Elizabeth Alexander: Praise song for the day

Elizabeth Alexander: Praise song for the day


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



For a moment Elizabeth Alexander is not a Yale professor: she is a woman going about

her daily work. She hears the music created by the people. If her words seem more

prose than poetry, it’s because she is saying it plain.



Elizabeth Alexander: “Praise song for the day”

Responses to Inaugural Poem 2009


“…Then God smiled And the light broke…”

For me, Elizabeth Alexander’s poem compares to my favorite, James Weldon Johnson‘s “The Creation.”  Alexander’s poem is a “Simple Gift”; eloquent in feeling and tone, quietly political in its passion and globally accessible. Her poem is one which will make mischievous 9th grade boys sit up in their seats, listen and maybe begin to contemplate the meaning of existence.  Her poem complemented the composition “Air and Simple Gifts” performed by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill (which I found nearly as moving as Rev. Joseph Lowery’s prayer).

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

“‘Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,

“And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

“‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”

Simple Gifts,” written in the mid-1800s by a Shaker composer and popularized by Aaron Copland in his 1944 ballet “Appalachian Spring.”


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Everyone has a comment on Elizabeth Alexander’s poem today. Many have comments about her “performance” or lack of. I found everyone comparing her words to Whitman, Frost and Angelou. However, one name that was not mentioned was Gil Scott-Heron. First, Alexander’s poem should be connected to the closing lines of Barack Obama’s speech. Can we get a coda here? Obama quotes George Washington—and it seems like a Valley Forge moment. It’s Winter in America. Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” echoes this:

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,

anything can be made, any sentence begun.

Now let’s bring in Gil and his deep voice, singing:

And now it’s winter Winter in America Yes and all of the healers have been killed Or sent away, yeah But the people know, the people know It’s winter Winter in America And ain’t nobody fighting ‘Cause nobody knows what to say Save your soul, Lord knows From Winter in America The Constitution A noble piece of paper With free society Struggled but it died in vain And now Democracy is ragtime on the corner Hoping for some rain Look like it’s hoping Hoping for some rain

We seem to be trapped in winter right now. It is cold outside. Alexander’s poem is not a blueprint for the future. It isn’t the visionary poem I was thinking she might write. Others will do this. I found Alexander doing what Obama did in his address. Alexander stands in front of us as mother and comforter. An ordinary woman in extraordinary times? This complements the humility expressed by Obama.

For a moment Elizabeth Alexander is not a Yale professor: she is a woman going about her daily work. She hears the music created by the people. If her words seem more prose than poetry, it’s because she is saying it plain. This is a praise song in which the words of remembrance do the heavy lifting. Alexander’s poem informs us to celebrate the moment in its Buddhist and sweet Christian dress. Incorporated are the basic teachings of all good people:

Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.” Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

If we are to pursue King’s dream then we must continue to believe in the Beloved Community. Alexander reminds us of this. Yes the mightiest word is love. It seems to be Divine Love- for the poet yesterday told us to look beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Maybe here is where Elizabeth Alexander becomes not Gwendolyn Brooks but Lucille Clifton. As I listened to Elizabeth recite her poem yesterday – I thought of the light that had come to my friend at this historical moment. I thought about how Aretha had the hat but Alexander had the poem. And the poem guided us towards the light, and we were all moving forward—as one and as Americans. In the Spring of our beginning—

Anything can be made, any sentence begun.


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We cannot really comment on poems because of the nature of poetry. Either our hearts and souls receive the heart and soul of the poet or not or, sometimes, somewhere in between. Words and events are one and cannot be separated in poetry. Professor-poet Alexander’s expression of scenes typical of African American communities in historic  collision, complementarily or coherence with other communities in the inaugural moment features three themes that touch my heart and soul.

The words between “Say it plain” and “work inside of” resonated with the slave labor experiences of several oppressed peoples in US history. In Washington City, the District of Columbia, where so many of their ilk worked, died and still keep insides clean, I felt those events-words strongly.

The next lines, between “Praise song” and “hand-lettered sign” reminded this listener/watcher of King’s paragraph about “creative suffering” in the 28 August 1963 speech which I heard strongly and enabled me to love hers.

As a Biblical theologian, her ethical discussion between “Some live” and the end resonated with my feelings about the kind of love that feels “no need to preempt grievance” but enables us to walk “forward in that (love) light.”  The poem for the day manifests a sense of what we call the eternal present moment now which always we live into every new beginning, every time we fix what is broken, to hearken back to her scene-setting lines very much in the spirit of the inaugural moment. Hers is a most appropriate poem for this event and I hope lots of school children who want to create poems will memorize and recite this fine work of Elizabeth Alexander.—Ralph

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Wow. You know, I have been craving a discussion of Alexander’s piece.   I couldn’t wait to hear what she had to share. What pressure. Oh, I think I would have cracked. 🙂 Millions of people all over the world listening. The President of the United States and our wonderful new First lady listening. Oh, my gosh.   I took for granted that the inaugural committee has a poet, I fully expected them to. I didn’t realize how rare it was. I was really happy when I read that it would be Alexander. I respect her work. I especially loved that she dealt with Sarah Bartman in her book of poetry “Venus Hottentot.”   So when she got up to read her poem, I demanded silence. I leaned on every word. We all know what it takes to compose, but to create because someone asked you to, well, that’s no easy task. I think she worked hard to make sure that she would be understood. She could have written something–well, let’s just say she could have written something that would have left many of us saying “huh, what?” while folks in the ivory tower would have been going wild with adulation.   I appreciate craft, honesty, colour, music, sweat, a little samba or pepper or protest in poetry. I don’t think that a well-crafted poem has to be stiff. I don’t think that poets who can work it on stage can’t work it on the page. What am I saying? I appreciate the careful craft, the labour she put into every word. I have heard the poem twice and read it three times and thought about it while walking with my children. I read somewhere that a person can always go back to a really good poem and find something there that s/he didn’t find the first or second or third time. I think that is this poem. Each time I encounter it, I fall deeper and deeper under its spell.   I have attached the poem and put the lines in bold that had me doing my Amen corner “mmmph,” the first time I heard the poem.

. . .each

one of our ancestors on our tongues

. . .

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,

with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,

. . .

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark

the will of some one and then others, who said

I need to see what’s on the other side.


I know there’s something better down the road.

We need to find a place where we are safe.

We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

. . .

Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,

the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

. . . What if the mightiest word is love?

. . .

any thing can be made, any sentence begun.

When I viewed it a second time, the poem started to really come together for me. Reading it on the page though, brought it home. I think that hearing the poem again or reading it reveals the intricacies of it. This poem might not be peppery, but there is protest in it. This poem acknowledges struggle, albeit in a quieter way than I am used to. There is the sweat of laborers, of the enslaved, of the organizers, the sweat of mothers and all of us who go about our business every day. I didn’t smell the sweat of the poem, but I saw tiny beads of dew in its stanzas.

This is a graceful piece.   And you know what? This is a side note, I guess, but she could have rocked that poem on stage had she read it another way. Yes, I am saying it. I believe that the message of this piece could have come across even stronger had Alexander let us see the poem sweat, and evoked that music that someone was trying to make somewhere, and pointed to the other side. This poem has the ability to jump off of the page. It wanted to leap and to live and to leave folks breathless. Or so I think.   Back to the point. “Praise Song for the Day.” Subtle, powerful, beautiful poem. Ashe. one love, —ekere  The work of Ekere Tallie

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Just walk around the Mall and the Capitol area and you stand on the backs of thousands of black slaves who built it and try to allow the emotional impact of all that to penetrate to the depths of your soul, as I and so many other working class people have done. Remember my personal history as the son and grandson of Coal Miners, Glass Workers, and my work on a Ranch, in a Glass Factory, a Grocery store, a Hide Cellar, a Meat Packing Plant and in Country and Rock and Roll bands and my acculturization among Mexicans, Creek, Cherokee, African American, Asian contexts and you may begin to understand. Maya Angelou‘s inaugural poem about rising manifested a bit more symbolically and dramatically than Elizabeth Alexander’s the same essential movement and feeling.

The interpretation of poetry in a special and important sense is a meeting of histories of meanings which may collide, converge or coalesce as they mean something in a present moment now. 

Alexander’s poetry does not aim at the sort of fire that burns off quickly leaving little if any residue. Instead, she aims to move people deeply, in the bowels of our feelings, where sometimes when the Zeitgeist and moment converge, we are transformed by poetry and not merely entertained or amused.—Ralph

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I was moved more by the poem than by Obama’s speech, as I expect many folks were, and I think there are good reasons for that. We were all (at least I was) waiting for the memorable  sentences in his that could be bumper-stickered, and he wisely denied us that. It was a fine and forceful speech, but he denied us the one-liner. He was saying, I won’t be that easy; life is more complex than that, and this event is something transcendent that belongs to all of us. I won’t have it reduced to an aphorism or a sound-bite.

So the poet steps in and gives words to the beauty around us and inside us, with words “spiny or smooth,” and evokes the ordinariness of stitching a hem and making music with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum and “figuring it out at kitchen tables.”

And stops you hard with that line “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.. and built the glittering edifices.” She doesn’t have to say that among those edifices is the White House.

And then against that hard, bitter line, the invocation  of “love beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light,” followed by that extraordinary final stanza that puts us all in the sharp sparkle of January cold “on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,” praising song and “walking forward in that light.” That image of love as a widening pool of light is the gift she leaves us with. Our own gift. —David

*   *   *   *   *

I think her poem was a quiet storm that will be appreciated for years to come.—slwest

*   *   *   *   *

Praise song for the day


                By Elizabeth Alexander


Each day we go about our business,

walking past each other, catching each

others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.


All about us is noise. All about us is

noise and bramble, thorn and din,

each one of our ancestors on our tongues.


Someone is stitching up a hem,

darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,

repairing the things in need of repair.


Someone is trying to make music somewhere

with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum

with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.


A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky;

a teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”


We encounter each other in words,

words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed;

words to consider, reconsider.


We cross dirt roads and highways

that mark the will of someone

and then others who said,


“I need to see what’s on the other side;

I know there’s something better down the road.”

We need to find a place where we are safe.


We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

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,

built brick by brick the glittering edifices


they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day.

Praise song for every hand-lettered sign.


The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”

Others by first do no harm.


Or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love,

love beyond marital, filial, national.


Love that casts a widening pool of light.

Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,


anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp—

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Inaugural Poem delivered 20 January 2009, Washington, DC

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Henry Louis Gates Uncovers ‘Faces of America’


17 February 2010

Talk of the Nation with Neal Conan in Washington: Skip Gates was talking about these admixture tests and what they can tell us about it. Well, among those he tested in this program is Elizabeth Alexander. She is best known as a poet. She’s also a professor of African-American studies at Yale, and in this scene from the documentary, Professor Gates reveals Elizabeth’s pie chart to her.

Elizabeth Alexander (Poet; Professor of African-American Studies, Yale): My pie chart.

Skip Gates: Your pie chart. You are 66 percent white. . . . So what would you respond, professor of African-American studies?

Elizabeth Alexander: It just gets curiouser and curiouser, but of course, if all of us were only known by our DNA, then we’d have a whole different American history.

Neal Conan: Thinking back to that moment, how did it feel to see yourself in the form of a pie chart?

Elizabeth Alexander: Well, one the one hand, it confirmed what I think a lot of African-Americans know about ourselves, and I think it would be wonderful if this series catches the rest of the country up with our fundamental understanding that there is no such thing as pure, that most of us have mixed backgrounds and, as Professor Gates just explained, a lot of that was the result of coerced sexual activity – nothing romantic about it – a way of producing property; that it was the laws of this country that said that if you had one drop of black blood I’m putting “black blood” in quotation marks then that made you a black person, as we now call ourselves African-American person.

So I think that putting together all of these things that many of us know and thinking about where does that leave us now, where does the lived reality, the social reality of life as we experience it in our families, in the bodies that we move around in, how do we amalgamate all of these factors? And so that’s a long answer to the very interesting moment where you see in sort of stark terms that, you know, you have this percentage and that percentage, but does it in any way challenge my understanding of myself as an African-American woman? Not a bit, but it certainly is interesting. . . .

Neal Conan: But then the interesting point, the question that he asks is, of course you can take the white side of your family back all that way. The black side of your family what, two, three, four generations, that’s all

Elizabeth Alexander: Well, further than that but not to Africa, and I think that that’s really the point. When you leave these shores in our histories, when you go further back in the way that I think is very natural for human beings to wonder, to want to know where we come from and what’s the lore that we get from those long lines and what do we inherit and what do we, you know, configure in different sorts of ways, there’s something very melancholic about the things that we just aren’t ever likely to know about those African strands.

I was interesting in the juxtaposition on one side of, you know, landowners and King John of England and all of this, an inheritance that, of course, once again is interrupted when black people come into the mix and we come black people, if you were.  But on the other side, with a document that Professor Gates showed me, papers of ownership in 1832 for my—I think fourth great-grandfather—who was a slave, who was owned at the age of two years old and valued at 40 pounds. So I think that was perhaps the profoundest moment is looking, thinking about those two things together and thinking about how that’s ended up with an African-American woman today.

Skip Gates: Yeah, it’s so difficult to find a slave record with an actual name, Neal, because slaves were property. And in Elizabeth’s case, we found this incredible document, Edward, as she said, one of her great- great grandparents, and Edward Honeywell(ph) and Esther Power(ph), more immediate ancestors, and it’s a boy named Edward—owned by John Chambers(ph), who was the owner of the Northampton Penn, or plantation, as we would say, in Saint Elizabeth Parish, and there he was. And I think that Elizabeth I believe that this was much more moving to you than discovering that your 37th great-grandfather was a guy named Charlemagne, born on April 2 in the year 742 A.D.

Elizabeth Alexander: Well, absolutely. It absolutely was. Because I think also then, when you think about how you get some there to here, that let me—that slave document let me think very richly about American history, not necessarily as a march of inexorable progress toward the present, but nonetheless as a really fascinating history where a great deal has evolved and changed. And it underscored for me the real necessity of understanding our roots as a way of thinking about this complex organism that is the United States.—


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posted 22 January 2009’s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters 

Edited by Michael G. Long

Bayard Rustin has been called the “lost prophet” of the Civil Rights Movement, a master strategist and organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and a deeply influential figure in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Despite these achievements, Rustin often remained in the background, largely because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era. Published on the centennial of his birth, and in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters  are his words shining through a collection of more than 150 of Rustin’s letters. His correspondents include major figures of his day — for example, Eleanor Holmes Norton, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Ella Baker and of course, Martin Luther King Jr. “I have file boxes full of Rustin’s letters that I tracked down in archives across the country,” said book editor Michael G. Long.

“The time it took to complete the research was much longer than I had predicted, not just because of the number of letters I had in hand, but also especially because for their high quality. It was incredibly difficult to weed out those letters I really liked but that did not serve the purpose of putting together a publishable narrative of letters. And there are quite a few of those that are topically fascinating but not easily fitting for a narrative.”—phillytrib

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label ‘trafficked’ does not accurately describe migrants’ lives and that the ‘rescue industry’ serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice.

“Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality.”—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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Life on Mars

By Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection’s “lyric brilliance” and “political impulses [that] never falter.” A New York Times review stated, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to accept—or at least endure—the universe’s mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith’s pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant.” Life on Mars follows Smith’s 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet’s second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans.

The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection. Smith said Life on Mars, published by small Minnesota press Graywolf, was inspired in part by her father, who was an engineer on the Hubble space telescope and died in 2008.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 4 June 2012




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