Motherhood, Love and the “Trayvon Generation,” with Elizabeth Alexander

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Hey, y’all it’s Brittany. 

I gotta tell y’all I’m just overwhelmed in the very best way by your supremely generous response to the news about our growing family. We got comments from so many of you across social media and in our inboxes and in our podcast reviews, in our text messages about how last week’s episode made you feel and about your well-wishes for our little strong one, baby M. Reggie and I, we just feel so deeply honored to know that our transparency really resonated and gave some folks som hope. 

A lot of y’all said you cried,  my bad. But I appreciate so sincerely how welcoming a community you all continue to be. And I’ll tell you, I told Reggie all the way back in December that our kiddo would be home with us happy and healthy by Resurrection Sunday, also known as Easter. 

In our faith tradition, it’s the holiest week of all. And something down in my spirit told me that even though our little one came Earthside early, that he’d be coming home right on time. And sure enough. I was absolutely that mom who bought the white linen shorts with the embroidered bunnies and the matching polo onesie. And I was not at all embarrassed by how stinking cute he looked in it. 

And of course he would be the one to make his homecoming during the week that Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and those of the Bahá’í Faith all celebrate our holiest days in the same month at the same time for the first time in decades. That kid, I tell you. I pray that your week was as incredible as mine and that the weeks ahead are full of blessings that absolutely blow your mind. 


On the show today, I’m talking to Elizabeth Alexander, the renowned poet and author of The Trayvon Generation about raising joyful children. 

Elizabeth Alexander: You know, my mother would often say to me when I said like “Oh, this and that, and my worry.” She’d say “But they live in your house, don’t they? Do they not live in your house?”

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: But first the news.

So last week, I told you all my very big news that I’ve been holding on to for a long time. But the new addition to our family, we talk a lot about family leave on this show. You’ve heard Senator Warren talk about how student loan debt makes it hard for young families to buy a home. We’ve talked to Nicole Chung about the tough conversation she’s had with her daughter about violence against Asian-Americans. And Ai-jen Poo helped us understand the true cost of caretaking in the United States.

We also talk a lot about our collective responsibility for and to each other. So I’m going to try to practice what I preach for the next few months and lean on some of my incredible teammates around here, so I can be with baby M.  We’ve got some fantastic, powerful, incredible episodes planned for you.

There’s one in particular that I am just dying for you to hear. And don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. You may even get to hear some very sleep deprived notes from home from me. But you’ll also get to hear from one of my day ones here on the show. A name from the credits come to life, Treasure Brooks will be here to help us fill the gaps.

She’s a cultural critic, a producer on UNDISTRACTED, and she’s always, always got the very best looks on all our Zoom calls. 

Treasure Brooks: Hi, Brittany. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: So listen, Treasure, you have all the things going on. You are about to graduate from the Harvard University and you’ve turned in this fantastic thesis. And you’ve been doing all of this while you’ve been a producer right here on the show and holding it down as a John Lewis, Good Trouble fellow at the Kennedy school of Government at Harvard.

That is a mouthful. Tell us more about yourself. Who are you and what is this fantastic thesis you’ve written? 

Treasure Brooks: Well, I’m from Oakland, California, which I am extremely, extremely proud of. I am a dancer, a film student, and my thesis is called Sleep Under Ladders. It’s a multimedia exhibition where I essentially explore how people miss attribute, systemic oppression to individualize bad luck.

So if walking under a ladder is bad luck, then to live in an oppressive system presiding over you without knowing it is to be asleep under a ladder. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: My God, is that how these Oakland girls are out here doing it? 

Treasure Brooks: Yup, that’s Oakland for you. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: My God. Okay. So Treasure, you are going to walk us through the news. Tell the people what’s good. 

Treasure Brooks: Now Brittany, you know nothing’s good. It’s the news. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Okay, well that’s fair. 

Treasure Brooks: I’m just kidding, there’s a little good in there. So let’s get into it. First thing’s first. Can we talk about these mask rules changing? A judge in Florida has struck down the Biden administration’s mask mandate for federal transportation and in response airlines, Amtrak, and some regional public transportation systems immediately dropped their masking requirements.

Now, I get it. No one loves a mask, but this change has very clear implications for people who are already vulnerable because of disability, age, or being immunocompromised. And that vulnerability, like so much else in our society unequally falls on women and people of color. A quarter of women, a quarter of Black people, and 30% of indigenous Americans have a disability according to the CDC.

So our health is truly affected by this move. And it’s important to understand that many people will still choose to wear masks and that respecting their desire and their need to do so is critical. But there’s another note here that I want to highlight and it has to do with that judge in Florida, Kathryn Kimball Mizelle. She is a darling of the right. She was appointed by the former occupant of the White House. She’s a member of the right wing Federalist Society. And she clerked for Clarence Thomas, whose wife we now know had refused to believe that President Biden won the election. Now legal experts are questioning whether Judge Mizelle’s ruling even correctly interpreted the law around sanitation and health.

NPR spoke to a law professor at Georgia State University, who said, quote, if one of my students turned in this opinion as their final exam, I don’t know if I would agree that they had gotten the analysis correct. Y’all I don’t even know where to go with this. We should have listened to Anita Hill. And more seriously, when you hear people talk about who gets to appoint judges and why it matters. This is why it matters.

And now a little news from the world of people power. Earlier this month in West Virginia, hundreds of people enacted a blockade at Grant Town Power Plant. At least 16 people from grassroots organizations like West Virginia Rising and the Poor People’s Campaign were arrested.

Protesters: When West Virginia Is Under Attack. What do we do? STAND UP LIKE THAT! What do we do? STAND UP LIKE THAT! 

Treasure Brooks: Here’s why they were there. The plant receives coal waste from Enersystems, a coal brokerage that’s owned by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s family. According to his Senate disclosure documents, Manchin earned nearly $500,000 from the company in 2020. You heard that right. A politician who we entrust to make thoughtful decisions about the climate crisis is actually, literally invested in organizations that are making it worse.

He’s incentivized to ignore it. And this isn’t just any senator. Because of the Democrats’ slim majority in the Senate, Joe Manchin swing vote can sabotage legislation that could save our entire planet. And he does that at just about every turn. He spent months watering down the climate provisions in president Biden’s Build Back Better bill and then voted against it anyway, leading to its demise.

And by the way, Manchin also received more donations from the oil, gas, and coal industries than any other senator in the most recent election cycle. Over $680,000. My point is this, elected officials like Manchin are civil servants tasked with representing the public’s interest. But so many have proven their allegiance is first and foremost to corporate money.

There’s this quote that’s attributed to the folk singer Utah Phillips: “The earth is not dying, it is being killed. And those who are killing it, have names and addresses.” It’s the same with the people who are paying our politicians to vote against the interest of their constituents. You can find the names of the lobbyists who are contributing to elected officials and the industries that they represent at

And you can let that information inform your activism the same way. The folks behind the coal blockade date. I’m cheering them on.

Last week, the UK announced a plan to send migrants arriving on British shores to Rwanda, rather than allowing them to settle in the UK. The United Nations has called the plan an abdication of responsibility. And it’s hard not to see just how different this policy is from the way that Ukrainian refugees have been treated as they flee to nations like Poland and Hungary.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson billed the plan as a way to reduce exploitation and abuse of migraines at the hands of smugglers. But that doesn’t totally make sense, especially since just last year, the UK condemned Rwanda for failing to credibly investigate alleged human rights abuses of people being held in state custody.

Listen, the UK rerouting asylum seekers should concern everyone. The Johnson administration has been light on details about why a migrant might be denied entry. And vague criteria almost always means that race and ethnicity will become the basis by which the state chooses to review safety. Let’s call it what it is.

This policy is a continuation of the xenophobia we’ve already seen coming from many governments. It all makes me think of what Muzoon Almellehan, the Syrian refugee turned UNICEF ambassador said on the show recently. 

Muzoon Almellehan: If a country wants to welcome refugees from Ukraine, this means they must welcome refugees from Syria and from anywhere from the world.

Treasure Brooks: Maybe our government should start listening to actual refugees. That’s the moral clarity we need. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: All right y’all, you’re going to be great. Now, go turn in that thesis. Coming up, I’m talking to essayist and poet Elizabeth Alexander about raising a vision of the future right after this short break.

And we are back. My guest today is Elizabeth Alexander. You might remember her as the poet from Barack Obama’s first inauguration. At that time, she was only the fourth person to receive that honor alongside people like Maya Angelou and Robert Frost. Elizabeth’s new book, The Trayvon Generation, expands on an essay of the same name that she wrote for The New Yorker in June of 2020.

The thesis is that the cohort of young people who’ve grown up over the last two decades, including her own 20-something sons have experienced the dehumanization of Black people in a unique way with their phones in their hands. The images of brutality have been a constant and unavoidable reminder that the world they live in does not value their lives. 

There’s also the burden to document brutality they witnessed firsthand to record the moments that will force America to see what they see. To see us as human. I wanted to talk to Elizabeth about the experience of being a mother to Black boys who are part of that Trayvon generation. About how to hold them, about how to keep them safe while at the same time teaching them to be free. Because that’s what they are. 

It’s all very personal to me. And she was the one I wanted to hear from about it. 

Oh my goodness. Elizabeth Alexander, thank you so much for joining UNDISTRACTED today, 

Elizabeth Alexander: Brittany, I am so excited to be with you and very moved that we get to have a conversation on all these topics at this huge moment in your life that you have shared. So, um, I feel very honored to be here with you right now. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Thank you so much. You’re of course, referring to this news that I just kinda popped up with on everybody in the last few days. We’re just feeling so blessed to have welcomed our son home after four months in the NICU. And truly when I was thinking though, about people who I wanted to sit down with and talk to today, I kept thinking about you and your work and your writing.

So I’m really grateful. This is not just a regular interview. Um, but then we really get to dive into some of these meatier topics. 

Elizabeth Alexander: Yes, absolutely. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: So huge congratulations on the publication of your latest book, The Trayvon Generation. It obviously, I mean, at least for me, the book encapsulates just the courage and the lessons and the fears of an entire generation. Your children’s generation, really,

Where did this book come from for you? And who do you define as part of the Trayvon generation? 

Elizabeth Alexander: Oh, well, I define the Trayvon generation as being a generation of Black and Brown young people who grew up. I mean, we, you know, we call it Trayvon because I think that was a kind of pinnacle moment of our understanding the race-based vulnerability of our young people, uh, and the fact that the problem of the color line as Du Bois put it all those years ago is still with us. 

The problem of race at the center of America is still with us and our young people, uh, people in their teens, in their twenties, into their early thirties, grew up seeing violence, murder, killing of Black people repeated over and over again, mostly on their cell phones.

And I think that, you know, if you look back to Emmett till, and the way that, that image, because of the courage of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley to, you know, bring the body from Money, Mississippi, where he had been murdered to Chicago to put it in an open casket, to allow thousands of people to come to the church.

To then allow Jet magazine to publish a photograph of Emmett Till. He became emblematic because thousands and thousands and thousands of people could see it that way. But the multiplication of the cell phone and the fact that we sometimes look at our phones and our kids do outside of our presence, outside of family context. Countless times, do we know what that violence and it’s witnessing by people who are more vulnerable because of it. Do we know what that has done to them? 

My sons are 22 and 23. Now I work in philanthropy, but most of my career I’ve been a college professor. So, you know, those are my people, you know, young people of that age. So I think of my sons, I think of their friends. I think of students I’ve taught over the years and much more importantly from the anecdotal of who we know we are talking about an entire generation who. It’s not just Trayvon Martin, which they didn’t see on their cell phones, but which we heard about and the incredible tableau of, you know, a kid with a hoodie and some Skittles. 

Yeah. But it’s Tamir Rice. It’s all of these other murders. What occasion, this essay that went into this book was George Floyd’s murder. So I think that not only have they witnessed their peers getting killed, they’ve witnessed their elders and their loved ones getting killed.

And we’ve seen that over and over and over again. And how have the young people processed that.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham:  You know in my college years, my senior thesis was, gosh, this was, uh, 2006 at the time was, was about the contemporary relevance of Emmett Till. And I titled my thesis for that now famous quote, to your point, from his mother in explaining her decision to have that open casket funeral, to allow Gordon Parks to take that photo and to allow Jet to publish it.

She said, so the world can see what they’d done to my boy. 

Elizabeth Alexander: That’s right. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: And when I found out I was having a son, I thought of her. I thought of Sabrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, whom whom I’ve come to know personally and love so much. I thought of George Floyd calling out for his own mother. 

Elizabeth Alexander: That’s right.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: You have, as you’ve said, two sons, what has it been like really reckoning with the reality that you can talk about the Trayvon generation, but you are raising it in your own home. How has that shaped your parenting as a result.

Elizabeth Alexander: Well, you are, again, it’s just so poignant that you are beginning this journey. Uh, and when you think about all of the infinity of hopes and dreams that we have for our children, you know, and of course, you know, not just our sons, right?

And if you think also about the absolutely animal protection. Uh, you know, we are the ones who are supposed to keep these people alive. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Yeah. 

Elizabeth Alexander: We are the ones who are here to help them thrive. So I think that the balance is always, I mean, I think that being armed with knowledge and critical thinking is absolutely crucial.

So sometimes that means that, you know, perhaps at too young an age, you have to explain things to them so that they can keep themselves safe. Tamir Rice was 12. He was playing in the park. He was killed by the police in mere seconds. So, you know, we have to talk about that with our children. 

And I think that we also have to talk about it on a historical timeline, so they don’t think that it’s atomized or random, but that there is a history in this country of the dehumanization of Black people that we were brought to this country as chattel slaves, that we were designated three-fifths human. We were not designated human when we came to this country.

And I would argue that we haven’t altogether undone the effects of this dehumanization, because I think that you usually probably have to have some degree of dehumanization before you harm someone. 

At the same time, lifeforce, freedom, joy, bodily autonomy, power, strength, brilliance, you know, activism. These are the things that I want to nurture in my sons.

And so I think that that balance, you know, is, is what you’re always figuring. I mean, you know, I think that being what the elders call a race woman, which I proudly am, which I would call you as well. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Absolutely. 

Elizabeth Alexander: You know, that is, is a mighty mission. And, uh, being a scholar of African-American culture. I think there’s nothing on planet earth that’s more fascinating and rich and astonishing. So, you know, being called into Blackness for my work, for my mission. All good with that and happy to pass along that to my kids. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Certainly. 

Elizabeth Alexander: But this unresolved problem of race that we did not create as a problem in the first place. And so that’s what I say in the book as well.

It’s like, that’s not ours to fix. That’s not ours to fix. So, you know, I want our kids also to feel absolutely free in their minds and that, you know, as fascinating as Blackness is, there are many things to think about. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Yes. Well, I mean, I want to talk to you about this balance because when I Sit down at night and I pray my prayers I’m constantly asking God to just help me raise a free Black child. I just want to raise a free Black child. You’ve said that a mark of successful parenting for you is if your boys are dancing. And I absolutely love that. It just, it hit me so hard because that’s precisely what I want, um, our baby to feel right as he grows throughout his life.

However, he comes to know himself, identify himself, see himself. I want it always to be through a lens of beauty and humanity and joy. I just want to dig into the details a little bit, because how do you make sure that your boys are dancing? How do you create space for joy to not just exist, but to really resonate kind of through all corners of their life?

Elizabeth Alexander: Well, I think that, you know, the way that we have always lived in the day to day, which involves, you know, again, arming them with as much knowledge and history and self-awareness and societal understanding as we possibly can. But also with every day, a celebration.  You know, my mother would often say to me when I said like “Oh, this and that, and my worry.” She’d say “But they live in your house, don’t they? Do they not live in your house?”

And I think that’s very powerful. Do they live in your house? What happens in your house? And so in my house is music. In my house is art. In my house is amazing delicious food. In my house is celebration. In my house are elders. In my house are young people. In my house are play aunties and play uncles, you know. Village. So, I mean, I think one of the things I’m always trying to get to is this idea that, and I think that this is something that’s been well-practiced in Black culture.

The nuclear family alone is an insufficient unit and also the philosophy that would hoard the resources of a family and not understand it as something to be shared, even though there is tremendous intimacy and family is something that I think it’s really crucial to remember. I also think, and you know, to some of the offerings of the book, there is visual art woven throughout. I’m so happy to say really beautifully reproduced by mostly African-American artists. And that offering when you look at Elizabeth Catlett, The Torture of Mothers, and you see the head of a Black woman and in it is a bubble with a boy in a pool of blood and to think about like the fears that never leave.

And then when you look at, at Jordan Casteel’s “Galen”, a beautiful portrait of an African-American man who is a luminous green, and he’s a nude, but he’s not objectified. And he’s looking out in such a way that you wonder, like, who is that human being? What is inside of him? That is not stereotype.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: That’s right.

Elizabeth Alexander: You know, that is a complex being. So I really do think that that is an offering as well. The words of, of, of our poets, you know, I, you know, I argue that African-American poetry is a form of monument and memorial. You know, when our history hasn’t been kept everywhere, you know, it’s the poets who keep calling our names and saying, this is who walked the earth. As in the Lucille Clifton poems that I include in the book.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: I want to come back to kind of the picture that is painted throughout the book, but you speak of the village that we know we need to raise our children. I’m a village project. You are a village project. It is most certainly our village that has gotten us through 116 days in the NICU.

And that I know will get us through 116 months plus of, you know, being parents. But you have written really powerfully about the prospect of calling that village in, after the tragic loss of your husband. Right? And trying to maintain that sense of joy. I lost my father when I was 12, so my mother became a widow, as well.

She’s here with us right now being a part of that, that village. 

Elizabeth Alexander: Beautiful.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: What did the joy and the dancing and the village mean in the light of that really significant shift, obviously to your nuclear family. Um, but knowing there was so much more.

Elizabeth Alexander: Well, one of the things that I have found to be rich in such an ongoing way is that the people who might, my children were 11 and 12, when their father died, you know, out of the clear blue sky, seemingly and immediately.

And the fact that. Some of those people still, they will tell stories to my kids about their dad. You know, some of the stories that maybe I’ve never, if small encounters that that is ongoing and that I have said to those family friends, like, that’s your job, that’s your job till the end of time. And that when there are, you know, landmarks of graduations or coming of age, that, you know, our loved ones always bring their father into the room. 

One of the things that was very important to me when he passed is that I never wanted his name to be spoken in hushed tones. I wanted us always to be able to, you know, speak of him, to remember him. So sometimes it might mean that, you know, my kids would ask me a question and I would say like, that’s a daddy question.

Yeah. I was like, I don’t, I don’t know about that. It could be a sad moment, but also it wasn’t. It wasn’t a moment that was veiled with something else. Um, and I think, you know, we’re now getting ready. He was a painter and an amazing painter, and we’re getting ready to travel to Italy to see his work in the Venice Biennale.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Wow. That’s incredible. 

Elizabeth Alexander: And so it’s really remarkable. And so, you know, to see that, that he keeps spreading and other people are responding to his vision of the world. And that, that is something that belongs to my kids, um, is something that has continued, um, in village, as well. So, you know, it started with, you know, covered dishes at 5:30 every day when, you know, people just fed us. Just fed us for a long time. 

And that those folks also included my students. I was a professor at the time, that they were a part of the village. And I hope that something that my children will always remember. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: That is so beautiful. I appreciate you sharing that with us. I know that trip will be a really powerful one.

Elizabeth Alexander: Yes. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: You talk about this. Tapestry that is woven throughout the book, uh, through multiple mediums, through the poetry, through the art, through the pros and what’s woven so beautifully is how you speak about motherhood. Black motherhood. Um, so vividly, I want to read one passage. You write: Let’s be clear about what motherhood is: A being comes onto this earth and you are charged with keeping it alive. It dies if you do not tend it, it is as simple as that. Those words are, I, you know, powerful as they are chilling. Right? What, what reactions do you get from people who read the book? Are there moments that you have found when people encounter the work that have really stuck with you?

Elizabeth Alexander: Um, well, uh, you know, what’s been exciting is the book is it’s a, it’s a week old baby in the world. And already, I think about Mitchell Jackson’s really extraordinary review in The New York Times. And he’s a writer who I, I, I truly revere and all of the things that he saw in the book, you know, to feel like it’s starting to have its many conversations. And, um, indeed the one that you mentioned, and I had wanted actually just to read you a little bit around that, a paragraph on the other side, because I think that it is a central idea in the book.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Oh, absolutely. 

Elizabeth Alexander: I believed I could keep my sons alive by loving them. Believed in the magical powers of complete adoration and a love ethic that would permeate their lives. My love was armor when they were small. My love was armor when their father died of a heart attack. They think Black men only die when they get shot. My older son said in the aftermath. My love was armor when that same year our community’s block watch sent emails, warning residents, about two Black kids on bikes and praising neighbors who had called the police on them. My love for my children said, move. My love said follow your sons. When they ran into the dark streets of New York to join protesters after Eric Garner’s killer was acquitted.

When my sons were in high school and pictures of Philando Castile were on the front page of The Times I wanted to burn all the newspapers. So they would not see the gun coming in the window. The blood on Castile’s face. The terror in his partner’s face and the eyes of his witnessing baby girl. But I was too late, too late generationally because they were not looking at the newspaper.

They were looking at their phones where the image was a house of mirrors straight to hell. My love was both rational and fantastical. Can I protect my sons from being demonized? Can I keep them from moving free? But they must be able to move as free as the wind. If I listened to their fears, will I comfort them?

If I share my fears, will I frighten them? Will racism and fear disable them? If we ignore it, will it go away? Will dealing with race, fill their minds like stones and block them from thinking a million other things? 

So I read that, you know, and then, you know, go on from there to talk about thriving and being fully alive because you know, that is a mother’s mania, right? 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Yes.

Elizabeth Alexander: You know that. So, so to me in that place, I’m talking to myself. I’m talking to every mother ever. I’m trying to talk so that the children can’t hear it. Right? I’m trying to work it through. I’m trying to say all the things, so that I can work through to the light. And I do think that that is where also community and talking to each other is absolutely crucial. 

I don’t think there’s a thing that Black mothers have not been through on this Earth. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Amen to that. 

Elizabeth Alexander: You know? And then I go because literature is real life to me. So I think about Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the Sermon on the Mount where it’s like, you know, love thyself. You know, unloose thyself for yonde they do not love you. Love your hands. Love the dark, dark liver. They may not love you elsewhere. They may harm us elsewhere, but what is the clearing? What is the light that we can come into together and love ourselves and each other? And let that make us strong. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: And love ourselves and each other. And let that make us strong.

I mean, these are the things I feel like we have to tattoo across our hearts, right? To see in the mirror, in the moments when it feels too dark and to remind each other when we’re feeling not just lonely but alone. I think one of the interesting things you really pick up on in the book, both in your writing, but also the way that you’ve intentionally crafted it is you’re talking about the really the intergenerational responsibility of this work. 

You say there is no progress without generations working together. And there is no north star without vigorous creativity to imagine it for us and to mark where it lights the way. Talk to me about the role of creativity in that intergenerational conversation and relationship. What can art do to create these radical solutions as say?

Elizabeth Alexander: Well, I really think that the power of imagination, the power of visioning, the power of being able to say it may not be here this way in the, in the right now, but I can see it. So I think that’s a super power. I think that’s something that has always been present in all societies. There have always been people painting on caves and singing songs collectively.

And communities telling the story of themselves to each other through song and through image. That is forever and everywhere. I think it’s, it’s actually indelible and I think human beings need it. I also think that in the long Black freedom struggle, we have seen the power of creativity and the power of expression in so many of our leaders and our people.

You know, if you think about Dr. King and you know that repeated, I may not get there with you. I may not get there with you, but I can see. I can see. You know, when he says my eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, you see in him somewhere who is visioning, what has not yet come.

And visioning what he would not live to see, but visioning it so here to the creativity to figurative language, so that we can keep going there. And so I think there’s also a really important argument about, um, intergenerational and not just with living elders, but also, you know, elders who have become ancestors and, you know, understanding.

I mean, I think. You know, the older you get, you know, you, you want to say like, you know, you kids, you going to have to figure it out. And that’s why just that little snippet of, you know, when my kids went out into the street, I mean, they were whatever they were 15 and 16. You know, these big, tall hoodie wearing six-foot five, six foot, you know, I was terrified.

I thought, like, not tonight. But then I thought, well, I’m going with you and I’m going with you not because I can necessarily do anything to protect you, but because we believe this and because I will never leave your side. Right now it’s literally. It’ll have to be figurative because, you know, you grow up and out.

So after George Floyd was killed, they, you know, were with their friends in the middle of the pandemic, like shutting down the highway in New Haven. I, you know, I wasn’t there. I didn’t need to be there. Didn’t need to be in the highway. But the point is that that’s what solidarity is. And I think that’s what it also means to believe that there doesn’t have to be a generation gap.

You know, and that people who have done some living have some things to share. And for me as a teacher, I feel like, okay, I got all this poetry, I got all this art. And I also have the power of critical thinking. That is the legacy of African-American studies that says that you can love something. You can love your country and question it.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Yes, indeed. 

Elizabeth Alexander: You can talk about and analyze how it could be made more fair and more just. Those two things aren’t at odds. You know, I do stay hopeful even as we struggle and I do stay joyful even as, as we worry. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Before I let you go, I want to tap into some of that hope and that imagination. The last chapter of the book is called “There are Black People in the Future”, drawn, of course from that, um, Alisha Wormsley work. You meditate really on Black freedom on Black futurism on that hope on whatever that vision is. Talk to us about what it takes to imagine Blackness in the future. And, um, I’m really curious just what your vision is for us and your best hopes.

Elizabeth Alexander: Oh my goodness. Biggest question ever. Biggest question ever. You know, I think that artists and poets may not have answers, but they do have vision. And they do go deep inside themselves to do the hard work of bringing something back to us that is human, that is soul,  that is light. And that is what the substance of hope is.

I think also, you know, the book really is an exhortation to study, to study, to history, to critical thinking. And to finally in the case, you know, I talk about John Hope Franklin. That, you know, race is at the center of the American story. It always has been. And so I think that to understand that there is nothing at odds with Americanness in the racial conversation and to be empowered with that knowledge is to me, you know, I’m sort of describing a methodology that I think gives us the strength that we have to keep moving forward.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Elizabeth Alexander your words always cut right to the heart of the matter. I have so much to reflect on just from this quick conversation with you even more to reflect on as I visit and revisit and revisit The Trayvon Generation and much of your work. Thank you so much for spending time with us and thank you for how you help us paint a vision of the future.

Elizabeth Alexander: Thank you, Brittany. I really, really am honored and quite joyful to be here with you.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: Elizabeth Alexander is an essayist and a poet and her new book, The Trayvon Generation is out now. She’s also president of the Mellon Foundation.

Ooh, y’all. I aspire to give my child and everyone I encountered the kind of love Elizabeth spoke of. One both rational and fantastical. One that keeps him grounded and firm and steadfast, but that also lifts him to heights unknown, knowing that if he can imagine it, he can have it. He can be it. I came up working in education in a time when we’d often say you can’t be it if you can’t see it.  

We’d often tout that line to promote representation and teacher leadership and allowing kids of color to access career paths by seeing people who look like them and previously unattainable roles. And most certainly, someone is thinking they can be a judge because of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson or president because of VP  Kamala Harris.

But the more I think about it, the more I want to be clear with baby M that sometimes you gotta be at precisely because you can’t see it. And I pray that one day he writes a vision so clear and so profound, he amazes even himself. And then he goes out and grabs it. And that my friends is how we set ourselves free.

That’s it for today, but never for tomorrow.


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

 Treasure Brooks is our correspondent. 

Our lead producer is Rachel Ward. 

Our associate producers are Alexis Moore and Marialexa Kavenaugh. 

Thanks also to Hannis Brown, Raj Makhija, and Davy Sumner. 

 Our executive producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media. I promise it will not be all about changing diapers. And you can follow our amazing team @TheMeteor. 

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Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. Thanks for doing. I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.