WCSU in the Age of Reason

Paul Steinmetz writes about Western Connecticut State University

Elizabeth Alexander speaks poetically about issues of race


Elizabeth Alexander, who was the poet at Barack Obama’s inauguration, came to WCSU and talked about writing, about inauguration day and, most important to me, about how African American history is America’s history.

To begin, my youngest daughter was born in Ethiopia. I don’t think that means I should be more interested in race relations in America, but as a practical matter I probably think about it more than does the average white male.

I asked Alexander, who is also chair of the African American Studies department at Yale University, for some advice on how to connect my daughter with African American culture. My wife and I have found it difficult to do, which in turn has made us consider how separately whites and blacks live their lives.

Alexander, who was charming and completely accessible to students, faculty and guests during her time on campus, said we should relax a little. The African American experience is the whole world of living.

As an example, Alexander said, speaking of one of her areas of expertise, “A black poem is whatever a black poet writes. To be black is a hugely various, richly fascinating, everything thing.”

Raising kids is like that, I thought. At the dinner table, my wife and I like to sit and talk after the eating is done, which bores our daughter so she asks to be excused. Before she leaves the table, she hugs her mom, and my wife kisses her on the top of the head as they hold each other. It’s a parenting thing, it has nothing to do with race.

Alexander said many segments of society have a responsibility to address issues of race in America.

“Education is incredibly important,” she said. “Issues of curriculum and curriculum reform are important. Kids have to go to school and we have to ask, are going to teach them about this important, complex country we live in or not?”

A point in my favor! As you know if you have paid attention to this blog — here, here and here — Western is one of the places in this community where race can be discussed in a safe and enlightening way.

Alexander said black people have a responsibility, too, and she held as an example her grandmother, who was born into the segregated South — “By definition, she was inferior in every way.” But she didn’t let that view control her actions or thoughts. “I saw how she worked against that and became a richer, fuller person.”

Alexander is fully cognizant of the racist and violent ideas that people continue to express in America. They are easily accessed on the Internet.

“An important lesson of the African American experience is that you can’t ever stay in your comfort zone,” she said. “Bit by bit, relationship by relationship adds to social change.”

And, finally, she put some of it on me.

“I think white people should more often work at the hard question of race,” Alexander said. “To me, seeing white people think and talk about race is a really, really important part of the process.”

That is the full message: We all have work to do.

Follow Western Connecticut State University at wcsu.edu.

Paul Steinmetz