Tickets, mural outside the vintage Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2007, all photos © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
A few weeks ago, our monthly Poetry Group read the work of Elizabeth Alexander, the poet selected to read at the inauguration of Barack Obama. When we sat down to dinner the next day after work, Liz announced, “I took a half day off Tuesday. Want to go to the Riverview for the inauguration?” It took a few seconds to sink in. Then, with no hesitation, I said, “Yes, let’s do it. I’ll ask for time off, too.”
Elizabeth Alexander, a 46-year-old professor of African American Studies at Yale, and author of five books of poetry, will be only the 4th poet to read at a presidential inauguration. Robert Frost was the very first during President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. When it came time to read, Frost, blinded by the sun, could not see his notes and quickly moved to Plan B. He recited from memory another poem from his prolific body of work.
Maya Angelou read for President Bill Clinton’s first Inauguration in 1993. And for President Clinton’s second, he chose Miller Williams in 1997. It’s been a long 12 years since a poet has had the honor of reading at an inauguration. It’s important to notice this detail; it’s a strong indicator that the Arts matter to the upcoming administration.
I was moved by the poetry of Elizabeth Alexander. She was only a one year old on August 28th, 1963 when her father, a civil rights advisor to President Johnson, and her mother, Adele, brought her to the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. On January 20th, 2009, she will read at the swearing-in of the first African American U.S. president.
I am obviously profoundly honored and thrilled. Not only to have a chance to have some small part of this extraordinary moment in American history……This incoming president of ours has shown in every act that words matter, that words carry meaning, that words carry power, that words are the medium with which we communicate across difference and that words have tremendous possibilities, and those possibilities are not empty.
- Elizabeth Alexander from the Washington Post article, Selection Provides Civil Rights Symmetry
We’ll hope to have free tickets and front row seats to the Riverview Theater’s screening of the inauguration (you can also watch it free at the downtown Minneapolis Central Library). The Riverview doors open at 9:30am CST with the viewing lasting until around 1pm. And on the wide Riverview screen, behind the original late 1940’s vintage curtains:
11:30am EST — If you have tickets to the Inauguration ceremony, you must have passed through security by this time.
- Call to Order and Welcoming Remarks: Senator Dianne Feinstein
- Invocation: Dr. Rick Warren
- Aretha Franklin will sing
- Vice President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn into office
- Music composed by John Williams and performed by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero, and Anthony McGill.
12:00 Noon EST — As specified by the U.S. Constitution (20th Amendment), presidential terms of office begin and end at 12:00 noon on January 20.
- Barack Obama will take the oath of office, which is this simple, 35-word, statement: I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
12:05pm EST (approx) — President Barack Obama will give his inaugural address, speaking to the nation and world, for the first time, as President of the United States, followed by:
- Poem: Elizabeth Alexander
- Benediction: The Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery
- The National Anthem: The United States Navy Band “Sea Chanters”
It’s been almost two years since Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President of the United States in front of the Old State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois. For those who supported and voted for him, it’s the end of a long journey through a couple of grueling years of Presidential politics. For those who did not, it is a time-honored moment in our country’s history, and on the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, one you will not want to pass up.
I can’t think of a better way to honor the memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. than to take time off of work on Tuesday to listen to Barack Hussein Obama II be sworn in as our 44th President. That we will be graced with a moment of poetry falling on the listening ears of millions of people across the world, offers the promise of poetic justice — another chance to keep the magic of poetry alive.
In that moment, really I am the vessel for the poem. It’s not about the poet at that moment, it’s about the poem.
– Elizabeth Alexander from the NPR interview, Poet Calls Writing Inaugural Poem A ‘Challenge’
Poems were meant to be read out loud. That’s part of the joy of hearing others read live in a poetry group. Mende Vocabulary is one of the poems beautifully read by one member at our last poetry group and can be found, along with The Last Quatrain, and other poems, in Elizabeth Alexander’s piece, The Negro Digs Up Her Past: ‘‘Amistad’.”
The essay explores historical poetry and fiction through such works as Robert Hayden’s Middle Passage (which he first published in 1943 and continued to publish in revision as late as 1962), Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Arthur Schomburg’s 1925 essay The Negro Digs Up His Past.
by Elizabeth Alexander
I see God
did I say it right?
they have eaten
this book is mine
that book is his
this book is ours
I am your friend
The Last Quatrain
by Elizabeth Alexander
and where now
and what now
the black white space
If we contemplate the Amistad as a ship without mothers, the utter absence of mothers in a violently formed society; if we wonder what people dreamed in their captivity, we might begin to understand what they lost, what it took to build themselves up again, and what it might take to move forward.
It is the unique potential of poetry to be able to locate and activate what is in the imagination. Art takes us to knowing that may have no other way of being found, and that is one of the very things we need in order to move more intelligently forward.
– Elizabeth Alexander
- poems and final quote from an essay by Elizabeth Alexander on historical poetry and fiction, The Negro Digs Up Her Past: ‘‘Amistad’’ from The South Atlantic Quarterly 104:3, Summer 2005. Copyright©2005 by Duke University Press.
RESOURCES & READINGS
To read more about Elizabeth Alexander, Amistad, poetry, and the upcoming inauguration schedule, below are links to the resources used in this essay:
Presidential Inauguration at the Riverview Theater - Riverview’s page on their screening of the inauguration, Tuesday (Jan 20th): 10:30AM CST
Inauguration Day 2009 Schedule of Activities and Events – details and times for 2009 Inaugural Events, along with an hours, minutes, seconds countdown
Words on the Inauguration at the Poet’s Website, Elizabeth Alexander - “Words matter. Language matters. We live in and express ourselves with language, and that is how we communicate and move through the world in community.”
Inaugural Poet Part Of History – Again - part of the Road To The Inauguration Series on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric
The Inaugural Poet: Selection Provides Civil Rights Symmetry - article in the Washington Post by Michael E. Ruanein, Thursday, December 18, 2008
Poet Calls Writing Inaugural Poem A ‘Challenge’ – listen to the NPR interview with Elizabeth Alexander, December 18th, 2008
Weaving Words For The Inaugural Poem – listen to NPR Host Scott Simon ask Elizabeth Alexander for a sneak peek, January 17th, 2009
The Negro Digs Up Her Past: ‘‘Amistad’’ by Elizabeth Alexander - The South Atlantic Quarterly 104:3, Summer 2005. Copyright©2005 by Duke University Press. — document from the author’s website, an excellent essay on the significance of historical poetry and fiction
The Amistad Comes to Life! — lesson planning article at Education World on teaching the story of The Amistad across all grades, a curriculum to bring life to the story of the revolt on the Amistad in the early 1800’s. Great links, one to the historic sites on the Connecticut Freedom Trail.
The Mende Language - a few word translations from the Mende language at Education World, part of the curriculum for the complete story of the Amistad (link above) and the role Josiah Gibbs, a language professor at Yale University in New Haven, played in finding a translator for the Africans so their side of the story could be told.
Circles Within Circles, Casting Light 1950’s lamp at the Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2007, all photos © 2007-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
-posted on red Ravine, Martin Luther King Day, Monday, January 19th, 2009, day before the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama
-with gratitude to Teri who took the leap and started our Poetry Group over a year ago, has provided strong leadership, and helps Keep Poetry Alive!
-related to posts: Out With The Old, In With The Old (Recycled Fashion Goes To Washington, DC), If You Can’t Say Something Nice…, Why It Won’t Matter To You That I’m Voting For Obama, The Politics Of Primary Season 2008 (A Presidential Primer)