Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Lucille Clifton was born Thelma Lucille Sayles, daughter of Samuel L. Sayles and Thelma Moore Sayles, in Depew, New York, and grew up with two half sisters and a brother. Her father worked for the New York steel mills. Her mother was a launderer, homemaker, and aspiring poet but once had to burn all her poems because her husband told her, “Ain’t no wife of mine going to be no poetry writer.”
Ironically, both parents encouraged Clifton to be anything she wanted to be. She was named for her great-grandmother, who, according to her father, was the first black woman to be legally hanged in the state of Virginia. The first in her family to finish high school or consider attending college, Clifton entered college at Howard University at the age of sixteen, having earned a full scholarship. After majoring in drama and attending for two years, Clifton lost her scholarship. She told her father,I don’t need that stuff. I’m going to write poems. I can do what I want to do! I’m from Dahomey women!
After transferring to Fredonia State Teachers College in 1955, Clifton worked as an actor and began her writing career. While at Fredonia, she met novelist Ishmael Reed at a writers’ group, and he showed some of her poems to Langston Hughes, who was the first to publish Clifton’s writing.
In 1958, she married Fred James Clifton. They had four daughters, Sidney, Fredrica, Gillian, and Alexia, and two sons, Channing and Graham. In 1969,...
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Lucille Clifton’s parents had little education but were avid readers, and she grew to love books. Her father’s stories steeped her in ancestral heritage, going back to Mammy Caroline, who was born in 1822 in Dahomey, Africa, seized as a child, and enslaved in the United States for much of her life. Caroline and other family members appear in Generations: A Memoir and in many of Clifton’s poems.
Clifton’s mother wrote and recited poetry. At age ten, Clifton became interested in writing, having learned from her mother that it is a means of self-expression. Being a writer never occurred to Clifton; she simply wrote. The first in her family to attend college, she had intellectual black friends, studied drama, and performed in plays—developing her voice and lyricism, and, in her writing, experimenting with sparse punctuation. In 1958, she married Fred Clifton, a philosophy professor. Continuing to write, Clifton did not attempt to have any poems published until her work was solicited. This happened when she was thirty-three, happily married, and with six children under the age of ten.
By then, Clifton had a wealth of education, experiences, and a growing family from which to draw for her writing. Her first published book of poetry, Good Times, focuses on difficulties in urban life. The book also celebrates strength and celebration in the face of adversity. In Clifton’s second volume, she turns away from “white ways” to affirm “the Black.” She celebrated her religious heritage and joined many contemporaries in celebrating racial heritage. With succeeding years and poetry volumes, Clifton’s themes, subjects, and style changed little.
Clifton also achieved acclaim, and was more prolific, in writing children’s books. Some themes, ideas, and points of view found in her poetry are also found in her children’s literature. In her children’s books too, Clifton cultivates identity, values, and pride.
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Born Thelma Lucille Sayles to Thelma Moore Sayles and Samuel Sayles in 1936, Lucille Clifton was raised by her parents in Depew, a small town in upstate New York. The Sayles’s house was home to many relatives, and Lucille grew up in the midst of a large extended family. Living under the same roof as grandparents, aunts and uncles, two sisters, and her brother, Lucille learned early the value of family; throughout her literary career her family was the subject of many poems and her autobiography, Generations: A Memoir.
While every family member was a source of inspiration for Clifton, none so stirred her creative impulse and imagination as did her great-grandmother Caroline Donald Sale. Mammy Ca’line, as Clifton refers to her, was born in Africa and brought to America as a slave. She escaped from slavery and obtained freedom while she was only a girl. Clifton revered Mammy Ca’line’s fortitude and paid homage to the woman and her accomplishments in several poems and in Generations: A Memoir.
Although the Sayles household was rich in love, the family was by no means affluent. Economic struggles and battles with the ghetto’s hostile environment were a part of daily life for Clifton. Despite these hardships, Clifton learned early, as Mari Evans notes, the lesson “that being very poor . . . had nothing to do with lovingness or familyness or character.” Clifton was able to transform her childhood, spent in a strong, loving family, into poetry. Drawing heavily on details from her early life, the poems in Clifton’s early collections, Good Times, Good News About the...
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