Elizabeth Alexander on Art and Delayed Comprehension

Ekalan Hou

At first Elizabeth Alexander ’84 didn’t see the small, brown-skinned servant in the portrait of Elihu Yale that hung in the Corporation Room at Yale, where she attended meetings as a professor and department chair. But later—and in a different context—when she noticed what the painting, titled Elihu Yale with His Servant, depicted, she was unable to look away from the “diminutive” figure—who had a metal collar around his neck and wore Indian or South Asian attire—at the foot of the University’s founder and namesake. She recalled, too, that as a Yale undergraduate, she had dined under another painting, Elihu Yale with Members of His Family and an Enslaved Child, in the dining hall at Berkeley College. These portraits made Alexander question her position within an institution that normalized white supremacy and wealth built on both the slave trade and the East India Company.

Alexander, currently president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, shared these recollections while discussing her new book, The Trayvon Generation, with artists Jordan Casteel ’14 M.F.A. and Glenn Ligon at the Yale Center for British Art on September 23—now available for viewing online.

A throughline of the conversation was “the shock of delayed comprehension,” a phrase Alexander takes from the Adrienne Su poem “Personal History.” For Alexander, this phrase captures the experience of focusing on the enslaved boy next to Elihu Yale, decades after she must have regularly viewed the painting in Berkeley College. The Trayvon Generation encourages a shift in focus, asking us, for instance, to center the enslaved boy instead of Elihu Yale. “Perhaps one of the biggest arguments of the book is that those who history has forgotten or mischaracterized have been keeping and making records all along.”

The three panelists look to their memories to recontextualize their own historical narratives. Casteel spoke of the fluidity of time and space, a view that allows her to recognize the misalignment between what she knows, what is perceived as truth, and what is represented. Ligon discussed versions of his 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ protest sign “I AM A MAN.” He originally painted the sign in oil on canvas as Untitled in 1988; Ligon returned to the painting in 2000 with Condition Report to draw attention to shifting ideas of masculinity and evolving views of the Civil Rights Movement over time. Alexander reanimates Ligon’s painting as she juxtaposes it with Clint Smith’s “Your National Anthem”: “you will not always / be a black boy but one day you may be a black man.”

The discussion made visible how for Alexander, Ligon, and Casteel their creative work forces them to engage in acts of remembering to seek traces of the obscured and unperceived.

Ekalan Hou is a Ph.D. student in the History of Art interested in art of the Asian diaspora, vernacular photography, and American vaudeville.