Clifton’s Family History

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Lucille Clifton is a distinguished African American poet and a recipient of the National Book Award, numerous poetry and literary prizes, and honorary degrees from five colleges and universities. Her first collection of poems was published during the year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and in the year of her father’s death. She was thirty-three years old, and her mother had died eleven years earlier, at the age of forty-four. In the book’s title poem, she admonishes readers to “think about the good times.” The tough spirit of that practical wisdom—accepting, forgiving, determined, and celebratory—forms the predominant tone of her early works.

The voice that speaks this wisdom throughout Clifton’s poetry is the voice of an empowered and empowering woman, specifically a black woman whose identity has been molded by memories within a family that was given its genesis by American slavery. The family’s female progenitor, Caroline Sayle, was a midwife who was born eight years before her enslavement and who died long after the emancipation. Familial memories and Clifton’s art drive her in her poetry to sing about freedom, symbolized by Africa, and about a future symbolized especially by daughters and mothers yet to be born. Clifton’s poetry may be seen as an African American “Song of Myself” (1855): While she suffers grievous losses, her story echoes Walt Whitman’s affirmation in that nineteenth century poem that...

(The entire section is 536 words.)

Memory and History

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Regret is sometimes expressed in Clifton’s writing, perhaps because memory has been such a strong feature of her artistry. She writes in Generations, “Who remembers the names of the slaves? Only the children of slaves.” The bones of the African American poet, she says, remember the soul of the African homeland, just as the name Lucille recalls the ancestors of her African bloodline. Clifton calls herself a “two-headed woman” who looks both outward and inward; while looking back along the way that her people and family have come, she also looks ahead to the promise of constant renewal. History, then, is a garden ripe with living and cherishing memory, as in the exchange of recollections while rocking on the porch or in the giving and regiving of names.

Related to memory, naming is a feature of Clifton’s understanding of her art, for in the act of naming the essential realities of persons are released: “we are lost from the field/ of flowers, we become/ a field of flowers.” The job of the poet, Clifton explains in “the making of poems,” is to try to give true names and to accept the inevitable failures (or half successes) of a being of flesh: The rightful names, the true identities, of persons and things exist in the realm of pure spirit beyond life, while poems are made of “the blood that clots on your tongue.” Nevertheless, as Clifton suggests in “my dream about time,” without these attempts, persons would face the nightmare of a world for which they had no language, like a room full of clocks that all “strike/ NO.”

Clifton’s art demands that she speak plainly and directly of the spiritual meaning and value of ordinary human experience. Clifton herself has overcome whatever racist stereotyping she has experienced in the African American community. Often, though, the whites whom she presents in poems are representative of those persons whom she has met or observed who are blinded by color prejudice, and much of American culture seems to her to reflect their weaknesses. She suggests, for example, that white New Englanders might view their rural landscape as a sign of a long past, but without responding to it as regenerative history. Therefore they become exploitative or, at best, careless, so that “the land is in ruins/ no magic, no anything.”

This attitude toward history on the part of white Americans denies for Clifton the extent to which their living history includes the stories of the Native American Trail of Tears and of the Middle Passage that brought African slaves to America. The white men and women in those stories have faces that black people, too, need to forget. In her early collections, whites are depicted as spiritually and socially underdeveloped, pitiable creatures. They are lost souls who would not...

(The entire section is 1142 words.)