Analysis of four poems by Elizabeth Alexander: Race, Emancipation, African Leave-Taking Disorder, Marcus Garvey on Elocution

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

19 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Biographical information on Elizabeth Alexander

3. The poems
3.1 Emancipation
3.2 Ars Poetica #28 : African Leave-Taking Disorder
3.3 Race
3.4 Ars Poetica #92 : Marcus Garvey on Elocution

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The current President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, was one of the few, who, in his inauguration ceremony in January 2009, had a poet read an inaugural poem. This delightful tradition that had only been included by three presidents before but that in many ways supports and promotes the art of contemporary American poets was kept alive by Elizabeth Alexander, one of the best-known and most successful recent African-American women poets. Her Praise Song For The Day, despite some sporadic criticism, was a suitable and thoughtful composition for this occasion and it was then that I heard for the first time of Elizabeth Alexander, an African-American poet.

Her work and background fascinated me especially because she is a contemporary and her work is so recent and still going on. Therefore, I decided to examine four of her poems in the term paper at hand: Emancipation, Ars Poetica #28: African Leave-Taking Disorder, Race and Ars Poetica #92: Marcus Garvey on Elocution.

During my research I had to learn that sadly, there is a significant lack of research and literature on this and other contemporary authors and therefore, this term paper largely consists of my own findings regarding the poems.

Due to the reason that her personal background and her life have influenced the poems to a notable extent, I will start off with a short biographical section on Elizabeth Alexander herself and point out further biographical traits while interpreting the poems in their respective chapters. I will finally summarize my findings and present my personal conclusion as regards her way of tackling her topics and her art of writing.

2. Biographical information on Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander was born on May 30th, 1962 in Harlem, New York City, USA and grew up in Washington, D.C. Her ethnical background is quite diverse: Her paternal grandfather came from Jamaica to the USA in 1918 and on her maternal side, she even has some connections to Aachen: Her 37th great-grandfather was Charlemagne, the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire ("Elizabeth Alexander - Faces of America").

Her parents were among the black professional elite: Her father is the former US Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chairman Clifford AlexanderJr. and her mother, Adele Alexander, was a university teacher of African American Women's History and writer (Seelye). In an interview with PBS, she states how influential her father's work after Martin Luther King's assassination was for her and how, even as a small child, she was aware how important he was for "blazing trails for African-Americans" ("Elizabeth Alexander - Faces of America"). Alexander has degrees from Yale University and Boston University and completed her Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania. She currently chairs the African American Studies Department at Yale University (Alexander 2009).

She has published five books of Poetry: The Venus Hottentot (1990), Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001) and American Sublime (2005). Apart from that, her bibliography comprises two collections of essays (The Black Interior (2004) and Power and Possibility (2007)), one young adult collection (Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses ofColor (2008)) and a play (Diva Studies).

Her work American Sublime was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and other awards include the Jackson Prize for Poetry, two Pushchart Prizes, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and the Alphonse Fletcher Sr. Fellowship for work that "contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954" (Alexander 2009).

Her work can be classified into the era of the "Post-Soul Aesthetic" and the Arts of the Post­Civil Rights Movement, a highly controversial research topic that lacks scientific consensus and has appeared under a variety of names (Ashe 609), very possibly due to the fact that it is a very recent movement and that little research has been conducted so far.

3. The Poems

3.1 Emancipation


Corncob constellation,

oyster shell, drawstring pouch, dry bones.

Gris gris in the rafters.

Hoodoo in the sleeping nook.

Mojo in Linda Brent's crawlspace.

Nineteenth century corncob cosmogram set on the dirt floor, beneath the slant roof, left intact the afternoon that someone came and told those slaves

"We're free.”

(from: American Sublime, 2005)

This poem published in 2005 is a very complex piece of art that contains many references to former Afro-American popular beliefs and traditions and that for this reason is quite hard to understand for laypeople. It depicts the process of liberation and, as the title suggests, emancipation from slavery which goes hand in hand with acculturation.

It contains four stanzas with a climatic structure, the first stanza consisting of two lines, the second one of three, the third one of four and the last line standing as a stanza of its own. In contrast to many of Alexander's other poems, its language is relatively complex and consists mainly of a list of nouns. As most modern and contemporary poems though, it is written in free verse.

The poet begins the first stanza with a "corncob constellation", meaning a constellation of stars in the sky that is like an artificial crossroads created with powders like graveyard dirt, bluestone or dried bones inside a room or house. This is an important element in hoodoo, a form of predominantly African-American folk magic that was especially popular during the nineteenth century. This constellation was generally used "for sealing or fixing spells in place" and "magical protection" (Yronwode Laying Down Tricks). She then lists various other items that were part of superstitious rituals in Hoodoo belief: "Oyster shell" (I. 2) is a commonly used material to lay constellations or cosmograms. A "drawstring pouch" (I. 2) contains the "Gris gris" (l. 3), a hoodoo amulet that protects the wearer against evil or carries luck. The mixture that is found inside often consists of "dry bones" (l. 2) and a "mojo" (l. 5) is a central element of Hoodoo culture, too: "It is the staple amulet of African-American Hoodoo Practice, a flannel bag [with a drawstring] containing one or more magical items, [sometimes known under] the Alternative American name [...] gris gris bag" (Yronwode Mojo Hand). The corncob cosmogram is repeated in line 6 and therefore its importance is stressed.

The name of "Linda Brent" is connected to the Hoodoo tradition as well. It is the pseudonym of the American abolitionist and writer of slave narrative Harriet Ann Jacobs.

At a first approach to the poem, the reader will only understand the meaning of these words if he has some kind of understanding of Hoodoo religion and culture. The terms and ideas are highly intertwined and this is exactly the point of the poem: Most readers will not be acquainted with this and, at first sight, the simple record of random and strange items alienates today's reader even further from this culture. Although hoodoo belief is not a religion in its proper sense and contains many elements of the Christian tradition, the lack of knowledge stresses the peculiarity of the practices and underlines that the world and cultural background of the slaves were indeed very different from Western cultures. During slavery, African Americans often relied on these practices and wished for better conditions because they were poor and suppressed in every other aspect of their lives. Their lack of education made them susceptible to superstition.

Their poverty is further underlined by the choice of words. "Nook" (l. 4), "rafters" (l. 3), "crawlspace" (l. 5), "dirt floor" (l. 7) and "slant roof" (l. 7), also due to their connotations, all show and highlight the poor and simple living conditions of slaves in the 19th century.

The structure and syntax of the poem are climatic and this further stresses its contents. The number of lines of each stanza increases in the course of the poem with the exception of the last stanza, which, due to its importance, stands on its own. Syntax parallels this: Whereas the first stanza only consists of nouns and adjectives, the second one also includes prepositions and articles. The poet uses verbs only in the third and fourth stanza so that they are the only ones with a vivid tone. Furthermore, they are more understandable to the reader and this emphasizes the importance of the last line: "We're free.".

To sum up, this poem depicts the different cultural background of slaves and the African- American tradition and states that liberation from slavery also brings about the loss of cultural practices. Superstitious elements of hoodoo belief were primarily used as a sign of their lack of and longing for freedom but when "someone came and told those slaves 'We're free.'" (ll. 9f.), they were also liberated from this kind of folk magic and given the opportunity to assimilate. In the author's view, this step of enlightenment was necessary for African American people to be "free" and successful in American society. In doing so, she depicts the "cultural hybridity" of many African Americans today and shows that "Afrocentrism and cosmopolitanism" are intimately interrelated in them (Pereira 2007: 711).

3.2 Ars Poetica #28: African Leave-Taking Disorder

Ars Poetica #28: African Leave-Taking Disorder

The talk is good. The two friends linger at the door. Urban crickets sing with them.

There is no after the supper and talk.

The talk is good. These two friends linger at the door, half in, half out, 'til one decides to walk the other home. And so they walk, more talk, the new doorstep, the nightgowned wife who shakes her head and smiles from the bedroom window as the men talk in love and the crickets sing along. The joke would be if the one now home walked the other one home, where they started, to keep talking and so on: "African Leave-Taking Disorder," which names her children everywhere trying to come back together and talk. (from: American Sublime, 2005)


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Analysis of four poems by Elizabeth Alexander: Race, Emancipation, African Leave-Taking Disorder, Marcus Garvey on Elocution
RWTH Aachen University  (Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Romanistik)
Modern and Contemporary American Poetry
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Elizabeth Alexander, Race, African Leave-Taking Disorder, Marcus Garvey, Elocution, Praise Song For The Day, Ethnicity, Slavery, Racism, African-American Poetry, Modern Poetry, Contemporary Poetry, Ars Poetica, Antebellum Dream Book, American Sublime
Quote paper
Marc Hempel (Author), 2010, Analysis of four poems by Elizabeth Alexander: Race, Emancipation, African Leave-Taking Disorder, Marcus Garvey on Elocution, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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