The Trayvon Generation


By Elizabeth Alexander

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From a Pulitzer Prize finalist and New York Times bestselling author and poet comes a galvanizing meditation on the power of art and culture to illuminate America's unresolved problem with race.

*Named a Most Anticipated Title of 2022 by TIME magazine, New York Times, Bustle, and more*

In the midst of civil unrest in the summer of 2020 and following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, Elizabeth Alexander—one of the great literary voices of our time—turned a mother's eye to her sons’ and students’ generation and wrote a celebrated and moving reflection on the challenges facing young Black America. Originally published in the New Yorker, the essay incisively and lovingly observed the experiences, attitudes, and cultural expressions of what she referred to as the Trayvon Generation, who even as children could not be shielded from the brutality that has affected the lives of so many Black people. 

The Trayvon Generation expands the viral essay that spoke so resonantly to the persistence of race as an ongoing issue at the center of the American experience. Alexander looks both to our past and our future with profound insight, brilliant analysis, and mighty heart, interweaving her voice with groundbreaking works of art by some of our most extraordinary artists. At this crucial time in American history when we reckon with who we are as a nation and how we move forward, Alexander's lyrical prose gives us perspective informed by historical understanding, her lifelong devotion to education, and an intimate grasp of the visioning power of art.
This breathtaking  book is essential reading and an expression of both the tragedies and hopes for the young people of this era that is sure to be embraced by those who are leading the movement for change and anyone rising to meet the moment. 


Jennifer Packer
Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!), 2020


Lorna Simpson
Thin Bands (detail), 2019

“what will be the sacred words?”

The problem of the twenty-first century remains the color line. Yes, we are mired in overlapping societal struggles and challenges. But white supremacy and its many manifestations—some of them sly and cloaked, some of them clear as a Confederate flag flown by marauders in the US Capitol—has been a fundamental problem for every generation in this country since Black people first came to this land. W. E. B. Du Bois’s “How does it feel to be a problem?” is still the question implicitly and explicitly directed at Black people. The race work of the generations of my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my parents, and myself is the work of our children’s generation. I don’t wring my hands that “we didn’t fix it”; clearly it is unfixable by us alone. White supremacy is not the creation of Black people. I both lament and am enraged that this work is undone, and that our young people still have it to wrestle with.

Racial ideologies are insidious. They instruct in intricate, ambient teaching systems. The country is their classroom and everyone is in school, whether they choose to be or not.

Thus the color line is a fundamental, formative, constitutive American problem.

I was raised in troves of blackness: born in a Black metropolis, Harlem USA; reared in Chocolate City, Washington, D.C., which, in my childhood, was nearly three-quarters Black.1 From my family, I was given a sense of pride in our people and history, the need to understand myself as part of a larger whole and to be as helpful as I could to others, the familiar imperative to work “twice as hard,” and the responsibility to speak up when injustice was done.

When I found my professional path, it was as an educator, a scholar of Black culture, and an organizer of words, mostly poems. I wrote and thought and taught about the importance of witnessing; about the crucial functions of storytelling and history; about how the specter of violence hangs as constantly as the moon over Black people. I found knowledge and guidance in words, and possibilities in music, dance, and art, where I could go outside of words and access feeling and deep knowing. In Black history and culture, I encountered the full range of human experience, conundrum, perseverance, beauty, foible, and particularity. Here everything could be understood and I evangelized in my teaching and writing about this wellspring.

I believed that representation mattered, and that if more of “us” occupied spaces where justice-minded decisions could be made, power shared, and examples set, “the race” could move forward and, with that, all of society would strengthen itself and mend the corrosion of ignorance and racism.

Here is the thorny truth: while many sectors of society are now more integrated, violence and fear are unabated, and the war against Black people feels as if it is gearing up for another epic round.

This poem by Clint Smith gets to the perennialness and sorrow of race in America:

Your National Anthem

Today, a black man who was once a black boy

like you got down on one of his knees & laid

his helmet on the grass as this country sang

its ode to the promise it never kept

& the woman in the grocery store line in front

of us is on the phone & she is telling someone

on the other line that this black man who was

once a black boy like you should be grateful

we live in a country where people aren’t killed

for things like this you know she says, in some places

they would hang you for such a blatant act of disrespect

maybe he should go live there instead of here so he can

appreciate what he has & then she turns around

& sees you sitting in the grocery cart surrounded

by lettuce & yogurt & frozen chicken thighs

& you smile at her with your toothless gum smile

& she says that you are the cutest baby she has

ever seen & tells me how I must feel so lucky

to have such a beautiful baby boy & I thank her

for her kind words even though I should not

thank her because I know that you will not always

be a black boy but one day you may be a black man

& you may decide your country hasn’t kept

its promise to you either & this woman or another

like her will forget that you were ever this boy & they

will make you into something else & tell you

to be grateful for what you’ve been given

The small word may is the devastation in this poem. In the scene at a supermarket, the precious Black boy—the speaker’s son—is admired by a white woman who in the same breath decries the actions of a Black man asking better of his country, as we always have; she upends his belonging—that baby, in the words of his father, may grow up to “be a black man.” Not will but may grow up.

Racial violence exists on a long continuum, and we refuse to understand that at our peril. Though I may worry in particular ways about my own sons as do other parents of Black children, this is a worry that we all must share. When human beings look at other human beings in their midst and instead of seeing other human beings see a threat, see something monstrous, or don’t see at all, our very humanity is at stake.

Layered atop the never-ending anxiety of parenting, Black parents live with the truth that we cannot fully protect our children. As a people, we have lived with too much suffering, and we live among many others who do not go through life with the same degree of precarity and loss. When yet another young Black person is shot dead—in their neighborhood, while jogging, in their bed—we brace in anticipation of the tableaux to come: the neighborhood funeral, the raw grief of mothers, the unlikelihood of a trial, and, if a trial, the character assault on the person who was murdered—they were out too late, they were in the street and not on the sidewalk, they had smoked a little weed, they passed a counterfeit bill, they dangled an air freshener from the back window, they asked why they were being stopped, they had a shiny object that turned out to be house keys in their hands. We who live consciously in this reality stay distracted and anxious, those feelings heightened when there is a trial and our faith is tested once again, and our children feel no safer. Our anxiety may even stifle the joy and exuberance that should characterize their childhood.

Glenn Ligon
Untitled (I Am A Man), 1988

In addition to the crisis of violence against people of color, we are at the outer edge of an era of a crisis wherein speech has been debased from the highest levels of governance, and abusive language and its violence are increasingly ambient. Words are vessels filled with meaning and intent. Our language is what we live in, and thus how we collectively express ourselves, one voice at a time. If we believe in the power of words, and that words matter, and that precision with words matters most; and if we believe that words not only carry meaning but also carry something human, that shared language and the exchange of language are among the things that make us human; and if we believe that striving for absolute truth with the word is one of the ways that human beings can communicate deeply enough in order to overcome that which is not understood between us; if we believe also that there is too much language in the air right now that is imprecise, false, harmful, operating not to bridge understanding but to create misunderstanding, to divide, and that there is very precise if inelegant language that is being used for the purpose of misnaming and dividing us; then we might ask: What is the power of our words? How are we responsible for them? What can we do with them, and do words move us closer to the hoped-for ideal of beloved community?

Language is one of the ways we share our perspectives, our very selves, and one of the zones of hope I have for reaching across the voids between us. I do not mean to suggest that talk and explication are a solution. Indeed, the burden of explaining has always been hoisted on Black shoulders, and it has not solved the fundamental problem. Black people did not create the problem; it’s a great societal head fake to look to us to solve problems not of our making and behaviors not of our doing.

But for all of us, language is how we say who we are, and we cannot solve our problems without it. Language is one of the few media with which to make conundrums visible and solutions tangible. Language is how we learn across difference. And language is in trouble.

Poets especially use words in ways that are visceral and remind us in the best of poems that they are products of the human body. People, and peoples, tell their stories to each other; the tribe needs to chronicle itself. Human beings in all cultures across time have yielded to the impulse to make song. A poem is physically a small thing, but it has the density and potency that in the best cases is a force forever.

In Black culture, our poetry sometimes holds and memorializes our history. Amid insufficient memorializing and in the face of scant or buried histories, Black poets have made experience solid and enduring in too many examples to count. Black poetry remembers, and Black poetry memorializes. Poems are how we say, This is who we are, how we chronicle ourselves when we are insufficiently found in history books and commemorative sites. And as with monuments, the poem outlasts the poet.

The times stay challenging and our society urgently needs repair. The fundamental proposition and question that arises at the end of the poem “Ka ’Ba” by Amiri Baraka, published in 1969, continues to resonate:

              We need magic

now we need the spells, to raise up

return, destroy, and create. What will be

the sacred words?

I hear it in my head most days: What will be the sacred words?

“here lies”

Monuments and memorials ask that we remember those who have died and make permanent what they stand for: individuals, communities, ideas. The word remember has a physicality to it—re-member—the idea that without remembrance the corpus of the person or people or place or idea or ideology has been physically torn asunder.


  • Praise for The Trayvon Generation:

    "A profound and lyrical meditation on race, class, justice and their intersections with art...Magnificent."—New York Times
  • "Powerful, poignant, and deeply moving. I hope you'll check it out." —Michelle Obama, Former First Lady of the United States
  • "A series of meditations on cultural and artistic artifacts that illuminate “the color line”...Alexander is like a cultural archaeologist, dusting off and examining relics and shedding new light on the society that produced them...She brings a poet’s clarity of language to the fraught national discussion."—TIME
  • "The book offers historic perspective and poignant observations that make this an urgent and critical read."—Jake Tapper, CNN
  • "In Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful, relevant book, The Trayvon Generation, the poet redefines the proximity of Black identity to loss as an opportunity to create new rituals and a new paradigm...The book offers wisdom, reflection, and reportage with a crystalline precision infused with a powerful, elegant empathy."—The Boston Globe
  • "How do you mark your pages when you read a book? Whatever you use, have a lot of them on hand because nearly every other paragraph of The Trayvon Generation contains a sentence or three that you'll want to remember, to re-read, or turn over in your mind...So must-readable, so thoughtful and'll want to share with your older teenager and your friends, for discussion."—The Philadelphia Tribune
  • "Dr. Alexander is an acclaimed scholar and poet. She's also a superb writer and unusually well-qualified to lead us to meditate and learn about the intersections of art, poetry, history, and race."—Dan Rather, journalist and New York Times bestselling author of What Unites Us
  • "The Trayvon Generation is definitely essential reading for every generation."—Cosmopolitan
  • "An essential read for our times by the only person who could’ve written it so exquisitely."—Ms. Magazine
  • "In a taut, lyrical, and eminently readable volume, Alexander helps the reader make sense of the presents and futures being forged by Black artists who shall inherit the earth and thus have to find ways to delight themselves amid a continual abundance of racialized violence."—Vulture
  • “A powerful book which unveils the ways in which race is woven so deeply into the fabric of American culture, and sheds a light on how art can reveal the urgency of this issue.”—Town & Country
  • “Electrifying and poignant, The Trayvon Generation sheds light on the role of art as criticism and medicine.”—Esquire
  • "Punctuated with gripping pieces of art that complement the text. Each piece is compelling in its own right as they entwine with the representation of human experience that Alexander demonstrates for readers… At its core, this is a powerful treatise on the humanity of Black Americans and how it has been denied, how generations of people have persisted despite that fact, and how it continues to be one of the most pressing issues we face as a nation. A dynamic critique on the sprawling effects of racism and its effects on today’s youth."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
  • “Poet and memoirist Alexander deftly blends family history and cultural criticism in this bittersweet essay collection on race, memory, and memorialization…Alexander is a thoughtful and eloquent chronicler of racial anxiety and pain.”—Booklist (starred review)
  • “Vigorous and inspiring…By capturing the rich spectrum of Black culture in America, Alexander offers hope and instruction for younger generations. The result is a thought-provoking must-read.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "A very moving short book that seeks to challenge readers’ assumptions about American society; highly recommended for all libraries and for reading groups."—Library Journal (starred review)

On Sale
Apr 5, 2022
Page Count
160 pages

Elizabeth Alexander headshot

Elizabeth Alexander

About the Author

Elizabeth Alexander is a prize-winning and New York Times bestselling author, renowned American poet, educator, scholar, and cultural advocate. Her memoir, The Light of the World, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Awards. She composed and recited “Praise Song for the Day” for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration and is currently president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder in the arts, culture, and humanities. 

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