BHM: Lucille Clifton

Today’s Black Herstory Month post is both in honor of an amazing poet and a sad announcement that Ms Clifton died early this morning.

Lucille Clifton wrote her first book of poetry, Good Times, while still employed as a social service worker for the state of New York. Despite critical acclaim for her premiere collection, she stayed with the state for 2 more years out of a commitment to doing social justice from within.

In 1971, she became a full time poet and frequent artist in residence. She was part of a contemporary African-American and black poetic re-imagining that posited a black aesthetic into poetic form. Thus she used a number of free form and “unconventional” techniques to centered the lives, language(s), and vision of black people in her work and also combined several spiritual traditions from Christianity to Hinduism to Yoruba. The radicalism of her first collections, especially Good News, led some white reviewers to conclude that she “hates whites” rather than to see her complex confrontation of racism and her hopeful positing of poems about black leadership and religious figures as a way to over come them. Her collections also centered women’s lives and women’s issues. Two such collection, The Good Woman and the Two-Headed Woman were nominated for Pulitzer Prizes. She also received several female poet awards, local artist awards, and two fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts. The Good Woman in particular addressed many of Clifton’s personal triumphs and tragedies as a woman, wife, mother, daughter, and sister. Many of these poems also addressed mental and physical disabilities in her family and the way they intersect with the women in her family’s lives. In her collection Quilting, she uses the quilt forms often associated with black female quiltmakers to tell a story of black female history from unnamed slaves, to Fannie Lou Hamer, to Winnie Mandela, embracing the diasporic identities of black women around the globe and highlighting specific liberation struggles. Her poems to her uterus and about menstruation are oft-quoted amongst feminists and women’s groups as well.

Clifton reading her poem “Homage to My Hips”

She was also a prolific writer of children’s books geared toward African American children and showing them in a positive light in literature. Among these books was her Everett Anderson series that centered the adventures and life lessons of young black boy living in the inner-city. Everett Anderson’s Goodbye won the Coretta Scott King Award in 1984. Her collaboration on adaptations of her books led to an Academy Award. Her children’s books about women and girls often centered black girls lives but also included a story with a white female protagonist showing Clifton’s commitment to the progress of girls across the color line. Among my favorites is The Lucky Stone, that shows three generations of black women made who have been blessed by possession of a wish granting stone; each generation of women has used the stone wisely to enhance their community and the position of women, at the story’s end the stone is passed on to the granddaughter with the hopes she will carry on the tradition.

Whether speaking about her poetry or her children’s books, Clifton’s thematic issues remained largely the same. She was deeply concerned about inequality based on both racial and gender prejudices in N. America. She often wrote characters and poems that directly challenged images of women and people of color as predatory, evil, impotent, or constant victims, refusing to take on either the vilification or victim stance often required of women’s and ethnic lit/poetry by publishers and instead gave us characters and poems that were complex and independent. While her focus was often on the racism and sexism experienced by black women, she also made important connections to Native Americans, Asian Americans, Indian women, and the black diaspora in general. One such poem connected Gettysburg, Nagasaki, and Jonestown. Her words worked to highlight the interconnections of women and girls even in conflict and to celebrate the resilience of women and black people even as the scathingly critiqued racism and sexism.

While her prolific publishing rate in a declining market and her endless list of awards and accolades help to credential her, it is her poetry itself that matters most.

Sisters

me and you be sisters.
we be the same.

me and you
coming from the same place.

me and you
be greasing our legs
touching up our edges.

me and you
be scared of rats
be stepping on roaches.

me and you
come running high down purdy street one time
and mama laugh and shake her head at
me and you.

me and you

got babies

got thirty-five
got black
let our hair go back
be loving ourselves
be loving ourselves
be sisters.

only where you sing,
I poet.

L. Clifton

6 thoughts on “BHM: Lucille Clifton

  1. This is a very nice tribute to an amazing American. I had the honor of meeting her and hearing her lecture when I was an undergrad, lo those many years ago. She made an impression on me that I will carry forever and I mourn her passing with you.

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  3. just wanted to say it is a real blessing to share her passing with all of you. I think all of the outpouring of positive sentiment for her loss is a real sign of what an amazing poet and person she was.

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