Poetry is rarely a paying gig. Never was. John Donne was a priest. Langston Hughes was a columnist and lecturer. William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician. But it’s possible that Elizabeth Alexander has taken secondary work to a whole new level: She is currently president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the largest nonprofit in the United States dedicated to the arts and humanities. . Its endowment amounts to approximately 9 billion dollars.
Having a poetry insider at the head of a major grant-making institute, however, does not mean that poets are first in line for funding. Alexander has a much more ambitious vision of the role arts and culture play in shaping society. And, during the pandemic, she codified it, in her 16th book, The Trayvon Generation. It is a series of meditations on the cultural and artistic artifacts that illuminate “the color line”, which she identifies as “a fundamental, formative and constitutive problem” in the United States, and on the role played by arts and humanities both to draw and erase this line. Alexander is like a cultural archaeologist, dusting off and examining relics and shedding new light on the society that produced them. Except in this case, relics are always used.
Alexander offers a concrete example of the role artists can play when she brings the clarity of a poet’s language to the tense national discussion on Critical Race Theory (CRT), which she writes, “provides tools useful for understanding that race is a social category”. not a biological fact and that racism is best understood systemically rather than instance by instance. Why then has the CRT become such a national powder keg? “The term has been hijacked,” Alexander explains from his office in New York, in front of a huge abstract landscape painting, “and is now a misnomer and does not describe the intellectual tradition that comes from the academy.”
Her book, first published as an essay in The New Yorker, is an exploration of the power of cultural expression to shape a world where children like Trayvon – and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Stephon Clark and Ahmaud Arbery and Daunte Wright and too many others – can be safer. “I hope that the way the humanities move forward in the racial conversation in this country – thorny, difficult, unstable,” she writes, “will help us think in terms of process rather than in terms of the finish line. and will always leave us more open to the complexities that the humanities and the arts can reveal to us.
The humanities, of course, have an uneven record when it comes to oppression. Alexander especially despises Stone Mountain, a vacation destination in Georgia, where people picnic in the shade of the world’s largest bas-relief sculpture (90 feet tall), depicting three Confederate generals, completed in the 1960s. 1970. “It’s a white supremacist sanctuary, which exists today. Punto,” says Alexander. “I think people should be curious about it.” Curious, too, was the timing of a stained glass window at the Washington National Cathedral which featured Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. It was installed in the 1950s, shortly after Alexander notes, Brown vs. Board of Education banned school segregation.” These figures are featured as worthy of reverence,” she said, “when in fact they were traitors to this country in a war that was lost.”
In a way, the book acts as a briefing on Alexander’s vision for the largest initiative in the history of the Mellon Foundation, a five-year, $250 million plan to help redesign monuments. “How do we tell the story of who we are and who we have been, in public spaces and in the built environment? ” she asks. Just as the work of artist Kara Walker, who grew up in the shadow of Stone Mountain, verifies her message, are there cultural responses that can undo these historical distortions? The Monuments Project will sponsor new public art facilities and new museums, fund research into how many monuments there are and what they celebrate, and help re-contextualize some existing works.
He will also support the removal of certain monuments, but only, Alexander notes, when “communities come to us, to say, ‘We’ve done the job, and that’s our idea of why we don’t want it anymore’.” .” She cites the National Cathedral as an example. “The [congregation] themselves looked up and said, “Why is it here? That’s what these people represent; and this symbol in a church is an obstacle to worship. And so they removed the windows and decided to put something else in there. Mellon helps fund the installation of the new window, which will include an inscription of a new poem by Alexander.
The poet’s rise to head one of America’s wealthiest philanthropies was in some ways unlikely and in others highly unsurprising. Raised in Washington, DC, by a lawyer father – he was the Army’s first black secretary – and a university mother, she grew up steeped in politics and social change. His brother Mark was an adviser to Obama’s presidential campaign. On the other hand, she is an artist, or as she calls it “a word organizer”. She publishes her first book of poetry, The Hottentot Venus, when she was only 28 years old and five more since. She was a finalist for a Pulitzer (twice) and she read at the first inauguration of the 44th president.
And then there’s her college career — she taught at Yale for 15 years and headed its African-American studies department for four years. An unexpected stint at the Ford Foundation while teaching at Columbia brought her to the top job at Mellon. She says she still misses the rhythms of the classroom — she has the energy of the new school year every September — but feels very mission-focused. Mellon has increased donations to rebuild arts and cultural organizations and communities drained by the pandemic and is bolstering access to books and education in prisons. “These are opportunities that could end tomorrow,” she says. “So I try to do it as intensely as possible, as abundantly as possible, as intensely as possible, because I know it won’t be forever.”
Alexander received a harsh lesson in the non-eternal nature of life 10 years ago, when her husband Ficre Ghebreyesus, an Eritrean painter and chef, died suddenly while exercising. They had two preteen sons. Ghebreyesus, who eschewed self-promotion to paint more, was not a well-known artist in his life, but this year his work will be featured at the Venice Biennale. “A responsibility left to me is: what do I do with almost a thousand paintings?” said Alexander. “I certainly never took my eyes off that ball, because I knew his work had something deeply beautiful to share.”
Alexander tilts his computer to show me the board behind his desk and beams with pride. It shows a boy, not looking where he is going, his head in a book, as he travels from a mostly rectilinear and geometric landscape to a riot of twisted and abstract forms, reminiscent of seas, forest floors and other worlds. It’s called Mangia LibroWhere book eater in English, which was her husband’s childhood nickname. She has another painting by Ghebreyesus next to her bed. “Once he made a little postcard for me, on a little piece of wood,” she says. “There is a painting on one side. And on the back, it is written: “I wake up grateful, because life is a gift.”
Although she no longer has time to write poetry, Alexander believes The Trayvon Generation springs from the same well. “Art and history are the indelibles,” she writes. “They survive the flesh. They offer us a compass or a lantern to move around the desert and allow us to imagine something different and better. While Alexander’s book is lyrical, it’s much more of a battle cry than a lullaby. “I didn’t want to write a book that said ‘…and the solution is to read these poems and look at these works of art and read this story and you’ll have the answers and you’ll feel better and we’ll do it, ‘” she says. “It starts with the question, ‘why are we still trying to figure out this racing story?'”
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