Elizabeth Alexander on Obama's cultural legacy

WNYC interviewed award-winning poet and director of Creativity and Free Expression Elizabeth Alexander on the importance of art to the Obama administration.

Plus, in the New Yorker, Alexander reflects on her experience composing and reading a poem for Obama's first inauguration.

Published on WNYC | January 18, 2017
When outside art became in: Obama's cultural legacy
By Arun Venugopal

The effort began at Obama's first inauguration, when poet Elizabeth Alexander stood on the Mall before a crowd of almost two million and recited a poem for the nation's first black president:

"Say it plain, that many have died for this day.

Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,

who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce..."

"I think the vision was to say, in the White House, what would be on the walls?" said Alexander during an interview this month at her Manhattan home. "Who would come in and play music? Who would be invited to come in and hear that music? What's high culture? What's so-called low culture? And can we think of those on a similar plane in some instance? What is American creative expressive excellence?"

Read and listen to the story here


Published in the New Yorker | January 17, 2017
A poet's tale from Obama's first inaugural
By Elizabeth Alexander

This is a story about eight years ago this week. President-elect Barack Obama had asked me to compose and recite a poem for his first Inauguration. It was the fourth time in history that a poet would speak at a Presidential inaugural. I wrote the poem and travelled by train with my family from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Washington, my home town, to deliver it.

A few days before the inaugural, there was a rehearsal at the Capitol, as there always is. I took my sons, who were then nine and ten years old, with me, walking the few blocks from my parents’ home, on A Street Southeast, on Capitol Hill. When we came to the stage, there were rows of chairs, some of them occupied by young military personnel serving as stand-ins of the approximate size as those who would be seated there during the inaugural. I looked at my uniformed doppelgänger and had my first sense that there were unexpected details to this adventure—though all was utterly unexpected—that I should commit to memory.

Read the complete story here

Media Contacts

Press Line
Tel (+1) 212-573-5128
Fax (+1) 212-351-3643
[email protected]

Joshua Cinelli
Media Relations Chief
[email protected]

The Ford Foundation

The Ford Foundation is an independent, nonprofit grant-making organization. For more than 80 years it has worked with courageous people on the frontlines of social change worldwide, guided by its mission to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. With headquarters in New York, the foundation has offices in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.