Anyone familiar with Lucille Clifton’s poetry is aware that her work was largely focused on the African-American experience, motherhood, and family life. Celebratory readings of her prize-winning and Pulitzer nominated poems are still being held all over the country, but none could compare to hearing them read by the celebrated author herself.
There was always a girlish twinkle in her eye when she read her work. As though she were enjoying a secret that she may or may not be willing to reveal to her audience of rapt listeners. I always envisioned her creative process; smiling to herself as her carefully considered and chosen words flowed from her brilliant, fertile mind to her pen and danced across the page.
And how she made them dance!
Her words gyrate, shimmy, strut, dip, pirouette, and prance, forming poems that ultimately take shape, grab your soul, and leave you breathless. This was Lucille Clifton. Her poetry created a new lexicon of self-definition, love, racial pride, and feminine ideology, speaking a language unlike any other. But what stands out for me in her work is her perception of her role as mother. I think of the mother she was and of her six children. My deep appreciation of this aspect of her life actually grew over thirty years through my friendship with her daughter, Sidney. And having experienced this extraordinary family, it is obvious that Mrs. Clifton’s guiding principles and basic beliefs are firmly in place and beautifully reflected in her surviving children. It is a bond that began in infancy and surpasses any other relationship, as Mrs. Clifton so often expressed in her work. Most especially her relationship with her four daughters, — “my girls, my girls”, Sidney, Frederica, Gillian, and Alexia. Sadly, the family lost Frederica several years ago after a long illness. But her guiding light and spirit lives on in her beloved sisters.
Imagine having been blessed to be the daughter of Lucille Clifton and all that that encompasses. To read your devoted mother’s words about her enduring love for her husband, your father, Fred Clifton, and “…the love that made you…” and her four girls and two boys. What an extraordinary legacy.
Raising girls who are growing up black and female in America requires a special kind of strength, which Mrs. Clifton possessed in abundance. In a culture in which girls coming of age constantly receive messages from outside forces about how they should look and feel and be, she, by example, imbued her girls with confidence and faith in their own worth and intellect, as well as an impenetrable armor against the inevitable challenges they would face in the outside world. And today, the result is beautifully reflected in the exceptional and successful women they’ve become, and in the echo of their mother’s voice.
Scientific studies have revealed that infants in-utero display an accelerated heartbeat in response to their mother’s voice. Life experience teaches us that that dialog continues for a lifetime, and beyond. But imagine what it must have been like to grow up in the embracing serenade of Lucille Clifton’s calm, reassuring voice, and to find your own through hers. We should all be so lucky.
And her extraordinary legacy will endure.