Daughter of history professor will deliver inaugural poem

The inaugural poet speaking at next week’s event will be the first to deliver such an address in more than a decade, but she is also notable for her ties to Foggy Bottom – her mother is a GW history professor.

Elizabeth Alexander will recite an original poem at Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, becoming only the fourth person in modern history to be awarded the honor of reading at a presidential swearing-in ceremony. When her mother, Adele Alexander, learned her daughter would be following in the footsteps of famous poets like Robert Frost, Maya Angelou and Miller Williams, she was ecstatic.

“I was in my office at GW grading papers the week before Christmas when my husband called me with the news,” she said. “Of course, as her parents, we were both enormously proud and delighted. It’s an extraordinary honor that she’s been selected to write and deliver a poem at the inauguration.”

Elizabeth Alexander, a professor of African-American studies at Yale University, has been a personal friend of the Obama family since she and the president-elect taught at the University of Chicago in the mid-1990s. She introduced her mother to the Obamas around 1995.

“Frankly, I remember Michelle much more from that first meeting,” said Adele Alexander, who teaches African-American and U.S. women’s history. “She was stunning and gracious. I thought they were both lovely and very smart.”

While Elizabeth might have one of the most prominent roles in the inauguration, the entire Alexander family was involved with Obama’s campaign. Adele was a donor – giving more than $2,000 to Obama – while Elizabeth accompanied Michelle Obama on the campaign trail and her brother Mark worked as a policy director.

“Elizabeth believed in him from the senatorial campaign onward, believed that he would be president one day,” Alexander said. “I do remember telling my students, probably in 2004, that they should keep an eye on him. Many hadn’t even heard of him at the time. Our son left his law school teaching job to work for him at the beginning of 2007. We’ve all been on the Obama bandwagon for some time, so we certainly believed.”

Elizabeth began writing poetry in high school, but started focusing exclusively on it at Boston University where she earned her master’s degree. She also has a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a doctoral degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania.

The poet also has experience in one of Obama’s familiar fields: race relations. She was the first recipient of the Alphonse Fletcher Sr. Fellowship for work that helps improve race relations in America. She has also received many other poetry awards.

“She is known as one of the outstanding poets of her and Obama’s generation,” Alexander said of her daughter. “She’s also an academic and her poetry has an intellectual bent that, I would guess, very much appeals to the president-elect.”

For Adele, seeing her daughter read at the historic event will be the culmination of a long process – in more than one way.

“It seems like a very long journey, both in terms of how long my family has felt personally involved, but much longer in terms of having a person of color as our president,” Alexander said. “It also means fulfilling the dream that anyone can come to the United States with limitless ambitions. I’m enormously proud of the journey that Obama has made. The hopes of millions of people around the world rest on his shoulders.”

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