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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.

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Paul Steinmetz

36 Responses

  1. I agree with many of the preceding comments. Race was an issue in our world 100 years ago, and is still a pressing issue today whether some admit it or not. I believe that talking about race, and addressing such issues brings light to the situation along with acceptance, and understanding. I wish I could have been in attendance when Elizabeth Alexander came to speak to WCSU students. Based on what I’ve read about her, she seems like quite an inspiration. In regards to what she said about African American history being part of America’s history- I couldn’t agree more. Think about the battles and hardships African American citizens faced in our country a few decades ago. What about Martin Luther King? I think it’s great that our university had her come speak!

  2. Elizabeth Jacobs says:

    I agree with many of the other comments posted. I feel as though continuing to educate young people as well as the community about racism is a wonderful thing, so long as it is done with good judgement. Constantly putting a focus on racism and stating it as a current issue in society may have a negative reaction and make people more suspect of others. For example, if an individual of race A and an individual of race B were to have some type of argument and had been raised in the belief that racism is still a prominent dividing factor they would be more likely to blame the other persons race, or possibly racism, for their actions rather than the individual person they are.

  3. Kelly Lindell says:

    I was unable to attend Elizabeth Alexander’s reading for work related reasons. This was very disappointing for me as an aspiring poet, but your blog certainly has lifted my spirits since it seems to reflect the message behind Alexander’s inspiring work. Unfortunately, racism is still very prevalent in our community. I know a couple considering an adoption similar to that of your family’s. Their parents vehemently protested saying they would “refuse to have a black grandchild”. It was really disappointing to hear this from them. However, this blog entry reaffirms to me that even if there are still a few hurdles to jump, our community is making vast improvements on this issue.

  4. Denise Roberts says:

    I feel we should never stop talking about race. Silence does not mean racism does not exist, it only takes it out of the public view. We need people to feel uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that they want things to change and they want the problem fixed as soon as possible. America has come a long way. But although progress has been made, that does not mean we should stop trying to make a greater change. I feel over the past few years, racism has gotten worse because everyone is afraid to talk about it. It needs to be recognized as a reoccuring problem, showing itself in different forms throughout American history.

  5. Jason Grant says:

    I can really appreciate this blog. I was unable to attend Elizabeth Alexander’s appearance, but I think you conveyed a strong part of her message. I strongly agree that a big step for people of all races is to talk about their differences and educate one another. Education goes far beyond the gates of WCSU (the gates are very good on the eyes however). I have black family members, and grew up very close to them. I also have many black friends whom I spent my formative years with, so I can’t comprehend people not being able to talk openly and just understand the slight differences in culture. You don’t have to get on an airplane to experience culture.

  6. Michel says:

    This post is very real in my life and all our lives whether we notice it or not. Racism is still real even though segregation ended 60 years ago. Being a college student, I witness racism everyday, but not in a hating way. Just look around campus or the cafeteria one day. Often times, white kids are sitting with white kids while black kids are sitting with black kids. Now this phenomenon might not be out of hatred but I think it is out of comfort I guess. It is more comforting to be with one’s own race. But that comfort zone must be broken to stop racism.

  7. Alison Pierre says:

    Race will always be an issue if we continue to make it one. As a whole, our society has obviously grown and become more accepting of differences. There are plenty of African American’s in this country that have become successful, have gotten an education, and have lived on the same level as any other American, etc. correct? It feels like the majority of the time we take several steps back when discussing race. True, there are people that can be classified as “racist”, but there are also people that play the “race card” way too often.
    Elizabeth Alexander’s quote, “I think white people should more often work at the hard question of race. To me, seeing white people think and talk about race is a really, really important part of the process” was actually infuriating. You want a step towards overcoming racism? Then stop generalizing people based on their race. Why must we refer to each other as “black people” or “white people”? Why can’t we just see each other simply as “people”? Does the color of your skin really change who you are as a person? No.
    In general, I think trying to eliminate racism is a hopeless effort. It will always be there in ANY society. There will always be individuals that hold racist grudges, and for them I say “shame on you.” For those of us who have personally overcome these things and accept others for who they are regardless of their skin color: congratulations, now we have no need to discuss the issue any further.

  8. Rachael Wilk says:

    Elizabeth Alexander was an amazing speaker. She spoke about plenty of topics to the audience such as education, writing, and racism. However, I disagreed with her advice on dealing with racism. She said that people need to be more aware of racism, and shouldn’t ignore it. While that makes sense, I’m not sure it’s a good idea. If people constantly focus on race, then people will concentrate more on an issue rather than reformation. But maybe the past has caused something that can never truly be fixed.

  9. Camillo says:

    I would like to build off of something Sofie said earlier, “Americans are extremely obsessed about race.” I think that this is absolutely true, and the reason why racism has survived into the 21st century. Racism is a man made concept. If every one decided the gang up on the internet, and you could recruit enough people to dislike it, sooner or later everyone (or a vast majority of people) would dislike the internet, say bad things about, destroy computers, etc. I do not think, and being a 22 year-old, white male this may be ignorant, that race is an issue anymore. Living in Connecticut since birth, I have never felt a racist tendency or idea. I think the more that people focus on it and perpetuate the issue, that it will only serve to keep racism alive. In a country where we can elect a black president, racism must surely be on the decline, and if we truly are ALL equal (which I believe) then I think that everyone needs to stop harping on an issue that has been laid to rest 50 to 100 years ago. There should be no differentiation, we are all AMERICANS regardless of our skin color. So the issue is essentially man made in my opinion. (I would like to note that commenting on this blog was required for a college course)

  10. Sofie says:

    Overall, I think it is a very interesting column. I am not from the U.S. and as an outsider I always felt that Americans are extremely obsessed about race. I personally don’t wonder about it as most Americans do. I don’t know how many times the race subject has been brought up in all of my classes so far, but it seems that it is still an issue here after all this years.

  11. Danielle Troiano says:

    Some people need to work on this issue more than others.

  12. Matt says:

    Race issues in America are totally unique to our nation and that is something that really intrigues me. America is really the first country based off of immigration and different cultures, and although this discussion is long after race wars and the abolition of slavery, it is still an important part of the shaping of our culture. Legally race is not an issue anymore, on paper we are all equal. But there are stigmas, even racists, in the country today, and as Steinmetz said, we need to start talking about it and not pretend like there is no difference.
    At the same time though, one of the best arguments about current racial status came from Morgan Freeman and his opinion on Black History Month.
    There is a video here

  13. Russell says:

    I can’t say I can relate to this, but I understand it. My mom was born in Africa because her parents were missionaries there. Her view of African-American culture is completely different from the contemporary one in America. She hold with her experiences of spending time with natives of remote villages in Central Africa (Chad to be specific), whereas all my experiences come from Americanized African-Americans that go to my school or church or who live in my community. I am NOT saying either one is better in any way, all I’m saying is that there is a major difference in culture mainly because of geography. I’m not going to get into all that, but I liked this post because I understood and agree that African-American culture does not just require effort from African-Americans, but from everyone.

  14. Kendra Baker says:

    I liked how you noted that “Western [Connecticut State University] is one of the places in this community where race can be discussed in a safe and enlightening way.”

    I believe the Danbury community in general sets the tone for us at WCSU to be able to discuss race-related topics and issues. I was a student of the Danbury public school system from kindergarten to high school, and throughout my 13 years experience, cultural and ethnic diversity has was always acknowledged, embraced, discussed, and something that the Danbury community in general takes pride in.

    I agree with what Elizabeth Alexander when she said that education and teaching students about “this important, complex country we live in” is important. I believe that the people of Danbury have done an excellent job of acknowledging and addressing matters of race, and that since Danbury is such a diverse city, it does not surprise me that WCSU, being located in Danbury, is “one of the places in this community where race can be discussed in a safe and enlightening way.”

  15. Kevin F WRT 335 says:

    I was unofortunately, unable to attend Mrs. Alexander’s event at WCSU, but I am intrigued by what Mr. Steinmetz has blogged about her. When he comments on how she feels that education isn’t necessarily the important part but the curriculum and its need for reform is. Also, when she says seeing white people interested in race is very important for the changes needed with racial issues is very true. If all races don’t come together to solve the race issue then it will be impossible for these issues to be resolved.

  16. Allison Donofrio says:

    To me race has more to do about where a person comes from than the color of their skin. If you are born in The United States than you are American. Ethnic heritage, on the other hand, and religion are two concepts that require others to work toward accepting. We are all part of the human race and should respect one another no matter their opposing views or color. Whether you are black or white there are far more important issues occurring.

  17. Isaac Fox says:

    This article just touched on the surface of the need for people to discuss racial issues. It didn’t really give any information, it just said we need to have a discussion. That’s been said since the 60s by everybody, and since the days of slavery by every black person that isn’t an Uncle Tom/house negro. He should have went in depth on the class issue that is the real divider in America and the world, race is the face of the class disparity because white/europeans are the ones with money and everyone else is essentially have nots, there may be isolated instances where thats not the case but on the whole that is the truth. When you redistribute the wealth you won’t have racial issues.

  18. Kara Doolittle says:

    It is true that as Americans, no matter what race, you learn certain things in school based on designed curriculum and certain culture perspective. As an education major, I will be forced to address issues of race and gender in my classrooms, as well as in the material I am teaching to my students. However, not many students now are being exposed to race and gender issues. Even at Western CT State University Women’s Literature, African American Literature, and literature addressing the issue of homosexuality are named “Specialty topics” and are seperated from the American literature courses.

  19. Justin Gillen says:

    I liked the column Paul and I think the writing is good and delivered well, but the topic of it is a little shaky to me. Since race is such a delicate issue, saying it can be discussed in a safe and enlightening way at WestConn is indeed possible. Frankly though, it kind of makes me nervous. It is clear to see things have got better in the world even though racism still exists. I don’t think it ever won’t no matter how many classes, ceremonies, speeches, etc. are provided by anyone. But with that said, to say that we have work to do on the topic seems a little like backtracking as it just points out more and more differences in race – which is the basis on which race difference is built on. Good column and interview though and a tough subject to write about.

  20. Kris Kilgore says:

    Great story. I really wish I could have attended Elizabeth Alexander’s visit. I really enjoyed how you related this event to your lifestyle, especially having a child from Ethiopia. This piece was very eye opening to me.

  21. Patrick Hanlon says:

    While I agree that we need to continue to discuss race in America, looking at it from the perspective of history and promoting African American culture seems almost anachronistic. The most divisive factor in our society today is our opposing worldviews. I think a main cause of intolerance in the mainstream is the ridiculous idea that someone like Pres. Obama or Rev. Sharpton represent all Black people, or Speaker Bohener or Sen. McCain represent all White people, and therefore if you disagree with their personal perspective, your ire is directed towards their whole race. Once we learn to accept eachother’s perspectives and ideologies, minutia like race should become irrelevant.

  22. Andrea 270W says:

    Once I became closer to my black friends in college they opened up to me about the misconceptions they originally had of me based on my race. What they said surprised me but, conversely, when I told them my own misconceptions they were (mostly) amused. Because of this experience I respectfully disagree with Chelsea that talking about race makes it more of an issue: you don’t realize how big or small an issue really is until you talk about it. Not talking about an issue only builds the misconceptions and taboo around it. Unfortunately, race will be an issue as long as there are racists and the kind of subtle racism that carries over generations.

  23. Patricio 207 says:

    I have to agree with Chelsey Devlin’s comment. I don’t think dwelling on the subject of race helps in social change but in fact, has the exact opposite effect. Discussing racial differences in this way leads to stereotyping and generalizations and in my opinion brings people apart instead of together. Im sick of hearing about Obama being our first black president. To me he is our 44th president, no different than all the others.

  24. MatSiebert says:

    Personally, I believe that giving a persons race a great deal of attention is in itself is restricting “equality” from being fully achieved. “Ignore” is not the right word, but its the first that comes to mind. My kindergarten teacher was onto something, treat everyone equally, plain and simple.

  25. I agree with some of the above comments: What is the big deal? Each person fits into many identities:

    Blacks and whites can be considered in the same identity if they work together, i.e. they can both be lawyers. Blacks and whites are “the same” when they are females. This can go on and on…

    Why don’t people categorize a black Lamborghini Gallardo alongside a black Hyundai Accent? Wouldn’t a white Gallardo have more in common than the black Accent, with the black Gallardo? Yes, it would. My analogies make sense, and prove that I am super-intelligent…

    My best friend is black, and we are the same on so many levels. It is the understanding of FEMALE mind that we BOTH need to work on!

  26. Travis Greene says:

    When does talking about races, racism, or racist remarks become a factor prolonging the existence of racism? Where is the finish line, and how do we know when we’ve reached it? I feel like without laying out the path to rid ourselves of racism, we continue providing a Petri dish for the racist mentalities and ideals to grow and spread, instead of actually accomplishing our desires to eliminate racism.

  27. Leah Hiravy (270) says:

    As children we are aware of even the subtlest of differences; skin color, clothes, toys, tallness, shortness, and of course who has the bigger cookie, or who’s half of the cookie is just a millimeter bigger. The inquisitive child within us all perpetuates the issues of race. I think the issue of racism in America is an egotistical view of what it is to be American. We were foreigners, or immigrants at one point– don’t kid yourselves.

    I work at a restaurant where the majority of our clientele are white. When I first started out, one of the waitresses (a white college student) asked me not to give her the man standing at the door, a black man. I hoped and prayed that maybe she had had this man before, which I later asked, and she said that she didn’t want to waste her time on a dollar tip. This statement was infuriating to me.

    It’s everyones responsibility to change their actions, bit by bit, to create a large social change.

  28. Jillian Goodman says:

    I think its nice that here at Western we are able to talk about race in a way that suits all involved. Growing up in my house race never occurred to me. My best friend for the past 20 years is an African American woman, and I’ve always thought of us as the same, and always will. I never noticed that there were different races or colors until I hit high school when I started hearing stereo types. It definitely bothers me when I hear people talk with no knowledge of other races bothers me. As for your daughter, I’m sure when she starts having friends her age and race she will get that racial experience you are talking about and turn out just fine. Good luck!

  29. Shannon Person says:

    As an African American woman, I agree there is work to be done. However, I think Americans are learning about race diversity through society and media. I’m not saying its the right way because a lot of media is stereotyping and manipulates its audience. More culture classes should be added to the school systems and not just African American culture, but Latin and others since there’s such a great amount of races in the nation. With my experience enrolling in a African American culture class, if a college class doesn’t have a good amount of people enrolled in it, it will be canceled, which it was. I honestly see that as a problem, not just with the school but with students as well. But, as a student, increases in tuition and so on, we fight for our classes towards our degree and even when we have room for electives, we try to get courses related to our major. And I bet with Obama becoming the first black president, we all thought there would be an increase in black history. I haven’t seen it except for the month of February, black history month go figure.

  30. Mallory says:

    Unfortunately, I was unable to attend Elizabeth Alexander’s visit at Western. It seems like she really had a lot on her mind and that she was confident in telling everyone her ideas. While race is something people tend to use to characterize others and is something that many use to define them, I. personally, believe less emphasis should be made on race. How are people going to start looking at each other as being a team working towards a common goal if they are constantly reminded of the differences that are among them? I am very indecisive over this issue of race. While I believe people should be proud of who they are and where they come from, I think people should remember that they all are equal and want to live in a world of peace.

  31. MB says:

    Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend this even on campus. I was really bummed about not going because I would have loved to hear Alexander speak. Race has always been and issue and will continue to be an issue as long as people keep having superior attitudes and closed minds about certain groups and pass that mindset onto younger generations. Maybe some people individually don’t have as much work to do…but as a society, as an entire population that stands as a unit, we have a ton of work to do to make prejudice go away for good. Will it happen in my lifetime? Of course not. I agree with Alexander…keep talking, thinking, and keep moving forward!

  32. Joe Crisalli says:

    Some people view race as an extremely important issue that always seems to keep popping up, when really race isn’t an issue. People envision that others are quick to judge someone based on their race; and sure there are people like that in the world, but there are also those people out there who don’t care the color of your skin and are acceptant of who you are no matter what. I treat everyone the same way regardless of their skin tone. Sure I make a racial slur every now and then, and I’m sure other people do it too, but it doesn’t make me or any of those other people racist. You can’t conclude that there is complete and utter racism in America; American’s voted for the first ever African-American president to be elected into office.

  33. Jordan Moore says:

    I think it’s admirable that Elizabeth Alexander said that everyone should talk more about race, and I agree. I think that presently it is still something that people talk about in private where they won’t offend anyone. If we keep up this way we will never understand as a whole how to grow socially.

  34. Lindsey LeConche says:

    My first reaction to the column was “Hm..Interesting.” But do we really have work to do? Yes, I do agree that some people do have A LOT of work to do…but others, I think have achieved what is expected. Just because you don’t see white people talking about race, doesn’t mean nothing has ever been said.

  35. Chelsea Devlin says:

    Do you think that continuing to make race an issue rather than allow it to just become a part of life is a good idea? I don’t mean to judge or offend, but if we continue to obsess over race, then of course it will always be an issue. We are raised with differences and learn to defend who and what we are. We just have to make sure that doesn’t cause blindness and an incapability to step into the shoes of others.

    On a personal level, we certainly all have work to do in order to find some inner peace and settlement on the issue. Honestly, the only thing I care about when I meet someone is whether or not they are a good person. We don’t have to be best friends forever, but I will treat others with respect and hope they do the same, regardless of race, age, social status or other qualifier you can think of.

    Perhaps I am naive, but I’m not sure I understand why human beings make such a big deal about race. Is it because it is human nature to classify and judge? Maybe. But personally I’d rather judge people by how they carry themselves, not by the saturation of pigment in their skin.

  36. Mark Langlois says:

    I liked the column. (I’m with the kid about leaving the table after dinner.)