Alexander, Elizabeth




Born in New York City in 1962 and raised in Washington, DC, award-winning poet and essayist Elizabeth Alexander teaches in the Department of African American Studies at Yale University. This poem from Alexander’s third collection of poems, Antebellum Dream Book, turns on the complexities and ambiguities of race. The poet recalls a great-uncle who left Alabama for a forestry job in Oregon, married a white woman, "and in so doing became fundamentally white for the rest of his life." But Great-Uncle Paul has siblings in Harlem who, though they are pale-skinned, blue-eyed and straight-haired like him, identify as black. When he visits them alone he too is black, "their brother." Then, on one visit, Great-Uncle Paul brings his wife to New York and asks his siblings to leave their spouses at home. How do they respond, and what is at stake in their choice? What does Alexander mean when she says that "many others have told, and not told, this tale"? How do the stories we tell (or don’t tell) about ourselves and our families define who we are?

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Antebellum Dream Book by Elizabeth Alexander, Graywolf Press, 2001.


Reading - Short Enough to Read Aloud.


Diversity and DifferenceExclusion and BelongingHeritage and TraditionRace, Ethnicity and CultureWork and Vocation

Big Questions

Is diversity important? Why?What assumptions do we make about others?What does a sense of belonging make possible?What does it mean to be a stranger or an outsider? What does it feel like?Can our heritage and our traditions be a source of division?How do we remain loyal to our heritage and traditions?How does my race, culture or ethnicity shape who I am?How does race affect our relations to others?What assumptions do we make about people from different races, ethnicities and cultures?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. What do you make of the line, "he become fundamentally white for the rest of his life"?
  2. What do you think of Paul's choice to keep his ethnicity a secret?
  3. Do you think Paul was proud of his heritage at all?
  4. What do we inherit from our ancestors and what obligations do we have to family?
  5. The speaker says "who could imagine,an Oregon forester in 1930 as anything other than white?". What assumptions to we make about people and their race?
  6. When do people hide parts of their identity and why?
  7. In your professional life, how do you respect what others choose to share about themselves?
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