Acclaimed poet Elizabeth Alexander ’84 to speak at Class Day

Alexander, a decorated poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and cultural advocate who was a professor at Yale for 15 years, will deliver the 2023 address.
Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander (Photo © Sharif Hamza)

Elizabeth Alexander ’84, a decorated poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and cultural advocate who was a professor of African American studies, American studies, and English at Yale for 15 years, will deliver the 2023 Class Day address.

Class Day exercises will begin at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 21, on Yale’s Old Campus. The ceremony, which will open with Alexander’s speech, recognizes achievements of the Yale College Class of 2023.

I am deeply moved to be asked to serve as Class Day Speaker this year,” Alexander said. “As an alumna, a longtime member of the Yale faculty, the mother of two Yale graduates, and as someone who will always call New Haven home, this is a singular honor.”

Alexander was a member of the Yale faculty from 2000 to 2015, eventually being named the inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry. During her tenure, she was instrumental in rebuilding the Department of African American Studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and served as its chair for four years.

Today, she is president of the Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest grantmaker in support of the arts and humanities. In the five years since she assumed that role, she has focused on creating partnerships with organizations around the world, promoting institutional diversity and inclusion, and expanding the foundation’s support across its core program areas: arts and culture, higher learning, public knowledge, and humanities in place, which focuses on how and where the stories of our histories and communities are told across public experiences.

Elizabeth Alexander
Alexander (Courtesy of Beinecke Library)

Prior to her Mellon Foundation presidency, Alexander served as director of creativity and free expression at the Ford Foundation, where she co-designed the Art for Justice Fund, an initiative that uses art and advocacy to address the crisis of mass incarceration.

In her leadership of two major philanthropic organizations, she has made it a priority to ask questions that draw the spotlight to overlooked stories and points of view

Through her writing, scholarship, and philanthropic leadership, Elizabeth Alexander has long exemplified values that are at the core of a Yale education: the pursuit of light and truth, and a commitment to serving society,” said Dean of Yale College Pericles Lewis. “In poetry and in prose, hers is one of the most eloquent voices of our time, and her Class Day address will be a highlight of commencement weekend for our graduating students and the wider community.”

In addition to Yale, Alexander has taught at the University of Chicago, Smith College, and Columbia University. She is the author or co-author of 15 books and twice has been a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize: in poetry for her 2005 book “American Sublime,” and in biography for her 2015 memoir “The Light of the World.” Her poetry and essays also include “Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010” (2010), “Power and Possibility: Essays, Reviews, Interviews” (2007), “The Black Interior: Essays” (2004), “Antebellum Dream Book” (2001), “Body of Life” (1996), and “The Venus Hottentot” (1990).

Her latest book, “The Trayvon Generation,” was released in 2022. She has received the Jackson Poetry Prize, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, the George Kent Award, the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes for poetry. In 2009, she composed and delivered a poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” for the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Yale’s Class Day celebration dates to the 19th century, when members of the Yale College graduating class gathered in a circle on Old Campus to share memories of their time at Yale. Today, the ceremony includes speeches and reflections by members of the class, as well as many longstanding Yale College traditions — notably the wearing of funny, often creatively homemade, hats. Past Class Day speakers include the writer Chimamanda Adichie ’08 M.A.; gene therapy researcher Jean Bennett ’76; former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ’73 J.D.; former Major League Baseball executive Theo Epstein ’95; and Broadway, film, and television songwriter Robert Lopez ’97.

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale Commencement 2023

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