Kwame Alexander's newest book, "Light For The World To See: A Thousand Words On Race And Hope," was published in November 2020.

Kwame Alexander's newest book, "Light For The World To See: A Thousand Words On Race And Hope," was published in November 2020.

Best known for his award-winning books for young readers, Kwame Alexander has released a book of poetry for adults.

Light For The World To See is a collection of three lyrical poems on the killing of George Floyd, the activism of Colin Kaepernick and the election of President Barack Obama.

The New York Times best-selling author and NPR poet-in-residence reads from his latest work, and explains how it helped him both grapple with the oppression of Black people in America and celebrate their triumphs.

Produced by Lauren Markoe



  • 12:32:18

    SASHA-ANN SIMONSI'm Sasha-Ann Simons, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Kwame Alexander is best known as an award-winning children's author and poet who brings the experiences of black kids to life. But his message is that poetry is for everyone, young and old, and, particularly, it's necessary in tough times.

  • 12:32:35

    SASHA-ANN SIMONSThe NPR poet-in-residence has just published "Light For the World to See," a collection of three poems that address the oppression of black Americans in history and today, and the enduring spirit that has allowed them to triumph despite systemic racism. He's here with us today to talk about his new book and how poems can serve, as he likes to say, as psalms and balms for the soul. Kwame Alexander, welcome to the program.

  • 12:33:01

    KWAME ALEXANDERHey, it's good to be here, Sasha.

  • 12:33:03

    SIMONSKwame, first of all, congratulations on "Light For the World to See," which is subtitled "A Thousand Words on Race and Hope. How're you feeling?

  • 12:33:12

    ALEXANDERThank you.

  • 12:33:15

    SIMONSFeeling good?

  • 12:33:16

    ALEXANDERI'm feeling great. Yeah, I'm feeling really -- I'm back in the States. I live in London, but I'm back in the States for a few weeks, so it's good to be here. It's good to be back, you know, I guess, at home.

  • 12:33:29

    SIMONSRight, right. Now, before we talk about the poems, you call the book an answer to a question that you've been struggling with this year. What was that question, and how does the book answer it?

  • 12:33:40

    ALEXANDERI guess the question was how to carry the weight of being black. It's a heavy burden, and not in the sense that, man, being black is hard. No. In the sense that people tend to think -- and generally, white people -- that, you know, blackness is somehow other or not human. And we get treated as such, as evidenced by, you know, these brutal police killings, and most recently Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.

  • 12:34:16

    ALEXANDERAnd so, in that kind of space, faced with that kind of negative traumatic energy, how do you remain hopeful? How do you keep the joy? How do you wake up your 12-year-old to go to school and make sure she leaves full of positivity and smiles and possibility? And, you know, that's where the writing came in, in terms of trying to answer that question.

  • 12:34:44

    SIMONSWell, you mention, you know, a 12-year-old, but your first experience with peaceful protests as a child, it was terrifying, and then powerful. Tell us what it was like, and what did it mean to find your voice?

  • 12:34:59

    ALEXANDERWell, I mean, I had been raised by two parents who were very much a part of the black power movement. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and I had been, you know -- my bookshelves were filled with books featuring characters that looked like me, books written by John Steptoe and Lucille Clifton and Nikki Giovanni. And there were posters on my wall of Toussaint Louverture and Booker T. Washington.

  • 12:35:28

    ALEXANDERAnd so, you know, I sort of grew up in this space where blackness was celebrated. I mean, I went to an independent school, private school, you know, full of beautiful black kids. And we had to memorize a poem, and I think it was something, like, "I am the black child. You brought me into this world about which I know nothing. You hold in my hand my destiny. You determine whether I shall succeed or fail. Give me, I beg you, a world where I can stand tall and proud." Like, I remember that...

  • 12:35:57


  • 12:35:57

    ALEXANDER...40-some years later.

  • 12:35:59

    SIMONSWow. That's incredible.

  • 12:35:59

    ALEXANDERYeah. So, that's the space I grew up in. And so, you know, at age 10 or 11, my dad tells me, we're not going to school today. You're going to march over the Brooklyn Bridge. And, all of a sudden, I come face-to-face with this, you know, sort of history of being prepared to be black and to be proud. But the reality of, I'm about to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge and be faced -- come face-to-face with police officers in riot gear with guns and on horses. And in worst case scenario, they're going to open up the Brooklyn Bridge and we're going to die. And that's what my 10-year-old self is saying.

  • 12:36:38

    ALEXANDERSo, I'm crying and I'm full of fear, and nothing has prepared me for that moment other than, you know, the fact that I'm being forced and dragged to this march by my parents. And it was the song, it was the poem, it was the chant that we sang on the other side of the bridge. We're fired up, we can't take no more. We're fired up, we can't take no more. It was that repetition, that rhythm, that refrain which ultimately made me feel a lot more comfortable and stable and gave me some confidence to lift my voice.

  • 12:37:11

    SIMONSLet's talk about this book, because you started off with a quote from the great American writer, Toni Morrison. She wrote, "This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no time for self pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal." Kwame, why did you preface your book with that quote?

  • 12:37:35

    ALEXANDERWell, again, I think that, for me, in June, sitting in my flat in London and not wanting to write and not feeling like words matter. Like, you mentioned at the top of the show that I write for kids. I write to inspire and hopefully, you know, entertain and engage young people through my words, but I couldn't find any words that comforted me, that inspired me. And I wondered, did words even matter? How were words going to stop a bullet or lift up in me?

  • 12:38:13

    ALEXANDERAnd so, I saw myself not writing. And a friend sent that quote to me by Toni Morrison, and it reminded me that, you know, when we are longing, or as the Portuguese say, (speaks foreign language), when we're feeling that, we read Pablo Neruda. When we're feeling sort of, you know, a connection with nature, we might read Mary Oliver. When we're in need of transformation of our hearts and minds, we turn to poetry.

  • 12:38:52

    ALEXANDERAnd I've done that throughout my life, and so perhaps this was a time where I needed to, you know, put that into action and listen to my own advice that I give kids, that poetry uplifts us. It fuels our imagination in an immediate way, and that through the listening or the reading of a poem about the woes of the world, we can be inspired to find the wonderful in ourselves. And so, I picked up a pen, and that was sort of the genesis of this book, in particular.

  • 12:39:21

    SIMONSSo, this book is three poems on race and racism, each of them touching on sort of a different event in history or in your life, the first one being "American Bullet Points." The second is "Take a Knee." The third is "The Undefeated." Now, you've offered, Kwame, to read from your new book and one of its three poems. You've chosen the first one, "American Bullet Points."

  • 12:39:42

    ALEXANDERSure. Yes, yes, yeah.

  • 12:39:43

    SIMONSSo, you wrote that one after the death of George Floyd, and I'm wondering if there's anything you want to tell us before you actually read it to us.

  • 12:39:53

    ALEXANDERYou know, I studied poetry with Nikki Giovanni. I studied playwriting with Charles Fuller. And one of the things, you know, I remember is that don't give any explanation. Just read it. Just share it. People don't want to hear an explanation. But I feel compelled -- you know, because you asked the question, and I just feel compelled to say that this was probably one of the hardest poems I've ever written, and it was one of the most necessary poems. And after writing this poem, I certainly felt a lot better, and I felt that I could breathe.

  • 12:40:35

    SIMONSWell, go ahead.

  • 12:40:35

    ALEXANDER"American Bullet Points." We can't see our home. We can't breathe the air. We can't break the chains. We can't run away. We can't speak our name. We can't keep our tongue. We can't learn to read. We can't sing a song. We can't be in love. We can't be a group. We can't shield our girls. We can't save our sons. We can't hold our own. We can't bend a knee. We can't take a stand. We can't save ourselves. We can't hold a gun. We can't stop that whip. We can't wear this skin. We can't hang ourselves.

  • 12:41:14

    ALEXANDERWe can't run. We can't stay. We can't fight. We can't last. We can't vote. We can't voice. We can't whistle. We can't breathe. We can't cross a bridge. We can't ride a bus. We can't be in church. We can't have a dream. We can't wear our skin. We can't wear a hood. We can't play our songs. We can't be ourselves. We can't be at home. We can't be alone. We can't be unarmed. We can't shoot ourselves. We can't hold a gun. We can't hold a toy. We can't hold a phone. We can't do a thing.

  • 12:41:42

    ALEXANDERWe can't drive a car. We can't walk the street. We can't ride a bike. We can't run away. We can't be a boy. We can't be a man. We can't be afraid. We can't break these chains. We can't walk. We can't run. We can't breathe. We can't live. We can't breathe. We can't live. But we will not die.

  • 12:42:02

    SIMONSThat's Kwame Alexander. He's a poet and a New York Times-bestselling author of more than 30 books, including the newly published "Light For the World to See: A Thousand Words on Race and Hope." Kwame, what's so special about this book -- other than, of course, the powerful words that you just shared with us -- is it's striking how, on the pages, each short sentence of this poem, you know, each bullet point, it represents a tragedy in which black people are hurt or killed.

  • 12:42:29

    SIMONS"We can't wear a hood." Of course, you're talking about Trayvon Martin wearing his hoodie, right. "We can't whistle" makes us think of Emmett Till. Why did you structure the poem that way and choose to write it like that?

  • 12:42:41

    ALEXANDERWell, you know, I was trying to have a conversation with my daughter, Sanaya, who was 11 at the time, and just talking to her about the history of brutality in this country and how the wound is very old. And, you know, we were talking about Ahmaud Arbery jogging through a neighborhood. And, like, you can't even jog?

  • 12:43:08

    ALEXANDERAnd I remember coming home from England and being in Virginia for a couple weeks and wanting to walk around my neighborhood, because I do a lot of walking in London, you know, Hyde Park, Regent's Park. It's a walking city. And so, being in Virginia, Northern Virginia, I left my house one morning just to go for a walk. And it's the first time in my entire life where I had a bit of anxiety. And I hadn't felt that before. You mean, I can't even walk in my neighborhood without feeling this?

  • 12:43:41

    ALEXANDERAnd so, it was looking at all the things that have threatened our lives as black Americans since we were kidnapped and unloaded on these shores, and wanting to talk about those things that have happened to us. And, at the same time, you know, sort of look at, you know, the reality, Sasha, that, in fact, we did do all of these things. So, I could easily have substituted the word can. We did read. We did learn to read. We did sing our songs. You know, we are in love. You know, we did take a stand. So, we did all these things. So, it was looking at the juxtaposition of being told from the outside that you can't do something, and, in fact, that we actually did it.

  • 12:44:28

    ALEXANDERAnd then, of course, the end of the piece, when I had first written it, Kevin Merida, who's the executive editor of, he read it. And he said, Kwame, you know, the last line, which was "but we can die," he said, Kwame, the reality is we're still here. And it made me remember a Langston Hughes about, you know, we're still here. And so, I changed it to, "but we will not die." So, it was sort of looking at that, you know, juxtaposition and that dichotomy of what we faced in America and not trying to be defined by America and defining ourselves for ourselves.

  • 12:45:11

    SIMONSAnd is it for a similar reason that you made it so visual, too? Because for those who haven't seen it, you know, each few sentences gets its own page, and sometimes you have the words sort of sitting in, you know, a bullseye of a target or next to a closed fist or surrounded by chains. And sometimes they slant and, you know, they look as if they're being printed on police tape. Why did you represent it so graphically?

  • 12:45:33

    ALEXANDERWell, thank you. I guess two answers to that. One, when I write, I try to make sure that the words on the page reflect how I'd like you to read it. And generally, I'm writing for kids, generally. And so, in those books, I want the words to jump off the page. I want the kids to feel the energy and the emotion. So, in this particular book, which is my first book in a long time for adults, I wanted to do the same thing.

  • 12:46:00

    ALEXANDERAnd the second answer is, I can't take credit for how visually stunning it is. Sindiso is a South African graphic designer and artist. And I gotta say, Sasha, he took these words and treated them almost like an ekphrasis, which is when you take a piece of art and you create another piece of art inspired by it. And he did that, and he did it in such a profound way.

  • 12:46:24

    SIMONSSo, let's talk about the second of the three poems in the book. It's called "Take a Knee," and it refers to NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during the national anthem to protest racism. I want to give our listeners a taste of it. The refrain here in this one is "Take. Take a moment. Take a picture. Take a man. Take a gun. Take a guess." The poem raises similar themes to the first poem that we talked about, Kwame, but in a different way. What were you trying to do with this one?

  • 12:46:56

    ALEXANDERYeah, I was visiting a school in Florida, and I had just -- this was 2016, and Colin Kaepernick had just taken a knee for maybe the second or third time. And I had read about it, and people were in an uproar, you know, and talking about how disrespectful it was. And I just thought, really? This silent protest, you know, this thing that is so sacred and solemn when we're praying, you know, this thing that football players do in huddles. You talking about taking a knee, and you're upset at this?

  • 12:47:36

    ALEXANDERMan, how would you feel, you know, if black people, you know, actually stood up and decided they weren't going to have this form of silent protest, that they were going to do something -- you know, you look at the juxtaposition of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, you know, and how people viewed them. And I just thought, I need to write something about how innocent and beautiful and necessary and cathartic and therapeutic and healing that this act is of taking a knee. And, you know, maybe people will change their opinion and their mind.

  • 12:48:16

    ALEXANDERI happen to believe that poetry has the capacity -- because of its immediacy, because of its conciseness, because of its figurative language, because, ultimately, its emotion -- it has the capacity to make us feel something. You want people to change their mind? Change their heart. You want people to change their behavior? Change their mind. And I believe that poetry can do that, and that’s where this poem came from.

  • 12:48:40

    SIMONSKwame, some people have actually compared your new poems to James Baldwin's "A Report From Occupied Territory." It's an article that he wrote back in 1966 in The Nation magazine to shine a light on the plight of black Americans. And he included detailed accounts of the police brutality that they were forced to endure back then. What do you think of that comparison?

  • 12:49:06

    ALEXANDER(laugh) My father laughs when he hears it. Oh, really? You're James Baldwin, now? I mean, to put a little light spin on it. But, I mean...

  • 12:49:13

    SIMONSIt's a great compliment.

  • 12:49:15

    ALEXANDER...yeah, it is. Here's what I'm thinking. James Baldwin, you know, told us that he was writing a report. He was writing a plea for the recognition of black people's humanity. He wanted people to see it, so that maybe they'd begin to treat us differently. I wasn't writing a plea.

  • 12:49:34

    ALEXANDERI was writing to my kid to say, that, look, Sanaya. When people say things to you that are perhaps racially insensitive, or when you are treated in a discriminatory way, or there are microaggressions against you, or when I get stopped by a police officer -- like I did when she was seven and she started crying -- these are things that are being -- hmm, how to say this. These are representative of how other people think and live, and they say more about them than they do about you.

  • 12:50:20

    ALEXANDERAnd you can't allow other people's sort of, you know, impressions, limited imaginations to determine your worth and your value. And so, this book was a reminder to my daughter. It was a reminder to black Americans that, yes, we have been through, you know, the tragedy, but we have triumphed. That black pain and struggle made us who we are, but they do not define who we will be. We will imagine what that looks like.

  • 12:50:50

    ALEXANDERThis book is also a wakeup call. It's a wakeup call to white Americans to know the truth, to fight against, you know, the proclivity to maintain the hierarchy, whether conscious or not. This is a wakeup call to say, look, if we truly want the world to be better, if we want to see things, you know, in a much more happier light, then we've got to acknowledge the unhappy. We've got to be aware of what went wrong.

  • 12:51:19

    SIMONSLet's jump to the phone lines. Jim is with us. He's calling from Sterling. Hi, Jim.

  • 12:51:25

    JIMHi. How you doing? Can you hear me?

  • 12:51:26

    SIMONSDoing well. Yes, we can. What's your question today?

  • 12:51:29

    JIMOkay. So, I'm an African, originally a Liberian, and who grew up partially in New York. And I've seen a lot of transitions from my time. At one time, the mention Africa, African-Americans would cringe. And today we see them decorating themselves with kente at graduations. So, we've been through a transition.

  • 12:51:51

    JIMBut what I see today -- and this is what my question is for the author -- what can he write to inspire children? Because children need heroes. Children need symbols that they can look up to, that they can aspire to. And I'm hearing a lot of young people today questioning affirmative action, questioning, are we really using our freedom we have today to the best advantage? So, what can you write, or what do you write to inspire children for greatness and to full realization of themselves?

  • 12:52:28

    SIMONSThank you, Jim. Kwame?

  • 12:52:31

    ALEXANDERYeah, I mean, look, Jim, if I'm doing my job, everything I write is doing that. I happen to believe that I can change the world one word at a time. It's how I was raised. It's a lofty, ambitious goal. But to be more specific, the most recent book for kids is a book called "Becoming Muhammad Ali," which I wrote with James Patterson.

  • 12:52:55

    ALEXANDERAnd one of the things that I learned from researching that book and one of the messages that we tried to convey in that book is the following: I am the greatest, not because I am better than anyone, but because no one is better than me. And if kids can grow up learning and believing that, oh, what a better world, what a great world they can encounter and occupy.

  • 12:53:16

    SIMONSYou brought another poem to read to us today. It's not one that you wrote, but it's by Langston Hughes. He wrote "Life is Fine in 1949." Do you want to read it to us?

  • 12:53:26

    ALEXANDERSure. Yeah, somebody asked me, how can I be so optimistic in the midst of all this pandemic, this virus, this racism? And I tell them, you know, this poem is my answer.

  • 12:53:38


  • 12:53:38

    ALEXANDERI went down to the river, I sat down on the bank. I tried to think, but couldn't, so I jumped in and sank. I came up once and hollered, I came up twice and cried. If that water hadn't been so cold, I might've sunk and died. But it was, Sasha, cold in that water. It was cold.

  • 12:53:56

    ALEXANDERI took the elevator 16 floors above the ground. I thought about my baby and I thought I would jump down. I stood there and I hollered, I stood there, and I cried. If it hadn't been so high, I might've jumped and died. But it was, Jim, high up there. It was high. So, since I'm still here living, I guess I will live on. I could've died for love, but for living I was born. Though you may hear me holler and you may see me cry, I'll be dogged, sweet baby, if you gonna see me die, 'cause life is fine, y'all, fine as wine. Life is fine.

  • 12:54:29

    SIMONSJust about a minute to go. I want to talk very briefly about the third and final poem in your book, Kwame. It's called "The Undefeated." In a few words it says, this is for the unafraid, the audacious ones who carried the red, the white and wary blues on a battlefield to save an imperfect union. The righteous marching ones who sang, "We Shall Not Be Moved," because black lives matter. Tell us briefly what inspired you to write this one. And who should think of themselves as the undefeated?

  • 12:54:55

    ALEXANDERWe all should. I mean, it comes from a Maya Angelou quote, "Though we may face defeat, we must never be defeated." And, you know, I wrote this poem in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected and my second daughter was born. And I wanted to give her a history lesson on how we got to this point where a black man was elected president.

  • 12:55:22

    ALEXANDERAnd, you know, why is it the final poem in this book is because I knew that I was going to write a book that ultimately was going to be dark and depressing and sad and frustrating and angry. And it was necessary, because that's the reality of much of our existence here in this country. But there's also a joy and a beauty and a hope and some love, and I needed to show that. I needed to show that. And this poem is sort of, you know, the triumph, is the wonder, is the wonderful that I want to make sure my kid and your kids and all of us see so that we can be better.

  • 12:56:07

    SIMONSKwame Alexander is a poet and the New York Times-bestselling author of "Light For the World to See: A Thousand Words on Race and Hope." Kwame, thank you so much. This segment was produced by Lauren Markoe, and our conversation about pandemic toys by Kurt Gardinier. We'll see you tomorrow on The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

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