18 pages 36 minutes read

Elizabeth Alexander


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1992

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Summary and Study Guide


The prominent poet and Pulitzer-prize finalist Elizabeth Alexander initially published “Apollo” (1992) in Poetry; the poem also featured in The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2022 (2002). Critics consistently laud Alexander’s poetry for its rich use of culture, allusion, and historical characters and references. “Apollo” is no exception, written in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and during the Apollo 11 mission to space. Alexander, who often writes about the experiences of people of color in America, is not afraid to take on challenging topics surrounding race, gender, and politics.

“Apollo” is a unique addition to Alexander’s poetry oeuvre as it’s told through the perspective of a child in the present tense. Alexander, who was about seven when the Apollo 11 mission occurred, may have written the poem from her own memory. Regardless, the child’s point of view offers an honest, stark, and heartbreaking perspective on race and discrimination in 1960s America.

Poet Biography

Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem, New York in 1962. The daughter of Clifford Alexander Jr., a former United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chairman, Alexander grew up in Washington, D.C. Alexander holds high academic honors, including degrees from Yale, Boston University, and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

As a writer, poet, educator, and a scholar, Alexander has a well-rounded body of work. She published her first collection of poetry, The Venus Hottentot, in 1990. Highly praised, the poems explore the minds and feelings of historical Black figures. Alexander’s second collection of poetry, Body of Life (1996), serves as an extension of her first; reviewers note that the poems in Alexander’s first two collections blend “personal and family experience with larger historical explorations” (“Elizabeth Alexander.” The Poetry Foundation). Alexander is fond of allusion, drawing on historical figures and events, other art forms (like painting and sculpture), and even popular figures (like the boxer Muhammad Ali). Her third collection, Antebellum Dream Book (2001), is no exception.

Writing on a variety of topics, themes, and subjects (such as race, politics, gender, and history), Alexander’s poems and writings are far reaching and have been published in countless prestigious journals, like the Paris Review and the Kenyon Review. She has received many awards, including serving as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and as the inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University. An important voice for African American poetry, Alexander won the Jackson Poetry Prize in 2005. Her collection of poetry, American Sublime (2005), was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.

More than a poet, Alexander’s voice is also prominent in African American literary criticism and as a nonfiction writer. Her collection of essays, The Black Interior (2003), has been highly praised; her autobiography The Light of the World (2015) was nominated for a National Book Critics Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Perhaps most notably, Alexander composed and read her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at Barack Obama’s Presidential inauguration. Alexander was the fourth poet ever asked to read at a presidential inauguration, one of the largest honors of her career. She teaches at Yale University in the African American Studies Department.

Poem Text

Alexander, Elizabeth. “Apollo.” 1992. The Poetry Foundation.


Elizabeth Alexander’s “Apollo” examines a particular historical moment in American history, the 1969 lunar landing and moonwalk, while also commenting on racial discrimination during that period. Alexander, who was born during the Civil Rights Movement and was seven at the time of the Apollo 11 mission, grew up in a country facing dramatic change and challenges. Several iconic civil rights laws were passed in the mid-to-late 1960s, sending America into a new era of equality and freedom. As a person of color living through this sometimes tumultuous and changing period of American history, Alexander recalls and depicts specific feelings—as she has in “Apollo” through the voice of a young child traveling through an unknown area of Massachusetts with their family. Alexander, however, asserts that race and the color of one’s skin should not determine how one is treated, as is made clear with the overshadowing of the lunar landing, the moonwalk, and the strangeness of humans walking in space.

The final stanzas draw on questions of race and discrimination. Up until this point, the family is like any other family (the color of their skin is not known or important). However, by defining the family’s race in the sixth stanza (“we are a black / family” [Lines 21-22]), Alexander expands the poem to be about much more than a family stopping to watch an iconic national moment. The poem makes the case for a country and its people coming together, despite their differences (the colors of their skin), to watch an unbelievable, world-changing feat. However, the poem still acknowledges the unfair challenges this family faces in late-1960s America.

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