Poet Elizabeth Alexander, who became a part of history in 2009 when she composed and read a poem at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, explored the importance of multiculturalism and the role of poetry as a unifying power in an address at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
In a Visions and Voices event titled “Hearing America Singing: Multivocal Cultures in America,” Alexander focused in part on the evolution and function of African-American studies – an area of study now more than 40 years old.
African-American and multicultural studies “give us the best set of tools that allow us to examine this country” and “to hear America singing in varying tongues,” said Alexander, a professor who heads the Department of African-American studies at Yale University.
The discipline is “fundamentally central to thinking about America,” she said.
“In fact, I don’t believe you can truly understand this country – past, present or future – without knowing more about varying aspects of what is sometimes crudely called ‘the’ African-American experience,” said Alexander, who believes in the centrality of those studies “as a lens through which to think about this country.”
She used the work of American writer James Baldwin to explain how delving deeply into one experience does not detract from acquiring a broader perspective. In fact, she said, it accomplishes the opposite.
Baldwin, who traveled abroad as a young man, used his years away from the United States to gain a different view of the American experience. That wider angle is an important part of multiculturalism today, Alexander said.
“How can we define our Americanness?” she asked. “A counter-knowledge, another perspective based on the knowledge that America has not always been fair nor made nor kept the same promises to all of her children. Baldwin and so many others, to this day, would not have survived without possessing and developing these multiple strands of knowledge that form the critical consciousness we all need to move through this complicated world.”
And unity does not exclude multiculturalism, Alexander said.
“There is no harmonious, monolithic post-racial America, and I think one of the most important voices we learn from the multivocal arts is that the wish for unity and civil discourse is different from agreeing – from becoming monolithic.”
Poetry, she said, is a way to unify. To her, it comes from “a place of the soul.” She called it a “practice of reaching across the void between human beings and saying, ‘This is what I am. This is what I see. This is how I offer myself to you in language.’”
“Poetry matters,” Alexander said, recalling the letters and notes she received from people moved by “Praise Song for the Day,” her first poem. She was moved by that power, she said, as she stood on the National Mall in a rehearsal for the inauguration and read “Kitchenette Building” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
With the first line, tourists stopped and turned their faces toward the stage. Afterward, they applauded.
“They knew they had received something. It wasn’t about me. It was about being a vessel for poetry itself.”
And poetry has the power to represent a wide collection of voices, Alexander said.
“Poetry is the human voice, and we must be of interest to each other. And that’s the simple question that helps me think through what it means to be a ‘we’ in the United States today.”