Lucille Clifton

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Born Thelma Lucille Sayles to Thelma Moore Sayles and Samuel Sayles in 1936, Lucille Clifton was raised by her parents in Depew, a small town in upstate New York. The Sayles’s house was home to many relatives, and Lucille grew up in the midst of a large extended family. Living under the same roof as grandparents, aunts and uncles, two sisters, and her brother, Lucille learned early the value of family; throughout her literary career her family was the subject of many poems and her autobiography, Generations: A Memoir.

While every family member was a source of inspiration for Clifton, none so stirred her creative impulse and imagination as did her great-grandmother Caroline Donald Sale. Mammy Ca’line, as Clifton refers to her, was born in Africa and brought to America as a slave. She escaped from slavery and obtained freedom while she was only a girl. Clifton revered Mammy Ca’line’s fortitude and paid homage to the woman and her accomplishments in several poems and in Generations: A Memoir.

Although the Sayles household was rich in love, the family was by no means affluent. Economic struggles and battles with the ghetto’s hostile environment were a part of daily life for Clifton. Despite these hardships, Clifton learned early, as Mari Evans notes, the lesson “that being very poor . . . had nothing to do with lovingness or familyness or character.” Clifton was able to transform her childhood, spent in a strong, loving family, into poetry. Drawing heavily on details from her early life, the poems in Clifton’s early collections, Good Times, Good News About the Earth, and An Ordinary Woman, convey the haunting sadness of ghetto life. These poems also honor those who have endured and triumphed despite adverse, even hostile, living conditions.

Clifton’s world, however, was not limited to the narrow sphere of the ghetto. In 1953 she became the first of her family to go away to college. She attended Howard University between 1953 and 1955, majoring in drama. She graduated from Fredonia State Teachers College in 1958. She married Fred J. Clifton in 1958, and by 1969 she was the mother of six children—four girls and two boys.

Being a wife and mother did not interfere with Clifton’s writing career; in fact, being responsible for a family may have actually been its impetus. In 1969, when all six of her children were still under the age of ten, she published her first volume of poetry, Good Times. Many of the poems found in this work deal with the problems of ghetto life—poverty, unemployment, substandard housing, and inadequate education. Throughout the volume Clifton laments these hardships, but she balances her despair with hope. Along with the trying circumstances of life, Clifton also records the joy found in this world. In later works Clifton continued to weave bits and pieces of her life into her poetry. In the poems in An Ordinary Woman she concentrates on exploring the different roles she plays in life as a writer, a wife, a mother, and a woman.

Motherhood directly influenced another facet of Clifton’s writing. Clifton’s literary range extended to children’s literature, and she published more than twenty books for young people. In these works she teaches self-reliance and self-acceptance. That she addresses the fears, joys, and pain of childhood without patronizing her audience suggests that Clifton not only tapped her experiences as a mother for literary material but relished them as well.

While domestic life, in addition to writing, absorbed much of Clifton’s energies, she also nurtured a professional life. She served as visiting writer at Columbia University and George Washington University and taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and Duke University. She was awarded National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1969, 1970, and 1972 and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1980, 1987, and 1991. In 1998 she was inducted into the National Literature Hall of Fame for African American Writers. Clifton died on February 13, 2010 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was 73.

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