Poet explores intersection of art, trauma and the ‘Trayvon Generation’

Elizabeth Alexander, 59, is a poet, best-selling author, cultural advocate and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist in both poetry and biography. Her de ella’s new book, “The Trayvon Generation,” expands her de ella’s 2020 New Yorker essay examining this generation’s artistic and cultural responses to racial injustice and anti-Black violence 10 years after the death of Trayvon Martin. Alexander lives in New York.

How does a poet emerge from a child? when [does a parent] know you have a poet on your hands?

[Laughs.] No one has ever asked me that question, and it is a wonderful one. Well, I think always with our children, our responsibility is to help them become who they are, to support who they are, to see things in them and reflect back to them what we see and what we are listening to.

So I don’t think my parents ever thought, She will be a poet. Really, nobody thinks that, right? I mean, it’s not what you necessarily think about in the roster of career choices. [Laughs.] But I think that they nurtured my creative self, my expressive self, my language self, my talking self, my reading self. So nurturing for the characteristics that it turned out were the characteristics that made a poet. Even if they didn’t know that at the time.

The work you are discussing in the essay and the book “The Trayvon Generation.”

“The Trayvon Generation” started with an essay published in the New Yorker, written in the wake of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s police [deaths] and the subsequent movement all around the country. So it was a very intense time, and some of the things I had been thinking about for a very long time came to fruition in that essay. Thinking about what I call the Trayvon Generation, the generation of young people, particularly Black and Brown people who grew up with racial violence, not only preponderant but also watchable on their phones. Videotaped, repeatedly. Seen over and over and over again. Seen out of context. Traumatizing and unavoidable. I had been thinking about the group of young people and how did they metabolize their vulnerability when they were forced to witness it over and over and over again. And what was the cultural expression that they were making to help us understand what they were thinking and how they saw the world? As someone who is the mother of two young men, and also as a professor for decades and an auntie to many, I’m always looking and listening to our young people to know what they are thinking, how they are expressing themselves.

So I dwell in this space. I also dwell in the space of learning, teaching, history, African American studies, critical thinking, art and culture. And so what I wanted to put into the essay, too, is here is the historical thinking and critical questions that can help us puzzle through and understand where we are at this moment in this country’s history. And here is the art and the culture, here is the poetry, here is the film, here is the hip-hop, here is the painting, here is the sculpture, here is the history books that I think offer us illumination.

And your essay and book are looking at how this trauma is evident in or is shown through the art.

You know, we are talking together on a day — and this is slightly to the side, but it is related: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is in her hearings for the Supreme Court position for which she has been nominated, and certainly every Black woman I know, and I count myself in that number, is physically sick. Physically sick watching her be disrespected, called out of her de ella name de ella, disparaged, accused, invented things being thrown at her. Because we haven’t done it on that stage. No Black woman has. This will be our first Black woman Supreme Court justice. But we have all been spoken to with that kind of disrespect.

The thing I am speaking to is the physical manifestation of the identification and the fear and the anxiety and humiliation. So that’s what I feel in this Black woman’s body. So what do our young people in their bodies feel when they see this over and over and over again? When they see this kind of violence?

In looking at the art and thinking about someone like Kendrick Lamar or, like, Issa Rae in “Insecure” or Donald Glover in “Atlanta,” we are seeing a lot of representations of young Black people who are struggling with depression or are struggling with the weight of what it is to have come up in this time. And the thing that I think that culture teaches us is: You are not alone. Here is a resonance. When we consume art, it is a way of saying, “I feel that too.” Or “Now I see that.” You know, when Kendrick sings, “We gonna be all right,” that’s a chant to will our wellness. That’s a chant to will our survival. And Kendrick gave us the words, and I find it so powerful that that so quickly became an anthem. That is strength. That is survival.

Your book “The Light of the World”feels like it’s an artistic expression of trauma.

My beloved husband passed, completely unexpectedly, and I started writing very soon after that, much to my surprise. And when he passed, our children were 11 and 12. And so, obviously, the immediate, first, middle and last responsibility was the children. But in order to shepherd the children through this tragedy, I had to have my wits about me. And, you know, I think I’ve told the story of a wonderful friend of mine who is a singer, and she said, “It wasn’t until I had to sing at my mother’s funeral that I knew why I had a voice. ” And so, I think it was like, Oh, this is why I am a poet. This is what it was for, this is why — all these decades were warm-up. This is what the word is for. And the word was for grounding me to the earth in the material tools that I had. I have the word. I am the word. That’s what I do. That’s what I make. That’s what I am. I live in words. So how am I going to figure out what I am walking through. What is happening here? Language is all I have — it’s what I have.

So I didn’t think I was writing a book. I was just using this God-given thing to find the God that would get me through and enable me to take care of my children. And then I just kept doing it. And I think that the thing that I say in the beginning of the book — I don’t remember if it was always in the beginning, but it came to me early on: Grief is not felt in the absence of love. If you don’t love something, you don’t miss it when you lose it. There is the loss, but the important part is the love story, and the love story is not just these two people. It is also their family, their children, their extended family, their village, the art they make. The way they are in the world, the cultures they bring together, and so I just kept writing from there.

The grief and the love — that’s so beautifully put. That’s what stood out to me — the pairing of the grief and the gratitude. You must have heard from many people who were moved by that book.

Well, that has been such a gift, and that is the thing that I have been just joyful about. The book has meant so much to so many people. Literally not a week goes by in my life now, all these years later, where I don’t in some way hear from someone. This week it’s this conversation you and I are having; maybe it’s an email someone sends to my office. Maybe someone will tell me, “My friend just lost their partner, and I immediately sent them your book.”

For the young people, you know, for the young sisters that say, “Oh, wow, love should be like that? Okay,” and believing that even if they can’t see it, it could be right around the corner. And I think again, to me, the purpose of romantic love is divine. But the purpose of it is not to just stay between the two people. To me the point is love between two people that sparks a life force that becomes more than two people. It radiates outward. It is a resource to be shared. It’s meant to be energizing. It’s meant to be generous. It’s meant not to be a closed door that says we are over here in this coupling and nothing can come in. So, yeah, it’s rich and wonderful and with each person saying that it was meaningful to them also comes their story, and I feel very grateful for that as well.

All those things that you’ve said about love, romantic love, kind of radiating out, I think you can say that about art as well.

Yes, and that none of our bodies are here forever. Guess what? Great works of art just might be. I think, it isn’t interesting that sometimes it’s really a mistake to think that bloodlines are what carry humanity on forever. I think that history and art are what carry humanity on forever. Because that doesn’t turn to dust.

Robin Rose Parker is a writer in Maryland. This interview has been edited and condensed. For a longer version, visit wapo.st/magazine.

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