Elizabeth Alexander on the "Urgent and Sacred Mission" of Saving Black History Sites
As president of the Mellon Foundation, Elizabeth Alexander says she seeks to achieve “justice—not only in the arts, culture, and humanities today, but also in our collective future.” The Pulitzer Prize–nominated poet, author, and scholar—whose latest book, The Trayvon Generation, was published in April by Grand Central Publishing—also serves as a key advisor to the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. On the occasion of the Action Fund’s fifth anniversary, Alexander shared her thoughts on the fund and its impact.
How did you become involved with the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund?
I have been involved with the Action Fund since the beginning. When the fund was born in 2017, I was serving as the director of creativity and free expression at the Ford Foundation and, with Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, stewarded the initial core support provided by Ford.
When I took on the role of president of the Mellon Foundation the following year, I brought with me my commitment and belief in the work that Brent Leggs [executive director of the Action Fund and senior vice president at the National Trust] and the Action Fund are undertaking. For a few years, I served as the co-chair of the Action Fund Advisory Council—a group of scholars, artists, government officials, and preservationists who helped inform the focus and reach of the fund. Since then, Mellon has continued to provide significant support to the Action Fund, which under Brent Leggs’ leadership is charged with the urgent and sacred mission of saving Black sites and preserving the stories so integrally bound into the fabric of our country.
What do you feel have been the Action Fund’s most significant accomplishments so far?
The creation of the Action Fund and the work that has been done over the past five years have created real momentum within the Black preservation movement. This is clear from the overwhelming number of applicants to the fund within its first two years—$140 million in requests for more than 1,200 preservation projects in approximately 45 states. This work also has pushed for a more diverse set of stakeholders at particular sites, including descendant communities.
Why was the Action Fund’s creation important for historic preservation in the United States, especially now?
At this moment in our nation’s history, we’re experiencing dismissal and denial of truthful reflections of our shared history. Part of that shared history comes from our environment—from big monuments and memorials to small artists’ homes—and there are so many more opportunities to expand our understanding of who we are through these means.
In an age of book banning and book burning, and of teaching inaccurate history in our schools, the ways in which we learn from the built environment and in our public spaces are increasingly important.
We’ve been able to do so much virtually since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this public health emergency and the requisite need to isolate from each other in its initial phase underscored for me the necessity and the nourishment that comes from being and learning in place.
The importance of the Action Fund cannot be overstated because it is preserving and uplifting the stories and the histories not previously considered worth saving by the United States historic preservation profession. Well worth preserving are places like the homes of Black artists, churches, burial grounds, community centers, and hubs for the fight for freedom and civil rights.
Important to U.S. history are James Weldon Johnson, who wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and his writing cabin in Great Barrington, Massachusetts; John and Alice Coltrane, who lived and loved in their home in Dix Hills, New York, and where John wrote “A Love Supreme”; W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote The Souls of Black Folk in Morris Brown College’s Fountain Hall in Atlanta; the luminary Lucille Clifton and her home in Baltimore; and the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama, where civil rights marchers—including the late Rep. John Lewis—met before they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on that painful day known as “Bloody Sunday.”
What has been long contested but has been long proven is that African American history is American history—and the Action Fund is enacting that truth in the U.S. historic preservation profession.
Your latest book, The Trayvon Generation, came out this spring. How do the themes you explore in it relate to your work as president of the Mellon Foundation and as a signature partner to the Action Fund?
My work at Mellon and the incredible, sharp people who make up our organization informed my writing in The Trayvon Generation, and writing The Trayvon Generation has been generative to my leadership at Mellon.
In the book, I write to and about the young people who grew up watching their peers—and those in their parents’ generation—getting gunned down, beaten down, and terrorized, all on their phones and on the news. The book situates the more recent violence we have witnessed in the longer continuum of unremitting racial violence, which is one of the biggest fundamental, unresolved questions of “America.” It also explores the ways—through art, culture, and the humanities—that we confront and process these challenges, and the ways we create joy and live in community in defiance of these challenges.
I write about sites of commemoration from monuments to roadside memorials, like the memorial to Sandra Bland in Prairie View, Texas; I examine the story of John Hope Franklin’s lesser-known but equally important textbook Land of the Free, which centers the contributions of African Americans in American history; I meditate on and celebrate our great Black poets, artists, scholars, and activists; and I evangelize the power of the arts and humanities to reveal the problems, hopes, and possibilities of America.Bearing witness to history itself; the stories and names otherwise lost, distorted, or minimized; uplifting the critical tools of African American Studies and the understanding that race is a social category and not a biological fact and that racism is best understood systematically rather than instance by instance, my conviction that we are at peril if we do not learn and teach our history in truth—these are lifelong first principles that I bring both to my writing and my work at Mellon. And I see the Action Fund as carrying a similar set of commitments.
How does your work at the Mellon Foundation align with your vision for the Action Fund?
What we seek to achieve in our work at Mellon is justice—not only in the arts, culture, and humanities today, but also in our collective future. What are the stories and the histories—and the public spaces that have shaped and continue to celebrate them—that we want future generations to know and to understand? Why is it important that future generations know and understand them? These are the kinds of questions essential to our own grantmaking and operational processes at Mellon, as well to the broader justice work that entities like the Action Fund are undertaking throughout the United States.
For us at Mellon specifically, key parts of that justice work include not only illuminating and lifting up stories and histories that have too often been under-recognized, but also preserving the sites and sources of those stories and histories.
That mission of justice work also ensures strong strategic alignment across our program areas—funding under the auspices of our Arts and Culture program can amplify under-recognized stories at the same time that our Public Knowledge grantmaking can strengthen the community archives that are home to some of them. Our grantmaking in Higher Learning can support the faculty and students who are undertaking research and teaching in this sphere, at the same time that our Humanities in Place program area can ensure preservation of key historic and story-telling sites, like those that are part of the Action Fund, that otherwise might be lost.
What do you think are the most crucial steps to saving more African American historic sites?
I think one of the most crucial steps is building a diverse field of preservationists. It is also critically important that we chart a clearer path for African American Studies students to engage in cultural preservation and public history work.
How did you first become interested in history? Was there any particular place or experience that sparked that interest for you?
When I was a child growing up in Washington, D.C., the only Black person I saw in a monument or memorial was a figure at the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park. He’s an unnamed, barely clothed Black man kneeling at the feet of Abraham Lincoln. Even though he and Lincoln are marking the moment of emancipation, the statue of the Black man is subservient, as he’s being freed.
But when I was a teenager in the 1970s, a new statue was added to this park—one of Mary McLeod Bethune, the African American educator and civil rights activist. Statues of Black children representing the many whom she taught and who were liberated through education also were added and look as though they are playing freely around her.
Crucially, the National Park Service turned the Lincoln statue to face the statue of Mary McLeod Bethune. And so now, when I visit Lincoln Park, I see a conversation. I see the simultaneity of history. I see leadership and its manifestations in different forms engaging with each other—and with possibility.
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