Clifton’s celebration of family is significant for women, whose central role (often in addition to paid employment outside of the home) is frequently that of mother and caretaker. In seeking to validate career opportunities for women and to encourage men to participate in family caretaking, some feminist writers of the 1970’s and 1980’s began to focus on the problems and limitations of maternal caregivers. This trend has been particularly prominent in the works of European American writers. African American women writers, on the other hand, have been more appreciative of women’s nurturance. For example, Alice Walker, whose family history includes slavery (described in Walker’s essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”) stresses the importance of acknowledging her foremothers and paints a positive family portrait. Similarly, Paule Marshall, a black West Indian American novelist, has written in her essay “The Poets in the Kitchen” that listening to the stories her mother told her friends about her daily life taught her how to use language. The family memoirs of Walker, Marshall, and Clifton contrast with the work of European American women poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, who wrote of their families in negative or ambivalent terms, such as in Plath’s poems “Daddy” and “The Colossus” or Sexton’s poem “The Double Image.”
Generations focuses primarily on matrilineage, in recognition of Clifton’s powerful female ancestors. The family line in America begins with Caroline Donald Sale, who is described as “born free in Afrika in 1822, died free in America in 1910.” This description of her great-great-grandmother sets the optimistic, positive tone of Clifton’s memoir. She retells the story of her family by passing on the...
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