Elizabeth Alexander, whose memoir was a finalist in 2016 for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award and who wrote and recited an original poem at Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural, will be the next president of theAndrew W. Mellon Foundation, the country’s largest humanities philanthropy.
“All of the things that I’ve cared about my whole life and worked toward my whole life Mellon does,” said Ms. Alexander in a telephone interview, citing areas like higher education and scholarship, arts and cultural heritage, and diversity.
She added that “arts and humanities are not the most protected entities right now.”
Ms. Alexander succeeds Earl Lewis, who has served since 2013. She will start in March, becoming the foundation’s first female president.
“She has deep experience in cultivating partnerships that extend and amplify creative vision,” Danielle Allen, the foundation’s chairwoman, said in a statement, adding that Ms. Alexander “brings an artist’s forward-looking energy to institutional purpose.”
Ms. Alexander, who has written six books of poetry and two essay collections, was most recently a humanities professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Before that, she served as the director of creativity and free expression at the Ford Foundation, where she helped design Agnes Gund’s $100 million Art for Justice Fund.
“This appointment is a milestone in the history of American philanthropy,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation. “It’s the combination of being both rooted in the arts and grounded in the humanities and understanding philanthropy that is going to make her a success.”
Ms. Alexander has also worked closely with the Poetry Center at Smith College; the nonprofit Cave Canem, which trains aspiring poets; and Yale University, where she spent 15 years on the faculty and helped rebuild the African-American Studies department.
It is no secret that “African-American women are the largest group of readers in the country,” states Dawn Davis, head of Simon & Schuster’s 37 Ink imprint. It is also no secret that the publishing world is very, very white, with books by black authors published at an abysmal low, never rising above 10 percent of the industry’s output. Indeed, a recent survey by Lee & Low publishers found that “just under 80 percent of publishing staff and review journal staff are white,” with “Black/African Americans [at] 3.5 percent.”
But even with such conditions, key figures such as Chris Jackson, Dawn Davis and others have shepherded books by black authors through their fellow gatekeepers and to the public. Other organizations, like Cave Canem, the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and the African Poetry Book Fund, support black literature by offering writing retreats, workshops and small-press publishing opportunities. Here are some of the wonderful titles by black authors that readers of all tastes can look forward to in 2016.
In fiction, Darryl Pinckney offers Black Deutschland, the story of a gay African-American man who escapes his troubles in Chicago to seek refuge in 1980s Germany. The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, from playwright and TV writer Kia Corthron, is an ambitious, brilliantly executed tale of race and family across generations. There is also the latest installment of Rachel Howzell Hall’s Los Angeles-based Elouise Norton mystery thriller series, Trail of Echoes,which comes out in May.
Literary legend Terry McMillan publishes a new book in June titled I Almost Forgot About You, the story of Dr. Georgia Young, who one day decides that there’s more to life than what she has been doing—and decides to go find it. There is also The Underground Railroad, a novel from acclaimed author Colson Whitehead, which will be published in September. And in April, Diane McKinney-Whetstoneis giving us Lazaretto, her fictional account of race, lies and murder that rock the close-knit community of the island-based Lazaretto quarantine hospital. In May, from Afro-Caribbean British writer Yvette Edwards, comes the riveting novel The Mother, which explores how one mother copes with the murder of her son—and the courtroom drama of the trial that follows.
Six strong fiction debuts from black American women are a high point of 2016. In June, Los Angeles-based writer Natashia Deon gives us Grace, a tale of the love between a mother and daughter set against American slavery and emancipation. Desiree Cooper’s Know the Mother, out in March, explores race and motherhood in a series of interconnected vignettes. Jamaican-American writer Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn crafts a tale of unforgettable Jamaican women fighting for selfhood and independence in Here Comes the Sun, due out in July.
Cole Lavalais pens a tale of love, redemption and self-discovery on the campus of a historically black college in Summer of the Cicadasdue in the spring. In We Love You, Charlie Freeman, out next month, Kaitlyn Greenidge has created an absurdist social commentary on race in the form of an African-American family paid to adopt a chimpanzee as a member of their family and be observed by a scientific research institute during the process. And Fabienne Josaphat’s novel, Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow, is the riveting tale of a man trying to save his brother from unjust imprisonment during the brutal regime of Haitian dictator François Duvalier in 1965.
Nonfiction is equally strong. Memoirs from literary powerhouses Roxane Gay and Kiese Laymon, both meditating on blackness and the body, arrive in June. In Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Gay discusses her relationship with food, body image and self-care, a memoir couched in her usual honesty, vulnerability and depth of observation that have endeared her to so many readers. Laymon’s memoir, titled Stank: A Fat Black Memoir, is replete with his trademark wit and astute analysis. Out now is All Jokes Aside, a memoir by Raymond Lambert and Chris Bournea, which explores the rise of the African-American comedy scene centered at Lambert’s club.