Into the Trayvon Generation with Elizabeth Alexander
Elizabeth Alexander: "Praise Song for the Day."
Trymaine Lee: January 20th, 2009. It was a cold, crisp day in Washington, DC. Inauguration day for America's first and only Black president.
Justice John Roberts: Are you prepared to take the oath, Senator?
Barack Obama: I am.
Roberts: I, Barack Hussein Obama.
Obama: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear.
Lee: For this historic occasion, Barack Obama had asked for a special poem.
Alexander: "We walk into that which we cannot yet see."
Lee: "Praise Song for the Day" was a celebration and a shout out.
Alexander: "Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton, and the lettuce, built by brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of."
Lee: And it also held hope for the future.
Alexander: "Praise song for walking forward in that light." (APPLAUSE)
Lee: That poet was Elizabeth Alexander. She is also an author, a scholar, a teacher, and now the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which makes hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to the arts and humanities. Recently, Dr. Alexander published an intense and beautiful essay in the New Yorker magazine called "The Trayvon Generation," about her own sons and all the other young Black Americans who have grown up knowing the trauma of Black death often capture on video, reposted over and over again on social media.
I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. I had a chance to talk with Elizabeth Alexander about that essay, the role of the arts in hard times, and more. But first we talked just a bit about that winter day in January of 2009, and what it was like to be there with one of the giants of the Civil Rights Movement, her dad, Clifford Alexander, who worked under four US presidents, ran the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, and was the first Black secretary of the Army.
Alexander: Oh my goodness, you're starting us right in the heart of the matter. As we still reckon with the passing of C.T. Vivian and John Lewis, and as I spent the weekend looking through photographs and finding a picture of Dr. King, John Lewis, my father, these beautiful men in their, you know, 30s, at the White House, called together by my father to meet with President Johnson to talk about the Civil Rights Act.
And thinking about these lions, some of whom were able to by fortune stay the course of a long and robust life, some of them like Dr. King, who gave us more than we ever could have asked for, in lives cut too short. To have my father, who with my mother brought me to the March on Washington, on that same mall, in a baby carriage, and who wore his button from the March on Washington--
Alexander: --that reminds us that jobs, and peace, and freedom, that's all we want. You want to work, you want to be free. In the words of Robert Hayden in a great poem that I'm sure you know, "Frederick Douglass," "We are visioning a world where none is hunted, none is alien." Freedom, right? To have my father as a lion then, to witness that moment that none of them could have imagined, but I have to bring it forward to this moment now, divided by violent, racist rhetoric from the highest levels of our government.
And I daresay we didn't think we'd see that either after the first Black president, who had an inclusive vision. To find ourselves where we are now in the middle of what is essentially an American race war, that is not something that these warriors would have predicted, but warriors they are.
Lee: And that's right, the struggle for justice, it's not like there are necessarily stops and starts, right, there's a through line here. And we think about the fights of the past that C.T. Vivian, and people like your father, and John Lewis, and so many others fought for, brings us to this reckoning we're in now where Black death is, as it has always been, a spectacle, and the trauma that downs Black bodies, especially. And I wanna talk about your piece in The New Yorker, "The Trayvon Generation." It kind of spoke to the deep pain that we continue to feel. Who are members of the Trayvon generation?
Alexander: Well, the members of the Trayvon generation, and for me this started with decades of work as a college professor, and as the mother of two sons, 20 and 22 years old, thinking about how just as we might say that we had the Emmett Till generation, or the Rodney King generation, that the Trayvon generation are young people who have been raised with these epic and iconic instances of police violence, and civilian violence, and killing of black people.
Not only have there been as many as there have ever been but these young people have witnessed them mostly on their phones. They've seen the killings over, and over, and over again. They see Black people like themselves being murdered, and being murdered often by people who our tax dollars are paying to keep us safe.
And so I think that as we look back historically over the spectacle, which is fundamentally American, right, which is hundreds of years old, since Black people were brought here involuntarily and violently; since Black people were the exploited free labor to build the country; since Black people were expected to and made to perform often in violent spectacles for the entertainment in plantation life; Black people who were violated as we moved out of the slavery into the era of lynching, where lynching was a social event, where sometimes people would bring their families, and bring picnics; where, you know, white America, some segments of it, became used to smiling for the camera while enjoying the spectacle of Black people being murdered, and being murdered, by the way, for not staying in their extremely narrowly defined place, right; and that very often, and this continues today, that entire stories were made up to say, "He was out of his place. He whistled. He looked at me the wrong way. Reckless eyeballing," so forth and so on.
So what I wanted to ask in "The Trayvon Generation," is what about our kids? What about our young people? What is their trauma? And then for the question of us, not just as their parents, if they were raised in our homes, but rather more widely as the village elders, if you will, or the village grownups, how do we raise our young Black people to be strong, and mighty, and free, free, free to move, at liberty, while at the same time we know that it can be very, very dangerous for them simply to walk out of the house?
Lee: And that idea you add about they're viewing this in their hands, in their phones, and it brings to mind this idea of Black witness. And you say, quote, "They watch these violations up close on their cell phones so many times over. They watch them in near real time. They watch them on the school bus. They watch them under the covers at night. They watch them often outside the presence of adults who love them, and were charged with keeping them safe in body and soul." How does bearing witness in the way, and repeated ways that our young people are witnessing these deaths, how does that change them, and their identity, and how they view themselves, but also their role in America?
Alexander: I worry about depression. I worry about their souls. I worry about anxiety. And I talk about a lot of the cultural products that I'm really interested in that come out of that generation: television shows like Atlanta and Insecure.
Actress On Insecure: What's this neighborhood technically called, Issa?
Actor On Insecure: Oh, someone told me it's the Black Beverly Hills. Is that true?
Issa Rae: Listen here you jet, Columbus motherfucker. I don't know why I told you about this neighborhood, because you all take everything. Can we have anything? Guys, I really don't know. But I do know we have a lot of work to do.
Alexander: Musicians like Kendrick Lamar, especially.
Kendrick Lamar: Now RIP, my diligence is only meant to write your eulogy.
Alexander: Think about how much of his work, it's the blues, right? It's the blues and its ability to hold together the tremendous struggle and sorrow.
Lamar: Alls my life I has to fight.
Alexander: Kendrick Lamar is making sorrow songs even when he is making anthems like Alright.
Kendrick Lamar: Alright, alright, alright. Nigga, we gonna be alright. Nigga, we gonna be alright. We gonna be alright.
Alexander: I want us to listen very carefully to these young people. In their bravery, in their bravado, in their youthful power I think there is also a lot of fear and sadness. And how to tend to that, I mean, the only way I know is just love 'em to pieces but also, like, empower them to pieces. Empower them as we listen for the blue notes.
Lee: You know, on the flip side of that we have these young people as consumers. But in the case of George Floyd, it was a brave 17 year old girl who didn't lose her focus one bit, and focused on his eyes. And we think about those old lynching photos that you mentioned. There's a book called Lest We Forget, and it's like, the families are all surrounding it, all you see are the dangling feet, and you see their eyes. And in this moment you see his eyes again. You see the officer's eyes one more. And as brave as she was in that moment she also says she was traumatized, right?
Alexander: Yes, Darnella Frazier is her name. When she came back the next day that's where she used the language of trauma, which I thought was extraordinary to have the language to describe what had just happened to her, because not only did she keep a steady gaze, not only did she open up a new stage of a global movement, but that bearing witness was at tremendous personal risk. I mean, you are sitting there, standing there, a few feet away from four police officers who are murdering somebody. I can't even get inside of that. So as I think of Darnella Frazier, also I think about the village. How are we taking care of the Darnella Fraziers who have born witness to too much?
Lee: Towards the end, and this is in the kicker of the piece, but you say, "We are no longer enslaved. Langston Hughes wrote that, 'We must stand atop the racial mountain, free within ourselves,' and I pray that those words have meaning for our young people. But our freedom must be seized and reasserted every day. People dance to say I am alive and in my body. I am Black, alive, and looking back at you." But I do wonder with the binding of trauma and everything we've been through, and continue to go through in this country, are we actually free? Have we realized freedom?
Alexander: You know, I mean, on the one hand we are free but on the other hand there are consequences to exercising our freedom, consequences that vary, consequences that are sometimes extremely quixotic. You know, you don't know what driving down the street does one day and does another day. You just can't always know. And, of course, there are also still legal freedoms that are denied us.
Lee: Every day.
Alexander: Every day. We can't live everywhere we want to live. We can't, you know, go to school everywhere we want to go to school. We aren't paid in a way that would make us able to exercise our freedom, you know, writ large. But I do think it is important to say, you know, we are not enslaved. Right, I mean, like, we can't act like there's been no progress. But I think that what Black history certainly teaches us is that progress is not a straight climb up hill, and then a speech on the mountaintop, and then everything is fine. Progress is something that you fight for your whole life. But I think it's character building. (LAUGH) I mean, I'm not being irreverent.
Lee: It's that. It is that. (LAUGHTER)
Alexander: Yeah, I think you understand the spirit in which I'm saying that.
Lee: After the break, a project that could transform life inside prisons. We'll be right back.
Lee: We're back with Elizabeth Alexander. In addition to her work as an author and poet, she's also the president of the Mellon Foundation, the country's biggest funder of arts and culture. This year they're working with a grant making budget of $500,000,000, every dollar of which, she's decided, will go towards social justice.
Alexander: I've been president for two years, and even as they were deciding whether or not to invite me to be president, I told them this was the way I would want to run this foundation. And the only way I would run this foundation is that every penny is going towards a fairer and more just society, that all of that will be, if you will, passed through a social justice lens, which is, I think, rich and complex. You know, sometimes people think, oh, is there a litmus test, or does it mean, like, just these people and not that people? But it's the hard work of asking a lot of questions with all the grants that we make, which is how do we think about the voices that we're trying to bring forward because they have not been supported? And how do we also, with all of the institutions that we fund, how do we ask them the same questions that we're asking of ourselves?
Do we adhere to principles of equity and inclusion that to me are simply about recognizing the excellence, and the multifacetedness of what it takes to be really smart and tell complex stories? One grant I was really proud of was, you know, relatively on the small side, but in Central Park, to help support the building of a memorial to the abolitionist Lyons family on the space that was Seneca Village. Central Park raised a free and prosperous Black community to give us Central Park. Let's let the ground speak.
Lee: One of the projects that it sounds really exciting to me is the Million Book Project.
Lee: Talk to us about the Million Book Project. It sounds amazing.
Alexander: Oh, the Million Book Project just absolutely fills my heart. I have the privilege of knowing a really extraordinary person, Dwayne Betts, Reginald Dwayne Betts: a poet, he's a legal scholar, amazing, amazing poet, and spent from the age of 16 in the Washington, DC area, was convicted of a carjacking, spent a very long stretch in prison, including a substantial portion of it in solitary confinement.
So he has come up with this idea that we are supporting in a big way, and that we've helped to build together at Mellon, the Million Book Project, which is what would it mean for there to be a real walk into this space, and browse the books library in prisons, because it's become more and more difficult to get books into prisons and to get books of deep and profound nourishment, not just, you know, self-help books, or a certain kind of religious book, or an outdated law book. So what Dwayne has put together is a plan to put 500 book libraries in every single state, men's and women's prisons and juvenile facilities, including Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico--
Alexander: --and that these would be libraries with the great works of liberation in them. So we're also talking about them, as I said, "You know, Dwayne, these are freedom libraries." You know, we think about it, going back to the idea of literacy as freedom that is documented in our slave narratives, Frederick Douglass talking about, you know, "When I could read that's when I could imagine freedom. That's when I could imagine another world. That's when I could hone my mind to be able to be a critical thinker." Dwayne himself told me that he first met my poems when he was in solitary confinement.
Lee: In this full circle situation. I hear you are--
Alexander: Full circle situation.
Lee: That's amazing. For many of us with family and friends behind bars, or who have known family and friends who have cycled in and out this sounds amazing. But to a lot of folks this probably sounds provocative, this idea of putting money and resources to getting books inside of prisons.
Alexander: So the way that I talk about the Million Book Project, is there a problem with books themselves? Start there. If you got a problem with books themselves, then, okay, we got something to talk about. But if you believe that higher education is liberatory, if you believe that books open our minds, and if you then, and this sort of a nice test of what does it mean to go through the social justice lens, if we're gonna fund higher education outside of prison because we believe it is liberatory, who are we not to fund it for people who are learners inside prison? And also to the pragmatics, it's very important to say that our vision of in prison and outside prison is there is porosity. Right?
Lee: That's right.
Alexander: People have family, friends in, people come out, how do we expect a larger society to function if people are deliberately kept in literary ignorance?
Lee: That word should have lights around it. Deliberately.
Lee: Kept in literary ignorance.
Alexander: Yup. Yup, yup.
Lee: So I want to ask you, what is the role and the place of the arts? In moments like this where we have Covid-19, we have the uprisings, and the reckoning of race, what role do you think it plays?
Alexander: I think that the arts play a role and have the power, the unique power, that they have always had across time, space, and culture, which is to vision possibility, to shine light through the darkness, to open our imaginations, to elevate us either into the past, sometimes to the future, or sometimes simply showing us exactly where we are right now. So I think that if the lights were to go dark, if you will, if our writers, and our visual artists, and our people who make things were to fall silent, we would have no human trace of what we lived through. Think about that.
Lee: You know, I share proudly a Pulitzer with a team of reporters who covered Katrina after New Orleans. And I can't even imagine what it's like to be on the Pulitzer board. I wonder how important it is for you, now that you're on the Pulitzer board, what it means to have a diverse, inclusive board, who is choosing among great work?
Alexander: I think that the space of the Pulitzer board is like any other space where cultural value is conferred. I mean, I can't tell you how many conversations I've been in over 30 years, in English departments where they say, "Lucille Clifton? Like, that's not poetry. That's too simple. Langston Hughes? That's too simple. That's not poetry."
Lee: Don't disrespect Langston.
Alexander: I mean, it--
Lee: First of all, don't disrespect Langston Hughes. First and foremost--
Alexander: Look, it hurts my heart, right? (LAUGHTER) But, I mean, but the work is no, not just twice as much, no, maybe 20 times as much, so that you can come at it from a lot of different angles and hopefully make some change that sticks.
Lee: You know, we've had a pretty robust conversation and we've covered a lot of ground, but at your core, the beginning, you're a writer and a poet, and I'd be remiss if I didn't ask if you wouldn't mind, if you could, reading a little something for us.
Alexander: I would love to and I wanted to read two short things that I think are convergent, and one is by me, and one is by the queen, Gwendolyn Brooks. We'll start with just this little piece. And the "Trayvon Generation," we spoke about it earlier, I'm always a poet when I'm writing, even when I'm writing prose, so I just want to read this little part.
"Yes, I am saying I measure my success as a mother of black boys in part by the fact that I have sons who love to dance, who dance in community, who dance till their powerful bodies sweat, who dance and laugh, who dance and shout. Who are able, in the midst of their studying and organizing, their fear, their rage, their protesting, their vulnerability, their missteps and triumphs, their knowledge that they must fight the hydra-headed monster of racism and racial violence that we were not able to cauterize, to find the joy and the power of communal self-expression. This essay is not a celebration, nor is it an elegy."
And then I would move from that, because I'm thinking about our young people, some bits from Gwendolyn Brooks's great "The Second Sermon on the Warpland." "This is the urgency: Live! and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind. All about are the cold places, all about are the pushmen and jeopardy, theft. All about are the stormers and scramblers, but what must our Season be, which starts from fear?
"Live and go out. Define and medicate the whirlwind. The time cracks into furious flower, lifts its face all unashamed, and sways in wicked grace. A garbage man is dignified as any diplomat. Big Bessie's feet hurt like nobody's business, but she stands bigly, under the unruly scrutiny, stands in the wild weed. In the wild weed she is a citizen, and is a moment of highest quality; admirable. It is lonesome, yes, for we are the last of the loud. Nevertheless, live. Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind." Gwendolyn Brooks.
Lee: I've never clapped (APPLAUSE) on an episode before, but this will be the first time. (LAUGHTER) That was amazing. Elizabeth Alexander, thank you so much. You are griot, a poet, a scholar, a philanthropist, a renaissance woman, and we fortunate to have had you. Thank you very much.
Alexander: Thank you for meeting me soul to soul. Thank you.
Lee: Appreciate that. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Wednesday.