Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem, New York, but was raised in Washington, D.C., as her father, Clifford Alexander, Jr., served as the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the late 1960’s and as the first African American secretary of the Army during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. Alexander earned a B.A. from Yale University (1984), an M.A. from Boston University (1987), and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (1992).
Alexander began her career as a reporter for the Washington Post, but she made the transition to teaching after completing her education. She has taught at a number of prestigious schools, including Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, New York University, and the University of Pennsylvania. In 2000, she joined the faculty at Yale University, where she became the chair of the African American studies department in 2009. In addition to teaching African American studies, Alexander has taught courses in English and gender studies.