A Poem for Nelson Mandela



Here where I live it is Sunday.
From my room I hear black
children playing between houses
and the El at a Sabbath rattle.
I smell barbecue from every direction
and hear black hands tolling church bells,
hear wind hissing through elm trees
through dry grasses
On a rooftop of a prison
in South Africa Nelson Mandela
tends garden and has a birthday,
as my Jamaican grandfather in Harlem, New York
raises tomatoes and turns ninety-one.
I have taken touch for granted: my grandfather’s hands,
his shoulders, his pajamas which smell of vitamin pills.
I have taken a lover’s touch for granted,
recall my lover’s touch from this morning
as Mandela’s wife pulls memories through years
and years
my life is black and filled with fortune.
Nelson Mandela is with me because I believe
in symbols; symbols bear power; symbols demand
power; and that is how a nation
follows a man who leads from prison
and cannot speak to them. Nelson Mandela
is with me because I am a black girl
who honors her elders, who loves
her grandfather, who is a black daughter
as Mandela’s daughters are black
daughters. This is Philadelphia
and I see this Sunday clean.


Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, essayist, playwright, and teacher. She has published six books of poems: The Venus Hottentot (1990), Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), American Sublime (2005)—which was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and was one of the American Library Association’s “Notable Books of the Year,” Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color—her first young adult collection, co-authored with Marilyn Nelson (2008 Connecticut Book Award), and her most recent book Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (2010 Paterson Prize for Poetry). Her two collections of essays are The Black Interior (2004) and Power and Possibility (2007), and her play, “Diva Studies,” was produced at the Yale School of Drama. She has also composed words for musical projects with composers Elena Ruehr and Lewis Spratlan.

In 2009, she composed and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” for the first inauguration of President Barack Obama. The poem was later adapted into a children’s book with illustrations by Caldecott Medalist David Diaz and released in March 2012. Her poems are included in dozens of collections and have been translated into several languages including Spanish, German, Italian, Arabic and Bengali.

Professor Alexander is one of the first recipients of the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.” She is the 2007 recipient of the first Jackson Prize for Poetry, awarded by Poets and Writers. Most recently, she was named an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner for her lifetime achievement in poetry. She is the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of African American Studies and the chair of the African American Studies Department.