The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

Reasons for the Perpetuation of Slavery

A clear-eyed compelling look at human slavery through the ages, including the present time

Music: Elizabeth Alexander

Words: Elizabeth Alexander

A fierce and urgent look at the pervasive institution of human slavery in all times, including our own. This dramatic work spins out the temptations and rationalizations that serve to justify every level of this grim supply chain, from “owners and bosses” to “eager consumers.” An unforgettable concert experience, and a rare opportunity for a choir to engage with a challenging social issue.

Note: The first movement, The Sheer Possibility in the First Place may be performed separately as a standalone piece.

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Composer Notes

Composer Notes

My interest in slavery as an economic and cultural institution began with my desire to understand a dark chapter in United States history, but inevitably it led far beyond that. I started by contemplating slavery’s first seed – how and why humans came up with the idea of controlling other humans – and from there I learned everything I could about how and why it continues today. I looked at the rationalizations and justifications people devise for slavery’s many guises. Eventually my explorations led me to write Reasons for the Perpetuation of Slavery, which looks at our active and passive participation in a system inherently dependent on human exploitation.

When I first wrote this song, many people were not at all sure what to think of it, and in fact many of them tried to argue with me. Prospective performers told me that the song “is too hard to program,” that it “falls outside the mission of our organization,” and that it “isn’t relatable.” Several Northerners claimed that slavery was only a Southern problem, one Canadian claimed that slavery was only an American problem, and I’ve lost track of how many people from all over claimed that slavery no longer exists. Reasons for the Perpetuation of Slavery was clearly going to be a hard sell.

Fortunately, conductor Phillip Swan and his Lawrence University choir Cantala gave the piece an unforgetable premiere in 2010, as well as an early opportunity to have meaningful conversations about it. This helped me understand that there was nothing wrong with what I had written! The choral world was simply not ready for this song yet. But with each passing year society has grown increasingly willing to look at the grim face of modern slavery. More and more choruses perform this song each year, as singers are eager to use their voices in a new way, inviting the tragedy and complexity of our modern-day world right up onstage.


Reasons for the Perpetuation of Slavery

I. The Sheer Possibility in the First Place

The sheer possibility in the first place.
Unstoppable wanting. Wanting the unstoppable.
The need for cultivation. The cultivation of need.
Hard choices. Easy outs.
High hopes. Slippery slopes.

The allure of order. The desire to acquire.
Classes of people. People of class.
The gain of capital. Capital gains.
The persistent perception of greener grass.

The justification of pride.
The pride of ownership.
The ownership of justice.

The tidiness of titles. The convenience of caste.
Distributions of wealth. A wealth of distributions.

The price of cotton. The price of rice.
The price of sugar. The price of gold.
The price of oranges. The price of tomatoes.
The price of keeping the prices low.

The price of beauty. The price of toys.
The price of plenty. The price of more.
The price of a hit. The price of a life.
The price of liberty. The price of anything.

The desire for a fix. The fixation on race.
The race towards civilization. The civilization of desire.

Chains of command. The commands of corruption.
The corruption of language. The language of chains.

Classification, misinformation,
Globalization, collaboration,
Accumulation, calculation,


II. The Existence of Endless Prepositional Possibilities

The existence of endless prepositional possibilities:

As a short-term solution, in the interest of progress,
’Til my head’s above the water, ’til my feet are on the ground,
For the good of the nation, for the company, for my family,
Despite a few misgivings at the present time,
Behind closed doors, by hook or crook,
Beyond our borders, as a very last resort,
Between you and me, beyond my control,
On the cheap, on the sly, with my back against the wall,
Out of sight, out of mind, out of my hands,
Under the radar, under the gun, under the table, around the law,
In for a penny, in for a pound, in for a lifetime —
Just this once.


III. An Unexamined Life

Longings for chocolate, palaces, pyramids,
Flowers in the winter, rubber and rum.
What people will do for a little black dress,
A hand with the children, a carpet, a kiss,
An immaculate house, an unexamined life.

The price of cotton. The price of rice.
The price of sugar. The price of gold,
The price of oranges. The price of tomatoes.
The price of keeping the prices low.

Looms of fingers. Fields of hands.
Chests of organs. Pounds of flesh.
Platters of thighs. Legions of legs.
Rivers of blood. Heavings of hearts.
Batteries of arms and backs and shoulders.

Business, pleasure, labor, leisure,
Backers, buyers, brokers, liars,
Winners, losers, dealers, users,
Borrowers, lenders, traders, vendors,
Profits, losses, owners, bosses.

People of means. The means to an end.
Unheeded rumors. Eager consumers.

Elizabeth Alexander
© 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander



Reasons for the Perpetuation of Slavery (complete work)
Premiere: Cantala Women’s Chorus of Lawrence University / Phillip Swan (Appleton, WI)
Amasong / Jill Crandall (Champaign, IL)
Bella Voce Singers / Jessica Corbin (Brooklyn, NY)
Calliope / Richard Carrick (St. Paul and Minneapolis, MN)
Cantus Femina of Western Michigan University’s Women’s Chorus / Dee Gauthier (Kalamazoo, MI)
Center Hill High School Select Chorus / Catherine Feazell. ACDA Southern Division Conference (Jackson, MS)
Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCI-NY), Hilary Apfelstadt (New York City, NY)
Gettysburg College Women’s Choir / Robert Natter (Gettysburg, PA)
Miami University Choraliers / William Bausano (Oxford, OH)
MUSE: Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir / Rhonda Juliano (Cincinnati, OH; Newport, KY)
North Carolina Governor’s School East Chorus / Laura Sam (Raleigh, NC)
Traverse City High School Vocal Majority / Wendee Wolf-Schlarf. Michigan School Vocal Music Association Festival (Walled Lake, MI)
University of Illinois Women’s Glee Club / Andrea Solya (Champaign, IL)
Vox Grata / Susan Kelly (Nashville, TN)

Movement I: The Sheer Possibility in the First Place
Premiere: Michigan SSAA All-State High School Honors Choir / Wendee Wolf-Schlarf (Kalamazoo, MI)
Cy-Fair High School Women’s Choir / Jed Ragsdale (Cypress, TX)
Encore! Women’s Choir / Patti Milford (Wichita Falls, TX)
Michigan Women’s Honors Choir / Wendee Wolf-Schlarf. Michigan School Vocal Music Association Festival (Grand Rapids, MI)
MUSE: Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir / Rhonda Juliano (Cincinnati, OH)
MUSE: Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir / Rhonda Juliano. GALA Choruses Festival 2016 (Denver, CO)
Santiago High School Treble Ensemble / Karen Garrett (Corona, CA)
Voca Lyrica / Virginia Kerwin (Big Rapids, MI)
Vocalpoint / Jennifer Anderson (St. Paul, MN)