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, poet Robert Hayden entered her poems into competition for the Young Men’s-Young Women’s Hebrew Association Poetry Center Discovery Award. Clifton won the award and with it the publication of her first volume of poems, Good Times, which was chosen as one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times. Prior to 1971, when she became poet-in-residence at the historically black Coppin State College in Baltimore, Maryland, Clifton had worked in state and federal government positions. She remained at Coppin until 1974. From 1979 through 1982, she was poet laureate of the state of Maryland. From 1982 to 1983, she was a visiting writer at Columbia University School of the Arts and at George Washington University. Subsequently, she taught literature and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and later at St. Mary’s College. In addition to appearing in more than one hundred anthologies of poetry, her poems have come to popular attention through her numerous television appearances.
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