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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; C01

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.

* * *

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."

After thumbing through a 70-year-old copy of W.E.B. Du Bois' classic "The Souls of Black Folk," Adele pulls out the rarest book in her collection. The cover is attached by a thread: It's the 1932 master's thesis "A Study of Some Negro-White Families," housed in the archives at Harvard, and written by Adele's aunt, who got her bachelor's and master's degrees from Radcliffe -- the same school that graduated Adele in 1959.

The themes, complexity and agency in the lives of people of color are echoed in Adele's books, in the life of her family and, by extension, an entire branch of Americans whose lives have been largely imperceptible to the broader culture. They are educated, often Ivy League for generations, and politically engaged; a historical repository for many of the most concentrated intellectual gifts in the African American community. They were careerists before women could vote, anti-lynching, civil rights crusaders and near-fanatics about education.

They socialized together, married and ordered their lives around "uplift." They were race men and women, standing up, being seen and claiming blackness -- as opposed to sitting down, as opposed to being accommodationists or, if their features allowed, passing themselves off as white to make life lighter. The darkest thing about some of them was a consumptive anger over inequality.

"What you got was a combination of education, social conscience and the idea that you were expected to work hard. That you had these privileges that most Negroes did not and you had to do something with it," says Adele.

It's a notion that comes with highlights:

In the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, Adele's father was Duke Ellington's physician and best friend. An aunt, Myra Adele Logan, was the first woman in the world to perform open-heart surgery. Adele has known her husband, Clifford, since preschool, and they married after he graduated from Harvard University and Yale Law School. They moved to Washington in 1963 when Clifford became a presidential adviser in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, then the first black chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After a respectable showing in his run for mayor in 1974, he became the first black secretary of the Army, during the Carter administration.

The couple attended White House soirees and socialized with New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Georgia congressman John Lewis. Adele served on D.C.'s first Board of Higher Education, was a legislative assistant in Sen. Adlai Stevenson's office, did political work related to her husband's career and, at 48, went back to school. "If you're blessed with longevity, your life has seasons," she says.

Lois Rice, mother of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, is Elizabeth's godmother.

Elizabeth's brother, Mark, a Seton Hall University law professor, worked as an policy adviser during Obama's presidential campaign.

After graduating from Yale, Elizabeth began writing for The Washington Post's Style section, but "I really did realize I wanted to make things up," she says, that "there was another kind of writing more urgently in me."

She'd studied dance for more than 15 years and thought it would be her art, but her mother thought better. "She said, 'That poet you love, Derek Walcott, I just saw he teaches at Boston University and I think you should apply" to graduate school, Elizabeth recalls. "In her eternal quest for higher education, no degree is high enough."

It was a sentiment she later distilled in the poem "Allegiance":

We crave radiance in this austere world,

light in the spiritual darkness,

Learning is the one perfect religion.

* * *

Elizabeth had never written poetry, and presented herself to Walcott with her diary of "unclassified word clouds." He read, copied something he found, and made line breaks. He told her it was poetry and to go write more. She earned her master's and later a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania at nearly the same time her mother was earning her PhD in history at Howard University.

Elizabeth published her first book of poems, "The Venus Hottentot," in 1990. A year later, Adele published her first book, "Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789-1879." Adele's mother, Wenonah, lived to see both.

Elizabeth describes her duality as a poet and scholar (she chairs the Department of African American Studies at Yale) as a "wonderful double helix," whereby one informs the other. "What I could do with poetry was to go imaginatively where the archives could not take us. And history as written could not take us."

She has been fed by the history, culture, vernacular of two cities. "I'm a black city girl. I am a D.C. girl born in Harlem, U.S.A." This, she says, has informed her worldview, as has her intentional blackness. "Black is rich and complicated. It's joyous and vexing. It fills your heart and it breaks your heart."

E. Ethelbert Miller, former D.C. poet laureate and the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard since 1974, has known the Alexanders for decades. He says they are emblematic of what W.E.B. Du Bois called "the talented tenth," a leadership strata of exceptionally educated blacks. "One is a poet, one is an historian, and they are both examining African American culture. When you pick up Elizabeth Alexander's poetry, you see the historical influence. When you read Adele, she's a poet, she knows how to write. She captures a story."

When Elizabeth read at Obama's inauguration, Adele says she thought of her mother's sister, Caroline Bond Day, and of her mother, who lived to see her daughter and granddaughter write books.

She thought of history. Palpably. American history, African American history, the history of the Alexanders.

No doubt she'll think of history at the National Book Festival. And she'll continue, in the tradition, making a bit of it as well.

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