Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Dedicated to her father, Samuel Louis Sayles, Generations: A Memoir is African American poet Lucille Clifton’s story of her family’s genealogy. Written in prose, in five sections each named after a member of the family (“Caroline and son,” “Lucy,” “Gene,” “Samuel,” and “Thelma”), Clifton’s memoir is a celebration of the strength of her family and of family ties, especially of her exemplary great-great-grandmother.

In her memoir, Clifton assumes the role of the griot, the African oral storyteller who passes on the record of the tribal history. She tells much of her family’s story in the words of the original storytellers, her father and her great-great-grandmother. When she first began to think about the family stories, she worried about accuracy and demanded verification of the facts until her husband, Fred Clifton, told her “not to worry. . . . In history, even the lies are true.” This observation is a significant one, for the family legends create their own truths by shaping the responses and beliefs of later generations of family members. Furthermore, history is always open to interpretation; its meanings depend upon the point of view of the historians. The stories of slavery, for example, will be different when told by descendants of slaves or by descendants of slave owners.

Generations starts with Clifton’s conversation with a white collateral descendant of her family, a woman who has collected information about the family history. In this section, Clifton contrasts the position of the African American and white families. There is tension in the conversation: The white woman is puzzled and wary; Clifton is reassuring and conciliatory. The names of Clifton’s branch of the family, the African American branch, are not listed in the white woman’s records: Her slave ancestors are buried in unmarked graves. It reads like a short story which ends in triumphal affirmation: While the white woman is the last of her line, Clifton, on the other hand, is married and has six children. This section sets the pattern of the memoir, a pattern that reiterates the movement from slavery to freedom. In each section, Clifton combines tales of the past with present-tense narration. In all but two of the sections—“Caroline and son,” section 6, ends with her brother whispering “We are orphans”; section 3 of “Samuel” ends with her father’s burial—the movement is from difficulty to affirmation.

Next Clifton describes her journey from Baltimore to Buffalo for her father’s funeral. Interspersed with memories of her father are his heroic stories of the family. The family matriarch, Caroline Donald (her names are slave names, because her real African name is not known) was brought as a slave to New Orleans and walked in a slave coffle from New Orleans to Virginia when she was eight years old. She married Sam Louis Sale, a slave...

(The entire section is 1190 words.)