what sort of poem it deserves. Of what might Paul’s life in particular, or racial passing in general, furnish a good example? Do black poets have a responsibility to tell certain stories about black people (“heroic” ones, for example), and if they do, can Alexander fulfill it when she writes about Paul? A life of racial passing might be celebrated as an example of heroic philosophical inquiry, a demonstration that even such a overwhelmingly present, historically potent thing as race is without metaphysical foundation: the racial migrant, the once-black man living as white, might be a trickster, a double agent, a quester, having seen (like the apostle Paul) a new light, a new life. Or such a life might be an example of selfishness: the black-to-white migrant turns his back on his family, his natal home, and his obligations to them and to any larger black community in order to do better for himself.
No matter what she makes of racial passing, Alexander joins a literary tradition by addressing it at all. Clare Kendry, the black-to-white migrant in Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), can be understood through either rubric—one reason this novel, nearly forgotten for decades, has now acquired such a rich critical afterlife. The letter writer in Langston Hughes’s short story “Passing” (1930) can be understood only as selfish: “That’s the kind of thing that makes passing hard,” he tells his mother, “having to deny your own family when you see them.” He continues, “Since I’ve made up my mind to live in the white world, and have found my place in it (a good place), why think about race any more? I’m glad I don’t have to.” But of course he does think about it: “if any of my kids are born dark,” he continues, “I’ll swear they aren’t mine. I won’t get caught in the mire of color again. Not me. I’m free, Ma, free!”
Most of us wouldn’t want to imagine our own family capable of such sentiments, and so Alexander uses her powers of invention to construct a “heroic” story instead. Though living as white in a white state, with an “ivory spouse,” Paul’s attention to detail, his meticulously and mysteriously coded forestry manuals, are a kind of sub rosa rebellion. He practices a double-voiced writing with his black or blackened “graphite markings” and “silent spaces” equally telling a story about oppression, independence, and the arbitrariness of social categories for those (black) readers who are able to read them. African American thinkers have a strong tradition around such coded stories, of telling them and of trying to recover them, from W.E.B. DuBois’s records of “double-consciousness” to Henry Louis Gates’s model of literary “signifying,” from oral performance to intensely writerly art. Alexander’s great-uncle Paul also wrote books, “ledgers,” records of trees. As Alexander links him to literary tradition, her poem becomes self-consciously literary too. Words such as “cool, sagey” and other adjectives come to the fore; nature becomes sublime (redwoods); and the verse paragraph ends by describing itself, as well as Paul’s putative work, in slightly highfalutin ways: “graphite markings in a forester’s code.”
This second part of the poem—from “the poet” to “code”—amounts to a gloss on part one, a reinterpretation that the poet herself understands as fiction (she uses “invents,” and then “imagines,” three times in four lines) and cannot accept. There is no evidence that Paul saw his job as a coded rebellion against race, and plenty of evidence that Alexander prefers a black art that is identifiably black. In her collection of essays, The Black Interior (2004), she praises Robert Hayden, who “insisted that, when it came to his writing, he was a poet first and black, second,” but implies that she feels closer to Gwendolyn Brooks, who altered her early, elaborate style in an attempt to get closer to black readers’ needs. “It’s presumptuous to think that all black artists . . . are part of the same large and bumptious family,” Alexander says, “but I’m a weird sister ever-searching for her strange black artist brothers.” Being a black artist is like being part of a family: not all black artists are her sisters and brothers, but all her full sisters and brothers (according to this line of thought) must be black.
Yet “Race” does not indict great-uncle Paul; Alexander refrains from using the rhetoric of black nationalism, or treason and loyalty; she doesn’t even use the words “pass” or “passing.” Alexander might not want to give Paul a label he did not choose, or perhaps the label does not quite fit, since he “never told anyone / he was white.” Rather, he became “fundamentally white” because he was pale-skinned and blue-eyed, and because in Oregon in 1930 such people were simply assumed to be white. White was the default race, as well as—to many white people—the only desirable one (Oregon’s constitution infamously banned “free Negroes” from settling in the state until 1926).
The first part of “Race” “tells a story,” and the second provides one way to interpret it, however implausible. The third verse-paragraph gives us another view, one that is neither tragic nor comic, neither condemnatory nor “heroic”; its wry restraint is an achievement. Great-uncle Paul (like Clare Kendry in Larsen’s Passing) did not want to introduce a white spouse to dark-skinned African Americans. “He asked his siblings not to bring their spouses,” to choose him over their husbands and wives. The Harlem brothers and sisters refused, choosing spouse over sibling, the family they made over the family into which they were born. Great-uncle Paul had already made the same choice. The siblings seem admirable, while Paul may not, but the poet concludes with less judgmental terms: race is “strange,” family even “stranger”—indeed, strange in many of the same ways.
Staying calm without sounding cold, rejecting stereotypes, acknowledging each side, Alexander shows how she can see both Paul and his siblings as part of her family. From the slightly high-flown, unsustainable language of the second part, Alexander returns to the calm demotic of the first: if “heroic” diction was the wrong way to make a story into a poem, this third part might demonstrate a right way, by drawing respectful conclusions in balanced apothegms (out of seven lines, three are one-line sentences) that do not say more than the story itself can show. And what that story shows is strange enough: consideration of race can cause members of the same family to treat one another almost as “strangers,” and a story about race that can do justice to a family such as Alexander’s, indeed to any family at all, turns out to be one that can present race as a story: that is, as a sequence of decisions and impressions, related by cause and effect, by economics and politics and geography, and by the inner lives of the characters in it. Race is neither biological fact nor dismissible fiction, but an unwieldy set of narratives that Americans live inside.
So the poem ends, with a story of how we read race. It also leaves us with unanswered questions—if not unfinished stories—about how we read poems. Oregonians assumed that Paul was white, and we are led to believe, so did his “ivory spouse.” Readers of “Race” will likely assume, even if they know nothing else about her, that Elizabeth Alexander is black and identifies herself as black, and has family members who do so too. They will be right; they may have seen her on TV, since she wrote and recited, before a crowd of millions, a poem at President Obama’s inauguration. Yet her poem “Race” offers a gentle caution about what we can assume when we read a poem. Do all poems “tell a story about race,” or just this one? All the time, or (the first word of this poem) just “sometimes”? Do readers—black, white, both, neither—expect that all black poets, or all their poems, should bear marks or stories of race (as Paul tried not to do)? Do readers make the same demand of white—or apparently white—poets and their poems? Does Alexander’s last line hint that any poem can be made—if only through “silent spaces” like those in Paul’s ledgers—to speak about race? Can black writers evade that demand, and can white—or “white”—writers address it too?
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Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem, New York, but grew up in Washington, DC, the daughter of former United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman, Clifford Alexander Jr. She holds degrees from Yale, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her PhD. She is currently a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and the inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University. She is the former Chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale University. Alexander is a highly respected scholar, teacher, and mentor, as well as a founding member of Cave Canem, an organization dedicated to promoting African American poets and poetry. Her accomplishments within academia are numerous and include a Quantrelle Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching from the University of Chicago and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard and the Alphonse Fletcher Foundation.
Alexander’s career as...
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