Poem Guide

Elizabeth Alexander: “Race”

What can we assume when we read a poem?
Portrait of Elizabeth Alexander

With its careful humor and gentle ironies, Elizabeth Alexander’s “Race” ends up as a poem about race and family, a poem about how poems tell stories and a poem about how race can guide the stories poems tell. Alexander has written a poem in three parts, with at least three intertwined topics: the first part stands—or could have stood—independently; the second complements and partially reverses the first; and the third completes, and corrects, the first two. As she concludes this particular “story about race,” Alexander opens up larger questions about how we have learned to read any poem: about how we make, and whether we can avoid making, assumptions about race and voice, race and speakers and characters, whenever we read any poem.

Alexander begins unassumingly, with an anecdote whose emotional weight only later becomes clear. Great-uncle Paul, “who left Tuskegee,” decided to pass for white and “became fundamentally white”—if not in his sense of himself then at least in how white Americans, and perhaps black strangers, treated him. That decision controlled how he treated his brothers and sisters, and it controlled how they chose to treat him: the final words of Alexander’s first sentences—in order, “black,” “white?” “black,” “black!,” “confusion,” “tale,” and “brother”—highlight his choice. Alexander begins the poem with both a place of origin and an allusion: Tuskegee is famous for the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881. Washington wanted black Americans to prove themselves by excelling at mechanical, agricultural, and other practical occupations, striving to avoid direct conflict over civil rights. The institute embodied Washington’s vision: a black man leaving Tuskegee, Alabama, in order to “become a forester” in 1930, perhaps with a forestry degree, would be enacting that vision in one sense.

In another sense, of course, Paul was turning his back on Washington’s (and almost every other) vision of racial uplift: in Oregon, the “pale-skinned,” “straight-haired,” “blue-eyed” Paul passed for white, as untold numbers of black Americans have done since the 1600s. Daniel J. Sharfstein’s popular history The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White is one of the latest of many books to examine the phenomenon of “passing.” The three families in Sharfstein’s study “provided occasions for articulating what it meant to be black and what it meant to be white.” Whatever it means, it is not just about skin color or verifiable medical fact, as Paul’s siblings prove, since they have the same complexion and similar genes, but moved to New York and stayed black.

Race, Sharfstein continues, “is not just a set of rules. It is also a set of stories that people have told themselves and one another over and over.” The complex ironies inherent in such stories play off against the apparent artlessness, even the naïveté, of the implied speaker in the first part of the poem, where Alexander adopts simplicity as a technique. She uses long lines, most of them broken at a natural pause, as if she were simply transcribing conversation; she repeats words, as in natural speech (“siblings . . . siblings”; “confused . . . confusion”), rather than using variation through synonyms; her syntax and punctuation suggest the mild shock and amusement, the softened and habituated rue, of long-familiar history. Alexander thus becomes a diffident, transparent conduit for just one of the many similar stories known to some readers: “Many others have told, and not told, this tale.” The irregular five-beat line becomes a sort of home chord, repeated throughout.

But Alexander doesn’t want just to tell a “tale” already familiar to her readers; she is trying to understand the ramifications of the story itself to discover what sort of poem it deserves. Of what might Paul’s life in particular, or racial passing in general, furnish a good example? Do black poets have a responsibility to tell certain stories about black people (“heroic” ones, for example), and if they do, can Alexander fulfill it when she writes about Paul? A life of racial passing might be celebrated as an example of heroic philosophical inquiry, a demonstration that even such a overwhelmingly present, historically potent thing as race is without metaphysical foundation: the racial migrant, the once-black man living as white, might be a trickster, a double agent, a quester, having seen (like the apostle Paul) a new light, a new life. Or such a life might be an example of selfishness: the black-to-white migrant turns his back on his family, his natal home, and his obligations to them and to any larger black community in order to do better for himself.

No matter what she makes of racial passing, Alexander joins a literary tradition by addressing it at all. Clare Kendry, the black-to-white migrant in Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), can be understood through either rubric—one reason this novel, nearly forgotten for decades, has now acquired such a rich critical afterlife. The letter writer in Langston Hughes’s short story “Passing” (1930) can be understood only as selfish: “That’s the kind of thing that makes passing hard,” he tells his mother, “having to deny your own family when you see them.” He continues, “Since I’ve made up my mind to live in the white world, and have found my place in it (a good place), why think about race any more? I’m glad I don’t have to.” But of course he does think about it: “if any of my kids are born dark,” he continues, “I’ll swear they aren’t mine. I won’t get caught in the mire of color again. Not me. I’m free, Ma, free!”

Most of us wouldn’t want to imagine our own family capable of such sentiments, and so Alexander uses her powers of invention to construct a “heroic” story instead. Though living as white in a white state, with an “ivory spouse,” Paul’s attention to detail, his meticulously and mysteriously coded forestry manuals, are a kind of sub rosa rebellion. He practices a double-voiced writing with his black or blackened “graphite markings” and “silent spaces” equally telling a story about oppression, independence, and the arbitrariness of social categories for those (black) readers who are able to read them. African American thinkers have a strong tradition around such coded stories, of telling them and of trying to recover them, from W.E.B. DuBois’s records of “double-consciousness” to Henry Louis Gates’s model of literary “signifying,” from oral performance to intensely writerly art. Alexander’s great-uncle Paul also wrote books, “ledgers,” records of trees. As Alexander links him to literary tradition, her poem becomes self-consciously literary too. Words such as “cool, sagey” and other adjectives come to the fore; nature becomes sublime (redwoods); and the verse paragraph ends by describing itself, as well as Paul’s putative work, in slightly highfalutin ways: “graphite markings in a forester’s code.”

This second part of the poem—from “the poet” to “code”—amounts to a gloss on part one, a reinterpretation that the poet herself understands as fiction (she uses “invents,” and then “imagines,” three times in four lines) and cannot accept. There is no evidence that Paul saw his job as a coded rebellion against race, and plenty of evidence that Alexander prefers a black art that is identifiably black. In her collection of essays, The Black Interior (2004), she praises Robert Hayden, who “insisted that, when it came to his writing, he was a poet first and black, second,” but implies that she feels closer to Gwendolyn Brooks, who altered her early, elaborate style in an attempt to get closer to black readers’ needs. “It’s presumptuous to think that all black artists . . . are part of the same large and bumptious family,” Alexander says, “but I’m a weird sister ever-searching for her strange black artist brothers.” Being a black artist is like being part of a family: not all black artists are her sisters and brothers, but all her full sisters and brothers (according to this line of thought) must be black.

Yet “Race” does not indict great-uncle Paul; Alexander refrains from using the rhetoric of black nationalism, or treason and loyalty; she doesn’t even use the words “pass” or “passing.” Alexander might not want to give Paul a label he did not choose, or perhaps the label does not quite fit, since he “never told anyone / he was white.” Rather, he became “fundamentally white” because he was pale-skinned and blue-eyed, and because in Oregon in 1930 such people were simply assumed to be white. White was the default race, as well as—to many white people—the only desirable one (Oregon’s constitution infamously banned “free Negroes” from settling in the state until 1926).

The first part of “Race” “tells a story,” and the second provides one way to interpret it, however implausible. The third verse-paragraph gives us another view, one that is neither tragic nor comic, neither condemnatory nor “heroic”; its wry restraint is an achievement. Great-uncle Paul (like Clare Kendry in Larsen’s Passing) did not want to introduce a white spouse to dark-skinned African Americans. “He asked his siblings not to bring their spouses,” to choose him over their husbands and wives. The Harlem brothers and sisters refused, choosing spouse over sibling, the family they made over the family into which they were born. Great-uncle Paul had already made the same choice. The siblings seem admirable, while Paul may not, but the poet concludes with less judgmental terms: race is “strange,” family even “stranger”—indeed, strange in many of the same ways.

Staying calm without sounding cold, rejecting stereotypes, acknowledging each side, Alexander shows how she can see both Paul and his siblings as part of her family. From the slightly high-flown, unsustainable language of the second part, Alexander returns to the calm demotic of the first: if “heroic” diction was the wrong way to make a story into a poem, this third part might demonstrate a right way, by drawing respectful conclusions in balanced apothegms (out of seven lines, three are one-line sentences) that do not say more than the story itself can show. And what that story shows is strange enough: consideration of race can cause members of the same family to treat one another almost as “strangers,” and a story about race that can do justice to a family such as Alexander’s, indeed to any family at all, turns out to be one that can present race as a story: that is, as a sequence of decisions and impressions, related by cause and effect, by economics and politics and geography, and by the inner lives of the characters in it. Race is neither biological fact nor dismissible fiction, but an unwieldy set of narratives that Americans live inside.

So the poem ends, with a story of how we read race. It also leaves us with unanswered questions—if not unfinished stories—about how we read poems. Oregonians assumed that Paul was white, and we are led to believe, so did his “ivory spouse.” Readers of “Race” will likely assume, even if they know nothing else about her, that Elizabeth Alexander is black and identifies herself as black, and has family members who do so too. They will be right; they may have seen her on TV, since she wrote and recited, before a crowd of millions, a poem at President Obama’s inauguration. Yet her poem “Race” offers a gentle caution about what we can assume when we read a poem. Do all poems “tell a story about race,” or just this one? All the time, or (the first word of this poem) just “sometimes”? Do readers—black, white, both, neither—expect that all black poets, or all their poems, should bear marks or stories of race (as Paul tried not to do)? Do readers make the same demand of white—or apparently white—poets and their poems? Does Alexander’s last line hint that any poem can be made—if only through “silent spaces” like those in Paul’s ledgers—to speak about race? Can black writers evade that demand, and can white—or “white”—writers address it too?

Originally Published: November 9th, 2011

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. Burt’s books include We Are Mermaids...