Fact file

Old friend of the White House

The White House has loomed large in the lives of African-American poet Elizabeth Alexander and her birth family.

To begin with, in 2009, her old friend, United States President Barack Obama, chose her to write and read out a new poem at his inauguration.

That made her only the fourth poet in history to do so, after Robert Frost in 1961 for President John F. Kennedy, Maya Angelou in 1993 for President Bill Clinton and Miller Williams in 1997 for President Clinton's second inauguration.

Widowed with two sons, Alexander, 53, got to know President Obama when they were colleagues at the University of Chicago in the 1990s.

Her inauguration poem, Praise Song For The Day, ends like so: "In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air/any thing can be made, any sentence begun/on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp./Praise song for walking forward in that light."

Her only sibling, Mark, a law don, helped President Obama during his 2008 campaign for the presidency.

Their father, Clifford, advised President Lyndon Johnson on civil rights and was the only African- American member of President Johnson's cabinet.

He was also the first African-American secretary of the US Army and chairman of his country's Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.

Their mother, Adele, is an author and was, for many years, also a professor of African-American women's history at George Washington University.

Born in Harlem, New York, Alexander grew up in Washington, D.C., attending Sidwell Friends School, where President Obama's two daughters are studying today.

An alumna of the universities of Yale, Boston and Pennsylvania, the former Washington Post reporter is now a professor of poetry and African-American studies at Yale. Known to Americans as a people's poet, she has published six books of poetry to date.

Her 2005 collection, American Sublime, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.

Her fiercest love was for her husband of 15 years, Eritrean-born Ficremariam Ghebreyesus. He died suddenly in April 2012, just four days after his 50th birthday.

As she mused to Salon writer Michele Filgate in August: "You never know what sorrow people are carrying around. That's why you ought to just be a kind person because you just don't know where we're encountering somebody in their own life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2015, with the headline 'Old friend of the White House'. Print Edition | Subscribe