Alexander brings a Class Day message of freedom, education, and homecoming

Delivering the 2023 Class Day address, poet Elizabeth Alexander ’84 returned “home” to Yale and New Haven to extol the virtues of a life spent learning.

Acclaimed poet Elizabeth Alexander ’84 returned “home” to the Yale campus for Class Day on Sunday, extolling freedom, education, and the imperative of speaking truth to power.

If we deserve the power, the imagination, the historical perspective, the sharpened thinking, the other worlds, the empathy, the knowledge of books, then so, too, do people everywhere,” Alexander told Yale’s Class of 2023, a day before their Commencement. “And that’s something we can do book by book, idea by idea, soul by soul, and freedom dream by freedom dream.”

Graduating students walk the Class of 2023 banner to the stage

The students — many festooned with fanciful hats of their own creation, in a long-time Class Day tradition — filled hundreds of white chairs in the courtyard of Old Campus, with friends and family in thousands more. They cheered as Alexander greeted them as a former Yale undergraduate, a former Yale faculty member, a Yale mom, and “as a New Havener, a proud citizen of this city that I love.”

Held the Sunday before Commencement, Class Day is a festive Yale College ceremony featuring a notable speaker chosen with undergraduates’ input and reflections from members of the class; the presentation of top academic, artistic, and athletic prizes; and the celebration of traditions through symbols such as the Class Ivy and the clay churchwarden pipe. There is also a rendition of “Bright College Years.”

Slideshow: Scenes from Class Day 2023

Photos by Dan Renzetti

Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder of the arts and humanities, is a revered figure in the Yale community. A professor of African American studies, American studies, and English at Yale from 2000 to 2015, she was eventually named the inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry, and for four years was chair of the Department of African American studies.

The author or co-author of more than a dozen books — and twice a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize —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 first inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Her adult academic journey began at Yale.

Alexander told the Class of 2023 that Yale and New Haven taught her how to work hard and have fun; how to try new experiences, such as rowing crew, with its “precarious boat”; how to draw insight from literary study; and how “you have to dance” to really understand a different culture.

I learned more things as a Yale undergraduate than I could possibly count,” she said.

An educational opportunity that was missed

At the heart of Alexander’s address was the story of a 19th century New Haven college that might have been — and the warning it provides for America today.

In 1831, white abolitionist allies and free Black leaders proposed the creation, in New Haven, of what would have been the nation’s first college for Black students. “A truly visionary idea,” Alexander said.

The proposal, however, was met with overwhelming opposition from city and Yale officials, who claimed the idea was “destructive” to the “best ideals” of New Haven. It was eventually blocked by a vote of 700 to 4.

And that was that,” Alexander said.

Details of this chapter have emerged as a result of the efforts of the Yale and Slavery Working Group, chaired by Sterling Professor of History David Blight, whom Alexander noted in her address. The ongoing initiative is examining the university’s historical roles and associations with slavery, the slave trade, and abolition, including the story of the proposed college in 1831.

Alexander asked today’s graduates to imagine what could have emerged had that college been built. How would it have transformed the city and its people? How would it have invigorated, enlivened, and elevated Yale to greater heights — and inspired the nation in the process?

These questions, and the questions posed by the latest surge in calls for book banning and educational censorship around the country, are at the heart of African American studies programs, Alexander said. They also figure prominently in American philanthropic missions, which seek to establish a more just society out of a “love of humankind.”

I must ask: What, exactly, do those who are banning education fear?” Alexander said.

Life lessons from a Yale mom

Alexander also challenged the Yale students to think about why a free people needs to learn.

She noted that a lifetime of learning is the only way a person or a society can truly engage with others — including with those of past generations. Learning is also the best way to understand that each of us is not alone, she said. And, she added, “It is exhilarating.”

Elizabeth Alexander ’84
Elizabeth Alexander ’84

Alexander shared her thoughts on poetry, and how it represents “the soul, distilled”; she noted the many admirable characteristics she sees in the Class of 2023, including action, optimism, connection, and a refusal to choose despair over joy.

And finally, she offered students some advice as a Yale mom:

  • Keep learning and reading, for the rest of your life
  • Rest, eat well, and be physically ready for the challenges to come
  • Speak truth to power
  • Bring new voices into any room you inhabit
  • Don’t wait for life to quiet down before taking needed action

And she posed another question: “What will you do to make the dream of freedom real for everyone?”

The transformative is within reach’

Earlier in the day, in a baccalaureate address, also on Old Campus, Yale President Peter Salovey highlighted the many ways students and alumni engage with Yale’s home city of New Haven, efforts that strengthen the university and the city alike. He noted the work of the literacy program New Haven Reads, the classroom technology program Code Haven, the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, the Urban Resources Initiative, and several other programs.

Your efforts as students engaged in service showcase why the ‘where’ of Yale’s mission statement matters,” Salovey said. “Your efforts show that the transformative is within reach. That there is marvelous grandeur in the constellation of seemingly small acts of service with and for each other that together constitute a thriving civic life on this campus.

The sum of your contributions has brought immense pride to Yale — and an equal measure of progress to our community,” he said.

Salovey urged the graduates to replicate their work in the community wherever they go next.

We hope that wherever it is upon life’s sea you sail, you will arrive there not only as proud alumni of this university but as emissaries of its ethos, ready, once again, to raise your hand and engage,” he said.

Slideshow: Scenes from the 2023 Baccalaureate ceremony

Photos by Dan Renzetti

Class Day, which was broadcast live online, additionally featured the conferral of prizes to 11 outstanding Yale College seniors and speeches and reflections from members of the Class of ’23, which included heartfelt helpings of whimsy, nostalgia, and reflection.

Yabi Degefu and Anastasia Hufham of the 2023 Class Day committee presented the background on Class Day traditions and artifacts, such as the white handkerchief members of the graduating class wave at the end of the ceremony and the Church Warden pipes that early Yale students would break as a symbol of the end of carefree college life.

Prior to introducing a class video, Eda Uzunlar and Ziad Hassan requested a moment of silence for friends and family who have died; and Cameron Bell reminded his classmates they are Yale’s final “BC class” — those who arrived on the Yale campus “Before COVID.”

In class reflections, Ayla Raana Jeddy spoke of the memories and activities that create lasting bonds among Yale students, and Abey Varghese Loving credited the love and help of his mother, friends, neighbors, and teachers in overcoming harrowing childhood circumstances.

And, of course, there were hats. There were baseball caps, bonnets, Stetsons, berets, sock hats, visors, and straw boaters. There were pizza box hats (Pepe’s and Modern Apizza were represented), crowns (one with a photo of King Charles), Viking helmets, pirate hats, gladiator masks, tiaras, and hats fashioned with frogs, beer cans, a disco ball, a cut-up basketball, an IKEA bag, a squid, a shark, and a pink pig.

Evan Hochstein, a member of the Yale Guild of Carillonneurs, was the latest wearer of a replica of Harkness Tower, home of the Yale Memorial Carillon. (See the video above.)

At the end of Class Day, the students joined in singing “Bright College Years,” accompanied by members of the Yale Glee Club.

Then it was time to hug it out with family and friends, and to make final preparations for Monday’s Commencement.

Brianna Jefferson, an Ezra Stiles senior from Toronto, said Alexander’s comments on New Haven as “home” had special meaning for her because she stayed in New Haven all four years of her Yale experience, including two summers.

I’ve been able to explore the city and I can see why she feels that way,” Jefferson said.

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale Commencement 2023