19 pages 38 minutes read

Elizabeth Alexander


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1990

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Summary and Study Guide


“Nineteen” was first published in 1990 in The Venus Hottentot, Elizabeth Alexander’s debut poetry collection. The unrhymed contemporary narrative poem consists of three stanzas, each roughly comprising eight lines. In the poem, the unnamed speaker persona reflects on a love affair experienced by her younger 19-year-old self. Through the prism of the recounted affair, the poet examines important themes of growing up, power and sex, Black identity, and the effects of trauma. An early example of Alexander’s work, the poem carries her distinct signature of regular structure and the use of dramatic persona. Alexander’s poetic style roughly corresponds to Postmodernism in that it is unconstrained by subject and form; however, it is not self-consciously literary. The poet uses vivid, succinct, and informal language to capture a significant moment in time.

Poet Biography

Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem, New York (1962) but raised in Washington DC. Her father Clifford Alexander Jr. is a former United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman, while her mother Adele Logan Alexander was a professor of African American women's history at George Washington University. Alexander grew up in a politically aware household and has said in an interview that politics was in the “drinking water” of her home.

After graduating from Yale University, Alexander studied poetry at Boston University with the poet Derek Walcott, an experience that molded her as a poet. She went on to receive her PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania and launch her academic career while continuing to write poetry. Her first collection of poems The Venus Hottentot was published in 1990 to much acclaim, its title poem a searing study of the life of Sarah Baartman, a 19th-century Khoekhoe South African woman exhibited in carnival sideshows by white Europeans. The collection established Alexander’s key poetic themes of race, Black history and culture, gender, and power. The Venus Hottentot was followed by Body of Life in 1996 and Antebellum Dream Book in 2000. In 1997, Alexander became a founding member of Cave Canem, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting Black poetry and poets. Her fourth book of poetry American Sublime (2005) was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2005, Alexander became the first recipient of the Jackson Poetry Prize. Apart from poetry, Alexander also writes plays and essays. In 2020, her essay “The Trayvon Generation” went viral and was expanded into an eponymous book.

Alexander’s career as a writer has moved in step with her academic and social work. She teaches African American studies along with English and actively champions funding for the arts, culture, and humanities. Apart from her work with Cave Canem, she has served as the Chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale University and is the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a body that promotes the arts. One of America’s most public poets, Barack Obama chose Alexander to compose and read a poem for his presidential inauguration in 2009, becoming only the fourth poet to make such an appearance in American history. Alexander is considered a central figure in contemporary American poetry in general, and the Black American poetic tradition in particular. She was married to Eritrean American artist Ficre Ghebreyesus until his death in 2012. Alexander wrote the memoir The Light of the World (2015) in his memory. She lives in New York with her two sons.

Poem Text

Alexander, Elizabeth. “Nineteen.” 2004. Graywolf Press.


The first-person speaker recounts a summer in Culpeper, Virginia, many years ago, when all the food she ate was white, such as cauliflower, white sauce, fish, and vanilla ice cream. It is implied she was visiting the campgrounds that summer. The man she had a secret affair with was possibly a staffer, much older than her 19 years. He did not tell her he was married. She hung out with his friends, who treated her like a baby. She drank rum and coke, considered a more childish cocktail, while the men smoked marijuana they stole from campervans parked in the grounds. The speaker would go to the field with her lover at night, never sleeping. They stayed in an empty camper or in the open field. The speaker would return to the city every fortnight to do her laundry.

It was the speaker’s first summer away from home. She remembers her lover was bearded and had black eyes. He told her women loved his hair, and this confession made the speaker smile “like a fool” (Line 12). To the speaker, it seemed the lover knew everything about how to choose and prepare marijuana for smoking. He said he learned it all in Vietnam. On one of the days he was not working, he brought his son to visit the speaker. Though the speaker can’t picture the child’s mother, she remembers her lover asked her if he could “steal” (Line 17) a kiss from her the first night they went out in the fields.

The speaker would ask her lover endlessly about his experience in the Vietnam War, the scars he bore, and the countryside in Vietnam. The lover would evade her questions, saying they passed time in Vietnam by listening to Marvin Gaye’s music. He would then make love to the speaker. Before the morning she would return to her bed in her room. She would eat white food again. All this happened at a time in her life before she learned that nothing is ruined in one go; it takes several blows to create that effect. One night, a sudden shower came on. The speaker and the lover were in a van, and he shot up straight. He said the sound of the rain on the roof of the van sounded just like the rain did on “the roofs there” (Line 25), meaning Vietnam.