I cannot verify if the general curriculum and flow of things at Penn has changed much for the classes that all incoming students are required to take, but I can say–with absolute certainty–that my freshman English seminar almost singlehandedly saved my Ivy League academic career.

My first semester in college was rough. After barely surviving my initial set of classes, I needed a safe refuge where I could feel like I still had whatever mojo and intellect gained me admission in the first place. That oasis was a space in Elizabeth Alexander’s freshman English seminar, “The Exploration of African American Poetry.” I didn’t know anything about her, compared to some of the more raved-about faculty in the department, but she was teaching something that I wanted and needed to study further, so I registered. They say God takes care of fools and babies, and I was 17, so I know which category suited me.

I’ve mentioned this class in a previous blog, because the first sign I had that I was in the right place was the Funkadelic quote at the top of the syllabus. Elizabeth herself looked like my mother’s side of the family: fair-skinned, curly-haired, kind eyes and an overall manner that suggested refinement and wisdom. I liked her immediately. And when she explained that she was a niece of the legendary artist Romare Bearden and that Black folks’ capacity for manipulating and expressing language was an essential element of our survival, I was hooked. Because I was drowning and I needed a floatie to keep my head above water on that campus. Using my words seemed like as reasonable a method as any.

In the required reading materials and the extra research I did on my own inspired by that syllabus, I submerged myself in the work of extraordinary word crafters like Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Gil Scott-Heron and even some rap artists. Elizabeth made sure our group appreciated the craft of both academe and proletariat, the sociopolitical struggles that birthed the work, and the torment that often accompanied the high praise of the writers we studied. Best of all, she emphasized the need for each of her students not to only read the work, but to take our chances at writing our own. We each had a story to tell, lived experiences to share. And often, by bending words to our will, we uncover a deeper layer of truth that gives meaning to the journey.

Decades have passed since those life-saving moments in Elizabeth’s class. I’ve fashioned a career out of finding my voice and sharing it in a variety of creative ways. She’s moved on to Yale, penned a poem to shepherd our nation’s first Black President into office, and is now on the brink of becoming a New York Times best-seller because of the memoir she wrote to sort through the grief of losing her husband. My path looks nothing like hers, but I am forever indebted to the then-doctoral-candidate who broadened a deeply-insecure teenaged girl’s perspective on the necessity for her voice to be heard, in a world that will continually devalue her presence.

Despite the many ways that the masses attempt to silence the Black girl’s song we’re singing, Elizabeth Alexander is one of the main reasons why I feel forever empowered to use my words.


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