PIt is rare to find a job in oetry. There has not been one. John Donne was an English priest. Langston Hughes was both a columnist for newspapers and a lecturer. William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician. But it’s possible that Elizabeth Alexander has taken the side job to a whole new level: she’s currently the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the United States’ biggest nonprofit dedicated to the arts and humanities. The endowment is estimated at $9 billion.
However, just because a poet is at the head of an important grant-making organization does not necessarily mean that they are the first to be funded. Alexander is more optimistic about the importance of culture and the arts in shaping society. During the epidemic, she codified her vision in her 16th novel. Trayvon Generation. It’s a series of meditations on cultural and artistic artifacts that illuminate “the color line,” which she identifies as “a fundamental, formative and constitutive problem” in the U.S., and on the role the arts and humanities play in both drawing and erasing that line. Alexander can be described as a cultural archaeologist. She digs up and examines the relics to shed new light onto the society which produced them. Except that in this particular case the relics can still be used.
Alexander offers a real life example of the role artists can play when she brings a poet’s clarity of language to the fraught national discussion of critical race theory (CRT), which, she writes, “provides tools helpful for understanding that race is a social category and not a biological fact and that racism is best understood systemically rather than instance by instance.” Why then has CRT become such a national flashpoint? “The term has been hijacked,” says Alexander from her home desk in New York City, in front of an enormous abstract landscape painting, “and is now a misnomer and doesn’t describe the intellectual tradition that comes from the academy.”
Her book, first published as an essay in The New Yorker, is an exploration of whether cultural expression can 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 ways in which the humanities move along the racial conversation in this country—thorny, difficult, unsettled,” she writes, “will help us think in terms of process rather than finish line and leave us ever more open to the complexities that the humanities and the arts can reveal to us.”
Of course, the humanities have had a poor record in oppression. Alexander takes particular offense at Stone Mountain in Georgia, which is a popular vacation spot. It houses the most impressive bas-relief statue in the world, measuring 90 feet tall, and depicts three Confederate generals. This sculpture was built in 1970. “It is a shrine to white supremacy, standing today. Punto,” says Alexander. “I think people should be curious about that.” Curious too, was the timing of a stained glass window at Washington National Cathedral that featured Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Alexander has noted that the stained glass window was first installed shortly after Brown vs Board of Education had banned segregation in schools. “These figures are put up as worthy of veneration,” she says, “when in fact, they were traitors to this country in a war that was lost.”
In a way, the book acts as a background briefing on Alexander’s vision for the biggest initiative in the Mellon Foundation’s history, a $250 million five-year plan to help rethink 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. The work of Kara Walker, an artist who was raised in Stone Mountain shadow, is a good example of how cultural responses can correct historical distortions. Monuments Project will finance new museums and public art, fund research on monuments and their celebrations, and recontextualize existing artworks.
It will also support the removal of some monuments, but only, Alexander notes, when “communities come to us, to say, ‘We’ve done the work, and this is our idea for why we no longer want this.’” She points to the National Cathedral as an example. “The [congregation] themselves looked up and said, ‘Why is this here? This is what those people stand for; and this symbol in a church is an impediment to worship.’ And so they took out the windows and made a decision to put something else in.” Mellon is helping fund the new window installation, which will include an inscription of a new poem by Alexander.
The poet’s ascent to the leadership of one of America’s richest philanthropies was in some ways unlikely and in others, very unsurprising. Raised in Washington, D.C, by a lawyer father—he was the first Black Secretary of the Army—and an academic mother, she grew up steeped in politics and social change. Mark, her brother was an adviser to Obama’s presidential campaign. On the other hand, she’s an artist, or as she calls it “an organizer of words.” She published her first book of poetry, Venus HottentotShe was only 28 years old when she published her first book. Five more books have followed. She’s been a finalist for a Pulitzer (twice) and she read at the 44th President’s first inauguration.
And then there’s her academic career—she taught at Yale for 15 years and headed up its African American Studies department for four. Mellon was offered the job of top professor after a surprise stint at Ford Foundation. She says she still misses the rhythms of the classroom—she has new school year energy every September—but feels very mission-driven. Mellon has increased giving to support arts, cultural organizations, and communities that were destroyed by the pandemic. They also are increasing access to prison education. “These are opportunities that could end tomorrow,” she says. “So I am trying to do it as intensely as I can as bountifully as I can as well as I can as sharply as I can, because I know it’s not going to be forever.”
Alexander was taught a harsh lesson in the eternal nature of life by her husband Ficre Ghebreyesus. He was an Eritrean artist and chef. Two of their preteen children were born to them. Ghebreyesus avoided self-promotion in order to paint more. But his work will feature in the Venice Biennale this year. “A responsibility that I was left with is: What do I do with almost a thousand paintings?” Alexander says. “I certainly never took my eye off that ball, because I knew that his work had something profoundly beautiful to share.”
Alexander tilts her desktop up so that I can see the painting. He beams with pride. It shows a boy, not looking where he’s going, 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 and forest floors and other worlds. It’s called Mangia LibroOr Book Eater in English, which was her husband’s childhood nickname. Ghebreyesus’s second painting is beside her bed. “He made just a little postcard painting for me once, on a little chip of wood,” she says. “It’s got a painting on one side. And on the back, it says, ‘I wake up grateful, for life is a gift.’”
Alexander is a poet, even though she doesn’t have the time anymore. Trayvon GenerationAll spring from one source. “Art and history are the indelibles,” she writes. “They outlive flesh. They offer us a compass or a lantern with which to move through the wilderness and allow us to imagine something different and better.” While Alexander’s book is lyrical, it’s much more war cry than lullaby. “I didn’t want to write a book that said ‘…and the solution is read these poems and look at these works of art and read this history and you will have the answers and you will feel better and we will get it done,’” she says. “It starts with the question: ‘why are we still trying to figure out this race thing?’”
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