Poetry is rarely a paying gig. Never has been. John Donne was a priest. Langston Hughes was a newspaper columnist 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. Its endowment sits at about $9 billion.
Having a poetry insider at the head of a big grant-making institute does not mean, however, that poets have moved to the front of the line for funding. Alexander has a much more ambitious vision for the role that the arts and culture play in the formation of society. And, during the pandemic she codified it, in her 16th book, The 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 is like a cultural archaeologist, dusting off and examining relics and shedding new light on the society that produced them. Except in this case, the relics are still in use.
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, which sprang from 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.”
The humanities, of course, have a spotty record when it comes to oppression. Alexander heaps particular scorn on Stone Mountain, a Georgia vacation destination, where people picnic in the shadow of the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world (90 feet high), of three Confederate generals, that was completed in the 1970s. “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. It was installed in the 1950s, shortly after, Alexander notes, Brown vs Board of Education banned school segregation. “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. Just as the work of the artist Kara Walker, who grew up in the shadow of Stone Mountain, checks its message, are there cultural responses that can undo these historical distortions? The Monuments Project will sponsor new public art fixtures and museums, finance research into how many monuments there are and what they celebrate, and help recontextualize some existing works.
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. Her brother Mark was an advisor to the Obama 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, The Venus Hottentot, when she was just 28 years old and five more since. 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. An unexpected stint at the Ford Foundation while she was teaching at Columbia led to the top job at Mellon. 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 its giving to rebuild arts and cultural organizations and communities hollowed out by the pandemic and is boosting access to books and education in prisons. “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 got a hard lesson on the non-forever nature of life 10 years ago, when her husband Ficre Ghebreyesus, an Eritrean painter and chef, died suddenly while exercising. They had two pre-teenage 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 in the Venice Biennale. “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 computer up to show me the painting behind her desk and 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 Libro, or Book Eater in English, which was her husband’s childhood nickname. She has another painting by Ghebreyesus next to 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.’”
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 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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