In 2000, Elizabeth Alexander began working at Yale University as an associate professor. Although she had distinguished herself as a poet and while creative writers often work in English departments and MFA programs, Alexander's appointment was in African American Studies. In 2005, she was promoted to full professor with appointments in African American Studies, American Studies, and English, and in 2009, she became chair of African American Studies at Yale.
Alexander's now 12-year appointment in African American Studies is especially noteworthy when we consider the growing distance between African American poetry and Black Studies over the last 20 years. During the black arts era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, black poets were actively involved in the development and operations of black studies. Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, for instance, collaborated with students and activists who worked to create the first black studies program at San Fransisco State University.
During the 1970s, black arts poets were prominent faculty members in African American Studies program, and several remained connected to programs during the course of their careers. Still, as younger, emergent poets began to earn MFA degrees in larger numbers, they were more likely to find employment opportunities in English departments and creative writing programs as opposed to in African American Studies programs.
Decades ago, English departments, aside from at HBCUs, rarely employed black literary artists as professors, but now several major universities have at least one African American creative writer. Over the decades, African American Studies programs have hired scholars with PhDs more frequently than those with MFAs. At the same time, creative writing programs have been more likely to hire artist-professors with MFAs as opposed to those with degrees in African American Studies.
Alexander's career as a distinguished published poet with a longstanding appointment in an African American Studies Program places her in a fairly unique position. She is situated at one of the important crossroads where poetry and black studies meet.
• Elizabeth Alexander Week