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...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Lucille Clifton was named the Poet Laureate of Maryland in 1979, and in 1980 she was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She also received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from both Goucher College and the University of Maryland in 1980.

Clifton’s memoir records her family’s history in simple language, recognizing difficulties and problems, but affirming the strength of family love and connections in spite of hard times. Reflecting Clifton’s affirmative vision, this book is important as a part of the ongoing reevaluation of the meaning of family and motherhood in women’s lives that has been set in motion by the feminist movement.

Elsewhere, Clifton has written poems about her parents and her own children. She writes of her mother who “fell/ tripping over a wire at the forty-fourth lap.” Clifton has also written children’s books that describe the lives of young African Americans. Like her memoir, the children’s books confront real problems with sympathy and love, as when Everett Anderson, who lives with his mother, says a prayer:

Thank you for the things we have,thank you for Mama and turkey and fun,thank you for Daddy wherever he is,thank you for me, Everett Anderson.

In addition to the children’s books Some of the Days of Everett Anderson (1970), The Black BC’s (1970), and Sonora Beautiful (1981), Clifton has written several books of poetry, including Good Times (1969), Good News About the Earth (1972), An Ordinary Woman (1974), Two-Headed Woman (1980), and Next: New Poems (1987).


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Originally subtitled “A Celebration in Prose,” Generations is more than a brief, affectionate memoir treating five generations of the Sayles family, from 1823 to the writer’s time. It is an authentic celebration of the black experience in America, a story of suffering and triumph, of survival with grace and dignity. By selecting details rich in implication, Lucille Clifton records a personal history that extends beyond the particulars of a single family to the general pattern of many families. In the simple, mostly uneventful lives of obscure blacks rising from slavery to freedom, she finds symbols for the enduring spirit of her people.

Inevitably Generations will be compared with Alex Haley’s remarkable bestseller Roots. Both novels explore, by means of tracing the origins and continuity of the author’s own family, the values of black history in America. In each work the origins are discovered in Africa. Haley’s eighteenth century ancestor, Kunta Kinte, is linked to the village of Juffure in Gambia. Caroline Donald Sale, the matriarch of the Sayles family, is traced to Dahomey, where she was born in 1823. Both books are concerned less with a strictly historical reconstruction of the generations than with offering readers an insight into the moral climate of slavery and black poverty.

Here the comparison ends. To describe the method of Roots, Haley has coined the word faction, meaning a blend of fact and fiction. Although his book is usually catagorized as nonfiction, it demonstrates most of the qualities of the novel. Speeches are invented for the characters, whose lives are fully dramatized against the setting of pseudohistorical backgrounds that have been imaginatively rather than factually constructed. Haley’s intention, of course, is to offer the reader symbolic truth, not genealogy.

Generations, on the other hand, is a selective but apparently accurate genealogy of the Sayles family. Much less ambitious a project than Roots, which spans seven generations, Clifton’s book hews closely to the narrow line of evidence that the author has collected in her research. Often her sources are family traditions passed on from mother to daughter, or from grandmother to daughter, remembered anecdotes cherished as a precious legacy. To be sure, Clifton makes no claims to scholarly completeness. Instead, her memoir resembles a book of poetical impressions. Because “in history, even the lies are true,” she makes no distinction between verifiable fact and oral tradition. Yet, underlying the author’s impressions is a basis of fact, or at least of remembered family history that has taken the shape of fact.

A gifted poet, Clifton transforms the fragmentary stories of her ancestors into near-mythic tales of touching beauty. Only in one generation—that of the passionate Lucy, daughter of Caroline Donald and Sam Louis Sale (as the name was originally spelled)—was there a life of truly dramatic substance. Clifton’s great-grandmother murdered a white man, a Connecticut Yankee known either as Harvey Nichols or “Damn Harvey Nichols,” depending upon the source. He was her lover and father of her son, Gene. Instead of being lynched, an action customary at that time for Negro offences, Lucy was given a courtroom trial “cause she was Mammy Ca’line’s child, and from Dahomey women.” She was found guilty, then hanged, the “first black woman legally hanged in the state of Virginia.” But the other generations of the Sayles family appear to have been ordinary people—poor, uneducated, unremarkable—for whom life was a struggle in darkness brightened by only a few episodes of glory. Yet Clifton sees the vitality, heroism, and beauty of their obscure lives. To her the generations of the Sayles family, bound by a slender but strong cord of shared identity, remained a unity. “The generations of white folks,” she writes, “are just people but the generations of colored folks are families.”

She is wrong, of course. In an unguarded moment Tolstoy once generalized that all happy families are alike and that unhappy families are different in their own ways. He too was...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984. Essays in this book discuss the work of Clifton and other African American women writers, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Each writer has written a short personal statement: Clifton’s is “A Simple Language,” which explains her intent in writing. The essays on Clifton are Audrey T. McCluskey’s “Tell the Good News: A View of the Works of Lucille Clifton” and Haki Madhubuti’s “Lucille Clifton: Warm Water, Greased Legs, and Dangerous Poetry.” McCluskey’s article includes references to Generations.

Lazer, Hank. “Blackness Blessed: The Writings of Lucille Clifton.” The Southern Review 25, no. 3 (July, 1989): 760-770. Lazer examines how Clifton’s use of language addresses political and aesthetic concerns, helping African Americans understand themselves.

Middlebrook, Diane Wood, and Marilyn Yalom, eds. Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985. This overview of the work of American women poets includes essays on Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich. The essay on Clifton is Andrea Benton Rushing’s “Lucille Clifton: A Changing Voice for Changing Times.”