Toni Morrison Lectures
“The Idea of Ancestry” in Contemporary Black Art
by Professor Elizabeth Alexander
The recent posthumous publication of the collected poems of Lucille Clifton, and the acquisition of her archive by Emory University provide the opportunity to consider the work of this great American poet in its full dimension. This talk will reframe her ouvre and focus specifically on the philosophical underpinnings of poems that speak across the porous scrim between life and death that is a premised understanding of Clifton’s work.
This talk will focus on the work of recently-deceased Eritrean-American painter Ficre Ghebreyesus and the painterly language of “near-ancestry” in his and other black diaspora art. Developing Etheridge Knight’s phrase “the idea of ancestry,” the talk will also look to the dances of Bill T. Jones and the work of Anna Deavere Smith and other art that speaks to intimate proximity to death and the ancestral imperative in black art.
Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, essayist, playwright, and teacher. She has published six books of poems: The Venus Hottentot (1990), Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), American Sublime (2005)—which was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and was one of the American Library Association’s “Notable Books of the Year;” Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color—her first young adult collection, co-authored with Marilyn Nelson (2008 Connecticut Book Award), and her most recent book Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (2010 Paterson Prize for Poetry). Her two collections of essays are The Black Interior (2004) and Power and Possibility (2007), and her play, “Diva Studies,” was produced at the Yale School of Drama. She has also composed words for musical projects with composers Elena Ruehr and Lewis Spratlan. In 2009, she composed and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” for the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Her work echoes the inflections of earlier generations as it foretells new artistic directions for her contemporaries as well as future poets. In several anthologies of American poetry, Alexander’s work concludes the twentieth century, while in others she serves as the inaugural poet for a new generation of twenty-first century voices. Her poems are included in dozens of collections and have been translated into several languages including Spanish, German, Italian, Arabic and Bengali.
Professor Alexander is also the first recipient of the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.” She is the 2007 recipient of the first Jackson Prize for Poetry, awarded by Poets and Writers. Other awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the George Kent Award (given by Gwendolyn Brooks), and a Guggenheim fellowship. Most recently, Elizabeth Alexander was named an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner for her lifetime achievement in poetry.
For over twenty years, Elizabeth Alexander has taught and mentored students at many colleges and universities including Haverford College, Northwestern University, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and Smith College. At the University of Chicago, she received the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the oldest and most prestigious teaching award that the University presents. In addition to her work at colleges and universities, Elizabeth Alexander has taught a number of poetry workshops. Most significantly, serving as both faculty and honorary director, Alexander has been an integral member of Cave Canem—an organization dedicated to the development and endurance of African American poetic voices. At her current institutional home, Yale University, Elizabeth Alexander is both the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of African American Studies and the chair of the African American Studies Department. Alexander was chosen by Yale’s president Richard Levin to deliver the DeVane Lectures in Spring 2012, where she teaches a new course titled “African American Art Today.”
Sponsored jointly by the Center for African American Studies and Princeton University Press, the Toni Morrison Lectures will be held annually and spotlight the new and exciting work of scholars and writers who have risen to positions of prominence both in academe and in the broader world of letters.
The lectures will be published in book form by Princeton University Press and celebrate the expansive literary imagination, intellectual adventurousness and political insightfulness that characterize the writing of Toni Morrison.
The inaugural lectures, “The Gifts of Black Folk in the Age of Terrorism,” were presented by Cornel West, The Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion. The events took place Friday and Saturday, Oct. 20-21, 2006, 7:30-9 p.m. in McCosh 50. Edwidge Danticat, author of Brother, I'm Dying (2008 National Book Critics Circle Award), delivered the second annual lecture titled “ Create Dangerously - The Immigrant Artist at Work” on March 25, 2008 in Richardson Auditorium. In 2009, the honorable Cory Booker presented “The Unfinished Journey of America’s Spirit” on October 1-3, in McCosh Hall, Room 50. Tony award winning choreographer, BIll T. Jones, delivered "The Life Of An Idea: Investigating Belonging, Appropriating And Adapting In The Context Of Time" on April 17, 19, and 24, 2012.