There’s been yet another special addition to next month’s inaugural festivities. Elizabeth Alexander, a Pulitzer finalist and Yale professor, will take the stage as part of President-elect Obama’s swearing-in ceremony. And she’s far from a choice most analysts might have expected.
“She incredibly gifted,” Brent Colburn, an Obama spokesperson, told the Philadelphia Daily News. “She demonstrates the important role that the arts and literature can play in helping to bring our country together.”
Alexander’s performance will be the fourth time in U.S. history that a poet has taken the stage as part of inaugural activities. The previous two, however (Robert Frost at President Kennedy’s inauguration and Maya Angelou, at Bill Clinton’s), were far more commercially-popular poets. Alexander, however, is a completely different animal.
At 46, not only is the Harlem-born Alexander the youngest poet to ever do the duty, Alexander’s poetry focuses on the Black experience as a universal one, which falls in line with the very outlook that helped Obama win the presidency. Her work challenges all Americans to draw upon their collective experience to shape their view of the world.
"African American poets have always been a cosmopolitan people,” she says. “We think of Langston Hughes as a 'Harlem poet' or an 'urban poet,' but he had been to several continents by the time he was 19. It's an oversight not to understand black people as citizens of the world."
As Alexander joins a line-up that already features violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and singer Aretha Franklin, her words will add you another dimension to the diverse portrait of both struggle and understanding the Obamas will present to the world at the beginning of what is project to be one of the most complicated presidencies in the history of the country.