BSAY’s Conversation with Professors Elizabeth Alexander and Erica James

On Friday, February 27th, the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY) hosted a conversation with the esteemed professors Elizabeth Alexander and Erica James. This was the first in what BSAY is calling “the Black Professor Series,” a collections of conversations designed “to bring Black students and professors together in a personal environment.” A small group of undergraduates convened at the Afro-American Cultural center to engage in a casual discussion with the professors regarding their work and experiences as black professors. The forum was led by first year students Elizabeth Spenst (MC’18) and Alexis Williams (CC’18), and the students who were present chimed in with their own questions.

Things started out formally with questions for both professors regarding their work outside of the classroom and what they aim to do in their respective non-academic spheres. Prof. James was first to answer, reflecting on her work with the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas. As founding Director and Chief Curator of the gallery, James was largely responsible for conceiving a vision for the museum and seeing to its successful completion. She cited her mission as follows, to “convey the contours of ‘the shadow’ of Africa,” within the art she chose to feature. This presented an interesting “tension,” according to James, between her individual vision and her responsibility to the collective cultural community of the Bahamas; a theme that both professors agreed constantly reoccurs in the realm of Black art.

Prof. Alexander was next to speak, regarding her work as a poet, patron, and teacher. Her mission as an artist was clearly stated, to “try her best, whenever possible, to turn white money towards Black creativity.” It is this mission statement that led to her work with the Cave Canem Foundation, which she regards as “a space for Black poets to be free within ourselves.” The same mission statement shapes her syllabi and classroom experience. Prof. Alexander makes constructive use of her connections within the Black artistic community and Yale’s financial and academic resources – the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, for example – to ensure that the dialogue between Black artists, living and deceased, continues. Whether this happens in interview form or via interaction with an archive, it is a conversation that Prof. Alexander works determinedly to maintain.

The conversation took a more light-hearted turn when student Alexandra Barlowe (BR’17) questioned the professors as to their hobbies and “unexpected interests.” Prof. Alexander responded first, cheerfully citing her work in poetry as her favorite hobby. She also listed dancing, great food, and mindless TV among her favorite things. Prof. James answered by describing her love of traveling, gardening and cooking.

After a few more questions, the discussion came to a close with both professors offering the same piece of advice to all who were present. To quote Prof. James specifically, “it’s all in you…whatever you want to do, everything that it could possibly take lies within you. You just have to keep pushing.”

by Julianna Simms