President-elect’s Poet: Elizabeth Alexander

At Slate’s online site, Meghan O’Rourke, has a brief article reminding us that President-elect Obama has picked a prize-winning, provocative African American poet, Elizabeth Alexander, to read at his inauguration ceremony. He is one of few presidents ever to invite a poet for such a task.

O’Rourke notes that Yale Professor Alexander has four books,

the last, American Sublime, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A professor of African-American studies at Yale (from which she also matriculated), Alexander writes poems that are metaphorically and linguistically dense, layered, and subtle. Her work speaks about black experience. . . .But she can’t be said to privilege identity politics over aesthetics; her poems work more at being complex than didactic. In this sense, she’s an analogue to Obama, who doesn’t privilege identity politics over his strategy of inclusiveness.

Among other important works, Alexander has written a powerful poem about the extreme oppression visited on the enslaved African woman, Saartjie Baartman (1789-1815), whom virulently racist European whites termed the “The Venus Hottentot.” She was a Khoikhoi woman enticed by promises of splitting her earnings by the brother of her Dutch slaveowner in Africa if she would go to Europe to be physically exhibited to whites. Put on as a sideshow exhibit in Britain and France, she was forced to exhibit naked. After she died of illness in Europe in 1815, her remains– skeleton, genitals, and brain–were displayed by and for European “scientists” like an animal’s remains in a prominent Paris museum–even until the mid-1970s! Yet another aspect of the “Western civilization” some of our leading pundits like to brag about.

In her poem Alexander attacks this extreme exploitation and its associated scientific racism more eloquently that we can ever put into prose. I recommend the portion of her poem posted on her website here. Her GrayWolf press collection, The Venus Hottentot is described here.