Blood and ink relations: National Book Festival's Adele and Elizabeth Alexander

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010

Spend time in the Capitol Hill home of Adele Logan Alexander and the past becomes palpably present.

A line, just shy of visible, connects a grandmother's portrait to a Romare Bearden painting given to Alexander by the artist, her cousin, when she was 9; it connects a signing pen from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a note from President Lyndon B. Johnson and candid shots with President Obama to photos of a quintet of smiling grandchildren.

Family artifacts and old books combine in a unifying, celebratory voice. Shake off the reverie, and it's the voice of Alexander, telling the stories of her people. And while pretend lines and voices might seem a fanciful stretch, it is a room already proven to produce poetry.

At Saturday's National Book Festival on the Mall, her daughter, renowned poet Elizabeth Alexander, 48, a Yale professor who composed and read a poem for Obama's historic inauguration, will read from her new book, "Crave Radiance." Adele, 72, will be cheering her on.

After that, the George Washington University history professor will hurry off to her own pavilion to read from her latest book, "Parallel Worlds: The Remarkable Gibbs-Hunts and the Enduring (In)significance of Melanin," about a family (cousins of Adele's) who used education to help escape the strictures of race and become diplomats in the early 20th century.

Having mother-daughter writers in separate pavilions is a singular event in the 10-year history of the book festival. John Cole, the author coordinator for the Library of Congress, says he had no idea that the Alexanders were related when he scheduled them.

After finding out the connection, he wondered how it happened: "Did the mother encourage the daughter to be a writer? How about the poetry part of it?" he says.

"Even before she earned her PhD, she was a family historian, she was a storyteller," says Elizabeth, a married mother of two boys, 10 and 12. Her mother was "the one who remembered everything and connected the dots."

Adele says she was surprised when Elizabeth became a poet. "I mean, you know, whoever heard of your daughter as a poet? That just wasn't the kind of thing I thought of," Adele says. "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

But Adele knew that her daughter, who had always been verbal, who had "interpreted for her brother until he was 3, saying everything he needed to say for him," needed a forceful form of creative expression.

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The shelves in the Alexander living room are lined with conch and limpet shells, polished stones and cobalt blue glass. In her essay, "Toward the Black Interior," Elizabeth called them her mother's altar to the divinity of beauty, and the living room "where she reveals who we are."

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