I "discovered" Elizabeth Alexander at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, in 1995-1996, during my first year of college. At the time, I was pursuing quite a bit of outside reading trying to catch up on all the "conscious" materials that my high school had neglected to assign.
I read autobiographies by Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, and Assata Shakur that year. I read DuBois and historical accounts by Carter G. Woodson. I read folks like Naim Akbar, Jawanza Kunjufu's Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys, and several more. I had attended the Million Man March in October 1995, and so looking back on my readings, I was perhaps especially inclined to read works about black men, African American history, and the struggles of black folk.
Aside from open mic poetry performances that I attended, poetry was not really on my radar, not the kind found in books. My readings about history eventually led me to a reference about Saartjie Baartman also known as the Venus Hottentot.
Wanting to learn more, I went to the library's card catalog system--yes, the college still had one then--and somehow stumbled onto a book The Venus Hottentot (1990) by Elizabeth Alexander. At the time, I was not fully aware that I was picking up a volume of poetry, and when I did realize it was a book of poetry, I was not putting much thought into the fact that Alexander's work was one of the few, if not only, contemporary volumes of poetry that I had read.
I was moved by Alexander's "The Venus Hottentot" and this moment where a previously subjugated black woman was talking back. Over the years, I would return to Alexander's poem and find more to appreciate about the artistry of her work in addition to her attention to historical details. But back then, rather than add her to a list of poets, I chose instead to place Elizabeth Alexander's name on my then more pertinent list of "conscious thinkers."
• Elizabeth Alexander Week
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