When Alexus Cumbie was a high schooler, she knew so little about the college application process that she had to look it up on WikiHow. Today, she’s a campus leader at the University of Alabama, a published poet, a two-time congressional intern, and a winner of the prestigious Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award. And as for the future, don’t be surprised if you spot her on TV, talking about the hot-button political issues of the day—or running for statewide office.
Cumbie, who majored in political science and business management, has piled up a wealth of accolades in her four years at UA. The Birmingham Times in 2019 named Cumbie one of Birmingham’s most promising natives to invest in and profiled her in a feature article. That same year she was honored as the Southeastern Region’s New Soror of the Year by Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and was selected by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to be a Capitol Hill intern for the second time, serving as a legislative and press assistant with the office of Congresswoman Terri Sewell.
Cumbie is also an accomplished poet whose work has been published in the American Library of Poetry and the founder of Literary Vibes, a live music and poetry showcase that highlights southern artists while working to increase literacy rates in underserved communities.
For Cumbie, art, scholarship and service are all bound together by a singular passion for building “the beloved community.”
“I’ve always had a passion for policy and changemaking,” Cumbie said. “The passion started when I began traveling the country performing poetry. Poetry is so innately political, and it dares an audience to be more aware of a storyteller’s narrative—and that often includes social commentary.”
With her unshakeable belief that “poetry can shift the culture of a society,” she pursued a business degree to learn how to better operate Literary Vibes—and, in turn, help other artists thrive. “We believe in creating an intimate space, stage and sanctuary for a potpourri of human narratives because it is in these spaces that real community forms,” Cumbie said. “It is in these very spaces that people are allowed to be fully vulnerable, fully powerful and fully human.”
Cumbie has applied her considerable creative gifts to scholarly research as well. She was awarded the Greer Marechal Memorial Prize for her published research, “Why Negro Bodies Dodge a Southern Sun,” a historiography that served as both healthcare research and creative non-fiction. The research explores an underreported but troubling subject: why African-Americans distrust the biomedical field, thanks to notorious federally sponsored programs like the Tuskegee Experiment.
“I won’t reveal too much, but the story begins with me running through a country field with my grandfather, injuring my knee badly, and watching him insist on his own remedy instead of taking me to an emergency room,” Cumbie said. “It sets the stage for a much bigger issue: Too many older African-Americans are afraid to visit the doctor’s office because of decades-long experiments that have traumatized our communities. The experiments and their horror stories are discussed in the historiography.”
“I could have written a typical research paper, but I wanted it to begin as a story because I wanted to establish an empathetic relationship with the reader,” Cumbie adds. “I wanted the reader to personalize the content and place themselves into this piece of writing. When you infuse research and storytelling, you can make poetry that teaches the world something new.”
Cumbie started writing poetry competitively through Real Life Poets, a nonprofit that uses the art form to mentor and inspire youth and help them find their voice. “This was one of the most prominent slam teams in Birmingham, and we traveled performing in international poetry competitions,” she recalled. “Being surrounded by a community of artists and changemakers sharpened my work and taught me leadership, humility and how to interact with any community. Poetry is also therapeutic and is a form of community-care that keeps me balanced and restful.”
Cumbie said her poetry “serves as social and political commentary,” aimed at challenging the audience “to become more aware of how they can build the beloved community and make life easier for the person next to them.”
“Community”—it’s a word that keeps coming up. It’s no surprise, then, that Cumbie, who next plans to earn her master’s degree in communications, has her eye on a career in politics. “My short-term goals include becoming a political commentator who hosts constructive and honest conversations about some of America’s most polarizing issues,” she said. “My long-term career goals include running for public office to serve the state of Alabama and amplifying the voice of marginalized communities.”
Cumbie can’t even talk about the Sullivan Award without humbly returning to the theme of community. “As a first-generation college student, I always tell the story of having to apply to college using a WikiHow page because I was so unfamiliar with the process,” she said. “To go from a low-income community to being awarded one of the highest awards at the University of Alabama and in the country—it’s just a testament to how impactful community efforts are.”
“I won this award because a community of people invested in me,” she continued. “Congresswoman Terri Sewell and her staff allowed me to intern in her congressional office twice to research policy and have a direct voice in the decision-making process. Ms. Lisa Young, my advisor who recommended me for the award, always picked up the phone to discuss how to better address the issues and concerns of students. Clayton Cullaton is my spiritual advisor who introduced me to the concepts of racial reconciliation and the beloved community, which are all concepts commonly underlining my work.
“The list goes on, because the community at Alabama consistently challenged my thinking and dared me to stand bold in my identity and my passion to better the world. I join a history of leaders who have challenged and pivoted communities. It is one of the biggest honors to receive the Sullivan award.”
The Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award recognizes excellence of character and service to humanity. The University of Alabama honors one man and one woman in the graduating class with the award as well as one non-student who has been helpful to and associated with the university. Click here to read about Cumbie’s fellow UA Sullivan Award winners, Malik Rashaun Seals and Dr. Kathleen Cramer.