In 2008, after his second daughter was born, Kwame Alexander started the poem that is the text for his Caldecott-medal and Newbery Honor-winning book, The Undefeated.
In writing the poem -- which he said took him one hour to put down on paper, and a decade to turn into a published book -- he was harnessing the power of words to travel the arc of history for African Americans, from the tragedy of slavery to the triumph of President Barack Obama's election. He covered the achievements of Black Americans across the spectrum, from activists and artists to entrepreneurs and orators, and took the words of Maya Angelou as his inspiration, “We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated."
The poem itself went on a journey: Alexander performed it as a video poem in 2016 for the launch of the ESPN website, The Undefeated. Finally, it was published in 2019 as a book with illustrations by Kadir Nelson, whose work hangs in major museums and regularly graces the cover of The New Yorker magazine. It was a New York Times bestseller and listed as a top children's book on many national lists.
The book was the heart of the All-School Seminar Day 2021: Issues in Social Justice on February 25, with discussions, as well as poetry and art projects inspired by it; faculty spent a professional development session to prepare for the seminar. After classroom readings of the book in advance of the day, there was great anticipation for the author's “arrival" on the Zoom screen, and he delivered two truly unforgettable sessions, one for Lower School and one for Middle and Upper School.
Through both sessions, as he read the book itself and answered questions from students, the bestselling author's exuberance, curiosity, and unstinting passion for reading and writing came shining through. “I am a writer, so I try to make the world better one word at a time," he said, then asked students. “What's your thing? Use it to make the world better."
Corey Brooks '22, vice president of UNITID Club, asked Alexander to describe himself in the style of a stanza of his poem. After a pause to reflect, Alexander replied, “I am not fazed. I am unshakeable, man!"
He told stories that had helped shape his perspective in terms of being determined and unstoppable in the face of barriers, several of which came from his time at Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake. As a senior in AP English, he turned in a 30-page paper about the novel, Things Fall Apart, by renowned author Chinua Achebe. Alexander said he had read the book three times before the age of 12: “I knew the book," and he also knew that he had written a great paper.
His English teacher gave him an “F," and told him words that have stuck with him: “It was so good, there's no way you could have written it." Alexander noted, “She saw me as 'less than,' as marginalized." Alexander's father, who was livid, went to the school and spoke to administrators and the teacher. The grade was changed to the “A" that he deserved. That event, and his father's response, that taught Alexander the importance of valuing himself and not internalizing prejudice or racist behavior that he has faced.
“I don't accept it, but I don't internalize it," he said. “If you have that opinion of me, that's on you. I am going to move through this life as though I am the greatest...I choose to say 'yes' to myself and keep moving forward."
Poetry earned him a “yes" on another all-important high school occasion--the prom. Alexander, who “had never been on a date" by his senior year, was determined to get a particular girl to go with him. So he wrote her a love poem, portions of which he recited from memory for Middle and Upper School students. He recited the poem at her locker but earned a noncommittal response, so he took it to the next level -- he leapt on a table in the lunch room and recited the love poem again, followed by the big ask. He earned loud applause from the stunned lunchroom audience...and a date to the big dance. From that moment, he knew for sure, “Ultimately, I have the power of words."
After graduating from high school, Alexander went on to study writing with poet Nikki Giovanni at Virginia Tech and write 35 books, which have won numerous awards, including the top award for children's writing, the Newbery Medal. In 2018, he opened the Barbara E. Alexander Memorial Library and Health Clinic in Ghana, as a part of LEAP for Ghana, an international literacy program he co-founded, and he serves as founding editor of VERSIFY, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
For Lower School students, Alexander offered insights that suited his younger audience. He told them that one of his favorite books as a child was Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss. He revealed his excitement at getting up every day to write from 7 a.m. to noon in his writing studio, where he keeps “a blender to make smoothies."
Asked about his favorite book to write, he said, “I love 'em all," but then held up the Danish translation of Surf's Up, a book about two frogs, one of whom wants to read a book at the beach while the other one wants to surf. He also discussed The Crossover, his Newbery Medal-winning novel in verse that took him five years to write; many NA students have read the book and Booked and Rebound, the two books that complete the trilogy.
As part of Seminar Day, students wrote poetry inspired by The Undefeated and created art projects. Students created origami cranes, as an homage to the cranes that are featured as a symbolic motif in the book, which many students said they interpreted as a message of freedom and the ability to soar, emphasizing the hopeful ending of the book.
Yet, several Lower School students said they were most deeply moved by the starker pages of the book, which examine the slave trade, the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Black Lives Matter movement. “I am African-American, so I see the world a little differently," said Kasei '28, “It feels good to see more about my history."
Both she and her fifth grade classmate, Emma, had chosen “unlimited" as the word from Alexander's poem to spark their own original acrostic poems. Kasei's included the lines, “Losing no hope in what they are trying to achieve/In the moment; no trying to prove others wrong." Emma wrote, “Undefeated/Never lets someone stop them from doing something they believe in/Lives life freely and uncontrolled."
Elliott, a third grader, said that seeing Black Lives Matter in a book “means something special" because he is African American. He and his classmates, Ellington, Gage, and Win, emphatically agreed that they loved the page in the book with all the athletes, and they were especially impressed by the achievements and image of Jesse Owens, the four-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
In his presentations, Alexander repeatedly emphasized the joy he feels at the chance to be a writer. “It is sacred work we're doing, when we are writing for young people."
Students instinctively responded to his optimism and enthusiasm. “I liked the way he said that you can create anything you want," said Ava, a fifth grader. “There are no limitations."
Interested in reading more by Kwame Alexander? Explore a selection of his books to order through the Bulldog Bookstore. Books will be delivered to students in March.