NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire Vol 17.2: Fall 2017 - Page 92

Clifton celebrates the simple life — the good life. This goodness can be linked to the word gospel. Her work at times are religious teachings, meant to guide us and remind us about birth, life, and death. Such work becomes especially instructional, when the subject turns to history. Lucille Clifton was born June 27, 1936, and raised in Depew, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. She attended Howard University from 1953 to 1955. She entered Howard University at the age of 16 and was a drama major. People she met at Howard included Sterling Brown, A.B. Spellman, and Toni Morrison, who at that time was known as Chloe Wofford. Clifton graduated from the State University of New York College at Fredonia in 1955. In Clifton’s early poems we find the theme central to her work, which is the celebration of the black female body. Her poem “if i stand in my window” is simply beautiful and bodacious. To understand why the poem is necessary, one only has to explore the negative racial and female stereotypes projected at Black women, who at times have been cast as asexual mammies, oversexed and erotic tragic figures, or strong Black women with superhuman capacities for suffering. Lucille Clifton’s poetry focuses on the ordinary and not the exceptional, or what Maya Angelou would describe as phenomenal. It was Clifton in the 1970s who proclaimed she was an ordinary woman. Years later this still seems extraordinary considering how many young woman are attracted to glitter and fame. To describe Lucille Clifton, however, as a Black poet whose early work is primarily interested with home life and the female Black body would be to ignore her interest in the political climate that surrounded her. Her second book, Good News About The Earth, pays respect to the young people killed at Jackson State (Mississippi) and Kent State (Ohio) in 1970. In her opening poem she questions the Whiteness of violence. after kent state only to keep his little fear he kills his cities and his trees even his children oh people white ways are the way of death come into the black and live This “whiteness” at times is destructive to Black values, images and beliefs. African American writers are constantly wrestling with issues of identity in their poems, novels and plays. In Arnold Adoff’s anthology, The Poetry of Black America, published in 1973, one finds the poems that would be responsible for the growth of her reputation as a Black woman writer emerging in the 1970s. The poems are: good times for deLawd miss rosie those boys that ran together my mama moved among the days listen children to bobby seale Among the seven poems listed above, we find “good times” and “listen children.” These two poems would become Clifton’s early signature poems. How we remember writers, how we teach them from one generation to the next, often depends on the various anthologies and texts that make it into the classroom. When I edited In Search of Color Everywhere in 1994, I included four poems by Clifton. They were “listen children”, “good times”,“the lost baby poem”, and “I am accused of tending to the past.” As an editor, I decided to have Clifton represented by the poems that had established her reputation. Was I guilty of sharing a limited range of her work? On a number of occasions, my life was influenced by this ordinary — if not remarkable — woman. Lucille Clifton was the judge in 1995, when I was awarded the O.B. Hardison Jr. Prize for Poetry. I received this prize probably because of my Ascension Poetry Reading Series, which had encouraged many writers to find their voices. If not for Clifton’s early support, I wonder if I might have continued. The spiritual Lucille Clifton was a humble model for poets to take note. It was the lesson I felt she kept offering with amazing grace. In 1980 when Lucille Clifton published Two-Headed Woman, I reviewed this collection for the Washington Review of the Arts. I recall in 1981 running into her in Union Station. I guess she must have been on her way back to Baltimore. We sat in the station, and I told her how much I enjoyed her book of poems. I inquired about her spiritual search and transformation. I felt Two-Headed Woman was an important book marking the various developments within African American literature when it came to spirituality. Two-Headed Woman was a Pulitzer Prize nominee and winner of the Juniper Prize. The book is divided into three sections. The first section “homage to mine” features two poems about the Black body that became very popular with her audience, “homage to my hair” and “homage to my hips.” The second poem was Clifton bold. these hips are big hips they need space to move around in. they don’t fit into little petty places. these hips are free hips. they don’t like to be held back. these hips have never been enslaved, they go where they want to go they do what they want to do. these hips are mighty hips. these hips are magic hips. I have known them to put a spell on a man and spin him like a top! The word “homage” captures not just the praise and admiration of the Black body – but its elevation. One should think of this poem when considering how Black women in the public sphere have been viewed. 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