Identify a message in “at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989” by Lucille Clifton. Explain your answer with examples from the poem.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Lucille Clifton was an African American poet. She wrote this poem after visiting Walnut Grove Plantation in South Carolina in 1989. While visiting the plantation, she was shown around by a tour guide who didn't mention at all the plantation's ties with slavery.

The message of this poem is that...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Lucille Clifton was an African American poet. She wrote this poem after visiting Walnut Grove Plantation in South Carolina in 1989. While visiting the plantation, she was shown around by a tour guide who didn't mention at all the plantation's ties with slavery.

The message of this poem is that we shouldn't try to erase or edit aspects of history that we think are unpleasant or unpalatable. In fact, Clifton might argue that when aspects of history strike us as unpleasant or unpalatable, there is even more reason not to erase or edit them.

In the first stanza, Clifton writes that the silence of the plantation's dead is "drumming / in my bones." The word "drumming" suggests that the silence is so conspicuous as to be perhaps louder, figuratively at least, than what the tour guide is actually saying. The word "drumming" here is also in the continuous tense, as indicated by the "-ing" suffix, which suggests that the silence is also ongoing, insistent, and maybe even relentless. It's as if the slaves are calling from behind the silence, demanding to be heard.

In the second stanza, the tour guide's omission seems even more conspicuous and odd because so much of the plantation is a physical testament to the lives of the slaves who once worked there. The tools "shine with [the] fingerprints" of the slaves, meaning that they have been so often used by slaves that they have become polished and smooth. Also, the buildings themselves are a testament to the slaves who built them, even though those slaves aren't mentioned by the tour guide. As Clifton says, "somebody did this work."

In the third stanza, Clifton calls upon the slaves to "tell me your names" so that she can "testify" and break the silence to make people remember that the slaves were here, on the plantation. And in the final stanza, Clifton repeats "here lies," alluding to the common inscription on a gravestone before the name of the deceased. The fact that the names are missing here suggests that the names have been, or are being, forgotten. The word "lies" also suggests that the silence is equivalent to being untruthful. By not remembering the slaves who worked on this plantation, the tour guide is as good as lying about an important, if unpleasant, part of our history—a history which should be voiced more loudly.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I think that the acknowledgement of voice is one of the most important themes in the poem.  The notion of unmarked slave graves and how their contributions in building the plantation were unnamed occupies central primacy in the poem.  Of course, this is extrapolated into the larger message that we stand on the shoulders of giants and that those who often did most of the work received the least of credit.  I think that Clifton wants the efforts of slaves to be acknowledged.  This validation can take on different forms.  Perhaps, there is an outward rejection of slavery, the forced condition that made these men, women, and children sacrifice their lives in an unmarked graves.  At the same time, there might be an understanding that slavery was a condition where individuals persevered and endured unspeakable hardship and acknowledging this becomes of vital importance.  In the end, Clifton believes that she is initiating a process of understanding and acknowledgement of experience in creating a poetic homage to those who had died and to ensure their lives were not in vain.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team