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A National Book Festival Duo
September 23, 2010
GW Professor Adele Logan Alexander and her daughter, poet Elizabeth Alexander, were selected to participate in Saturday’s National Book Festival.
By Julia Parmley
Since her book, “Parallel Worlds: The Remarkable Gibbs-Hunts and the Enduring (In)Significance of Melanin,” came out in February, GW Research Professor of History Adele Logan Alexander has lectured at the Library of Congress and GW’s 2010 Black Heritage Celebration.
This Saturday, Dr. Alexander can add the National Book Festival to the list.
Dr. Alexander and her daughter, poet Elizabeth Alexander, will be a mother and daughter team at the annual National Book Festival, which takes place Sept. 25 on the National Mall. Dr. Alexander will speak about her book in the history and biography category, joining more than 80 other selected authors and illustrators.
Elizabeth Alexander, chair of African American studies at Yale University and a 1992 National Endowment for the Arts fellow, will present in the poetry category. She read her original poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” at President Obama’s Inauguration in 2009.
Although they work in different disciplines, both women deal with issues of race and gender in their work.
“It’s going to be great for us to be experiencing this together,” says Dr. Alexander.
Dr. Alexander’s book chronicles the lives of William and Ida Gibbs Hunt. William Hunt was the first African American to complete a full career with the foreign service in the early 20th century. The story of the Gibbs-Hunts was part of “family lore” for Dr. Alexander—her mother knew Ida Gibbs Hunt and her aunt, an early African American anthropologist, wrote about William Hunt in the 1930s—but it wasn’t until Dr. Alexander began researching African American women in graduate school and was given William Hunt’s unpublished memoirs that she realized the power of their story.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of the intersections between private and public lives, how families interact and how you can center your history around family,” says Dr. Alexander. “It’s also intriguing when you find a couple who have equally powerful roles in their marriage. At first I didn’t know what to do with all those things, but the book came to be one about not only a family history but also international, race and gender issues.”
Ida Gibbs Hunt was part of a group that Dr. Alexander calls “internationalists”— well-educated women who traveled, wrote on global topics and were involved in private organizations that fostered international understanding—all on their own, because the U.S. military and State Department at the time would not hire African American women.
In her research, which took almost eight years, Dr. Alexander discovered a few interesting facts about the Gibbs-Hunts: In his diary, William Hunt fabricated a few of his experiences, including a trip around the world, and Ida Gibbs Hunt’s father was the first African American elected judge in the United States.
She also learned about different countries at the turn of the last century, including Madagascar, Liberia and Guadeloupe, an overseas region of France.
“There were interesting side stories that I didn’t really know a lot about,” says Dr. Alexander. “It was very much a process of enlightenment for me and hopefully it is for a reader too.”
And if readers are confused by the title of Dr. Alexander’s book, well, that was the point. Dr. Alexander says it was intended to be “ambiguous and thought provoking.”
“Race and color have been made significant in our country, because by practice and law, they have limited people’s lives. But our country has been weakened because it has, for so many years, limited opportunities for African Americans and women,” says Dr. Alexander. “When I use (in)significance in the title, it’s because, of course, race shouldn’t matter; look what the Gibbs-Hunts did despite limitations on their lives! So in many ways, they made melanin less significant in their lives and others.”
Her resources included materials in the National Archives, the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University and personal interviews with distant relatives of the Gibbs-Hunts.
Researching this kind of book is complicated,” she says. “I had to weave and patch together all kinds of research to make it work.”
But while complicated, Dr. Alexander says the effort is worth it if you truly love the writing and research process.
“My advice for any one who’s writing is you just have to carve out time and consider research and writing like a job that you do day after day after day,” she says. “We have to keep reminding ourselves how important the thoughtful process of working on ideas, seeing them through and thinking them out is in these days of instant information and gratification.”
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