33 pages 1 hour read

Kwame Alexander

The Undefeated

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


“The Undefeated” (2019) is a free verse children’s poem by poet and novelist Kwame Alexander. The poem, published as a picture book, celebrates Black Americans, highlighting the struggles the Black community has endured and overcome throughout America’s history, with particular attention on great figures from history, including artists, athletes, and civil rights activists. While the poem’s target audience is children, Alexander and the book’s illustrator, Kadir Nelson, address serious topics like slavery and police brutality. Despite this, the poem focuses on the triumphs of Black Americans and serves as a poem of empowerment, celebrating the strength, beauty, and perseverance of Black people. According to Alexander, the poem’s purpose is to remind readers to never give up and to remember all that has happened, as the past informs the present. Specifically, he wrote the poem upon the election of U.S. President Barack Obama to inspire hope and to celebrate things he believes America has either forgotten or erased from history. The poem and its accompanying illustrations have been praised by critics and readers, making “The Undefeated” one of Alexander’s most popular works.

Poet Biography

Kwame Alexander (b. 1968) was born in Manhattan, New York. His father was a writer, and his mother taught English. When Alexander was a child, his family moved to Virginia, and later he was accepted to Virginia Tech, where he studied English and began to pursue a career as a writer and editor under the tutelage of writer Nikki Giovanni.

Throughout his career, Alexander has done a number of things in the literary world, including writing, directing, producing, editing, and teaching. Alexander’s publishing career began in poetry with his 1995 collection Just Us: Poems & Counterpoems, 1986-1995. Throughout the 2000s, he continued to write poetry, but he also published a number of YA and children’s novels, including The Crossover: A Novel (2015), which won the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award Honor.

In addition to writing, Alexander is best known for his philanthropic work, including running writing workshops, advocating for and running educational literacy programs, and founding charitable organizations, including the Literacy Empowerment Action Project (LEAP), which is an organization that promotes literacy and education in Ghana.

Almost all of Alexander’s books have either won or been shortlisted for various literary awards, and Alexander himself has been the recipient of a number of distinctions, including the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and the Pat Conroy Legacy Award. Alexander’s work as a writer is highly respected, but his community advocacy and efforts to promote literacy and education to children has garnered the most recognition and admiration.

Poem Text

Alexander, Kwame. The Undefeated. eBook ed., Versify, 2019. Kindle.


The poem opens with an image of Jesse Owens and a sort of dedication, saying the poem is for the unforgettable people in history who opened up a world of possibility.

The next page features a picture of a Black family and continues the dedication, saying the poem is for those who “survived / America / by any means necessary” (Lines 6-8). This contrasts with the next page that features no picture and adds the people who did not survive.

On the next page, there is an image of a father and son, and the dedication continues for those who experienced both slavery and religion.

The next page has an image of boxer Jack Johnson. The lines on this page are dedicated to the unflappable, sophisticated people who have overcome adversity.

The next image is a collage of artists, including writers Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Phillis Wheatley. The lines here are dedicated to people who bring their light and vision to the world.

Next, there is an image of a Black soldier from the Civil War, and the poem celebrates those who were unafraid and fought for an imperfect country.

The next page features people standing arm in arm, including former U.S. representative and civil rights icon John Lewis. The lines acknowledge those who marched during the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The next page is an image of nameless Black bodies done similarly to pictures from the 1700s of slaves on ships crossing the Atlantic. The poem calls this unspeakable. The idea of the unspeakable continues on the next two pages, where there are images of the four girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 along with a collage of images in the form of a vigil for the victims of police brutality against Black people.

Next, there is an image of Martin Luther King, Jr. The text uses King’s own words and describes him and those like him as unlimited dreamers and doers.

The next page features a collage of Black athletes, including Michael Jordan and LeBron James. The text lists these athletes and any who have yet to be found.

On the following page, there is a collage of Black musicians, including Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. The text calls these figures unbelievable.

Next, there is an image of white egret birds gliding across the page. Alexander dedicates this page to the underdogs, the uncertain, the unspoken, and the untitled.

Finally, the poem ends with an image of Black children smiling in front of the white egrets. The final lines dedicate the poem to “you” and “us.”