Selection Provides Civil Rights Symmetry

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 18, 2008

On Aug. 28, 1963, a young government lawyer and his wife pushed their 1-year-old daughter in a stroller from their home in Southwest Washington to the vast civil rights march on the Mall, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Next month, the little girl, Elizabeth Alexander, now 46, a prize-winning poet and professor of African American studies at Yale University, is scheduled to stand at the other end of the Mall before what will probably be an even bigger throng and read a poem at the inauguration of the nation's first African American president.

They are two moments in Washington history, more than four decades and about two miles apart, that on Jan. 20 will bracket a part of one poet's life, along with a chapter in the country's narrative.

"It was one of the iconic stories of my childhood," Alexander said yesterday of her attendance at the March on Washington. She said of her duty next month: "It will be hard, but it will be a privilege."

Alexander, who grew up in Washington and attended Sidwell Friends School, was named by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies as the poet to read at the swearing-in.

It is the first time that "poetry's old-fashioned praise," as Robert Frost called it, will be featured at the swearing-in since 1997.

"I am obviously profoundly honored and thrilled," she said. "Not only to have a chance to have some small part of this extraordinary moment in American history. . . . This incoming president of ours has shown in every act that words matter, that words carry meaning, that words carry power, that words are the medium with which we communicate across difference and that words have tremendous possibilities, and those possibilities are not empty."

Alexander will join soul singer Aretha Franklin, civil rights figure Joseph E. Lowery and classical musicians Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill on the program.

She will be only the fourth poet to read at a swearing-in, after Frost, who read at John F. Kennedy's in 1961, Maya Angelou, who read at Bill Clinton's in 1993, and Miller Williams, who read at Clinton's second inauguration in 1997, according to government officials.

And her connections to the city go back to that day in 1963.

"That's certainly been an important part of my own sense of what it means for all of us to be standing at various moments in history and taking into account what is possible, what is hopeful, what can be worked for," she said.

At the time, her father, Clifford, who later served as a presidential civil rights counsel and secretary of the Army and was a 1974 District mayoral candidate, was a lawyer in the Kennedy administration. He and his wife, Adele, decided they had to take their daughter to the march.

"She was there in the stroller," her father said.

Her mother, Adele Alexander, a professor of African American women's history at George Washington University, said: "There would absolutely be no way that we couldn't take her. It was important. It was monumental."

Her daughter's task next month at the opposite end of the Mall is "thrilling," she said. "The parallelism is fabulous there."

Her father said: "It could not be more wonderful. She is an absolutely superb poet, a superb daughter and a superb person."

Elizabeth Alexander was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 and winner of the Jackson Poetry Prize last year. She is also a friend and former neighbor of Obama's in Chicago, and her younger brother Mark, whom she introduced to Obama, was a senior adviser during the campaign and is helping with the presidential transition.

She is the author of four books of poems, "The Venus Hottentot," "Body of Life," "Antebellum Dream Book" and "American Sublime," which was the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Several of her poems can be found on her Web site at

"I'm deeply, deeply, deeply honored, not just to be part of it but to be part of it for this president at this moment," she said.

She said she will have to write a special poem.

"I have to write something to commemorate this occasion. I have to find a way to ask the best of myself," she said.

"Surely the world expected that someone like Barack Obama would want to have poetry at his inaugural," she said. "His care with language and his sense of vision would make us think that he's that kind of person."

The poetry and literary community had been abuzz for weeks over whether a poet might read and, if so, whom it would be, said Tree Swenson of the Academy of American Poets in New York City.

Derek Walcott, a West Indies poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992, wrote a poem about Obama after his election. And the president-elect, who reportedly wrote poetry in high school and college, was recently photographed carrying a book of what looked like Walcott's poetry.

Walcott said last week that there is a tradition of poets speaking for their country.

"There have been great occasional poets -- poets who write on occasion," he said. "Tennyson was one. I think Pope was another. Frost also."

"I think it's a good idea," he said. "Every nation and every tribe should celebrate at least one poet who is the voice of the tribe. And I don't think poets mind doing that. . . . There are great things that in times of national grief can console, and in times of national joy they can elevate."

Former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove, informed about Alexander's inaugural assignment, said: "I can only say, 'Yay!' She's a wonderful poet. . . . This is going to be a wonderful match."

The Chicago-based Poetry Foundation also applauded the choice.

"Her selection affirms poetry's central place in the soul of our country," said John Barr, foundation president. "She is a perfect choice . . . one of the seminal voices in contemporary American poetry. Like Whitman before her, [she] has always sought in her poetry to celebrate America's tremendous common spirit and endurance by acknowledging our differences and triumphs."

In a poem titled "Ars Poetica #100: I Believe," Alexander wrote that "Poetry is what you find in the dirt in the corner, overhear on the bus, God in the details. . . .

"Poetry (here I hear myself loudest) is the human voice, and are we not of interest to each other?"

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