Sometime last year I noticed that a new edition of Lucille Clifton’s 1976 memoir Generations had been published by the New York Review Books’ Classics series. Clifton is famous for her short, economical poems that pack a punch, usually written in short lines, in all lowercase letters, with minimal punctuation. She authored at least thirteen original books of poetry, and twenty-one children’s books (mostly in verse). Generations is her only substantial work of prose. It’s a short ninety-page memoir, and I foolishly thought I could knock out a review in a few weeks. Several months later, I’m grateful for all of the time that I’ve spent with Clifton’s body of work—watching her readings online, listening to a podcast conversation featuring her daughter Sidney Clifton talk about her mother’s legacy, listening to the audiobook version of Generations (read by Sidney Clifton), assembling a private collection of my own favorite Clifton poems, sitting with her massive Collected Poems in my lap as my son lay on the floor playing with trucks and trains. I realized I was making a common, egregious mistake in my approach to Clifton. Her style is deceptively simple—small poems with a few lines—but she wrote a ton of them over her lifetime, represented in the 769 pages of the Collected Poems, and there’s a depth to her poems that belie their small stature.
I knew that she was a mother of six children. As a new father of a pandemic baby born in 2020, I hoped to pick up a few stray insights about how she wrote so much with kids running around. “Why do you think my poems are so short?” Clifton often joked about being a writer and a mother.
Lucille Clifton’s work has always been timely and urgent, but since she left this earthly realm in 2010 her work has blossomed into something more. Poems like “won’t you celebrate with me” and “why some people be mad at me sometimes” circulate furiously online. Her poems seem uniquely suited to the character limits and compressed space of social media. Unfortunately, her candid poems about abortion like “the lost baby poem,” have become relevant again, as reproductive rights are curtailed by the Supreme Court. Even the release of the recent film The Woman King, set in the Kingdom of Dahomey, recalls Clifton’s Generations in which she celebrates the stories of Dahomey women passed down through her family.
And then came that awful shooting in Buffalo, NY on May 14, 2022, when a murderous white boy walked into the Tops supermarket in the Black section of town and killed ten people. Clifton was raised in nearby Depew and the setting is central to Generations. And because this is America, before I could even wrap my head around that gun massacre, on May 24, nineteen children and two teachers were slaughtered in an elementary school in Uvalde, TX. In this way, Clifton’s writing is timely as well. In poems like “slaveships” and “jasper texas 1998” she reflects on the American way of death and violence. She once said in a reading at the University of Memphis: “History is chasing you, America, like a mean dog, and the only way to get it off your back is to turn around and stare it in the face.”
Generations is a book about staring history in the face. It is a family history reconstructed and passed down through generations of storytellers. As such, its narrative is more circular than linear. Centered on the death of the family patriarch Samuel Sayles, Sr. in 1969, the main storyline revolves around the ritual of his funeral as the children travel back to Depew to lay their father to rest. Clifton biographer Mary Jane Lupton gives a solid description of the memoir’s structure and context:
Generations is divided into five sections or chapters: “caroline and son,” “lucy,” “gene,” “samuel,” and “thelma.” These chapters are the basis of the Sayles genealogy, one that has the resonance of an Old Testament lineage. Great-great-grandmother Caroline and her husband Sam begat a son named Eugene, who begat a son named Samuel (Lucille’s father), who married Lucille’s mother (Thelma Moore). They begat a son, Samuel Sayles, and a daughter, Thelma Lucille Sayles, called Lucille. Thelma Lucille Sayles married Fred Clifton. They begat six children named Sidney, Frederica, Gillian, Alexia, Channing, and Graham. All of these children were alive when Lucille Clifton’s memoir was published in 1976. Although Clifton and her deceased father are the most conspicuous characters in the memoir, there is no chapter devoted to the author herself. (62)
That last part threw me off as I read Generations. I expected to read a memoir of the poet’s life. Instead I found a lean, evocative text that explores what Christina Sharpe calls life “in the wake.” It’s a book about how a Black American family survived in the afterlife of slavery and made meaning out of bits of history pieced together. It is the record of a poet in the family who remembered these oral histories and crafted them into a work of art. Lupton notes that Generations is divided into five sections, but I like how in the audiobook version Sidney Clifton refers to each one as a “Book.” The books are short, like Clifton’s poems. Each of the five contains five or six chapters. Each chapter is about two or three paragraphs long. The order of the books is roughly chronological, though the narrative in each book bounces between past and present, resisting a linear temporality.
A haunting, untitled family photograph and an epigraph from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” appear at the start of each book. Clifton doesn’t identify the people, dates, or provenance of the photos, but we are prompted to assume that these are the people for whom the books are titled. The images also represent one mode of storytelling often used by poor folks who were unable to write their family histories. Clifton describes her father Samuel Sayles as a man with limited reading literacy, and in the last chapter “Thelma,” she tells a poignant story about her father sending her a brief letter when she was a student at Howard University, using the best writing that he could muster.
The epigraphs from “Song of Myself” link Clifton’s writing to an American poetic tradition, in all of its complexity. Generations is another example of how African-American artists have engaged and identified with Whitman’s radical democratic vision. Though Clifton mainly uses excerpts from “Song of Myself,” an unmentioned subtext of Generations is the section on the slave auction in the original 1855 Leaves of Grass. There’s poetry in the family’s name of Sayles/Sale, which evokes the brutal transactions of chattel slavery, and the conversion of black life into white property. When Whitman looks upon the auction block he sees that the lineage of America will come as much from the enslaved as it does from the enslavers:
This is not only one man …. he is the father of those
who shall be fathers in their turns,
In him the start of populous states and rich republics,
Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments
How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his
offspring through the centuries?
Who might you find you have come from yourself if you
could trace back through the centuries?
Book One, “Caroline and Son” begins with Lucille on a phone call with the white woman whose family owned hers. The white woman’s enthusiasm for family genealogy deflates into solemnity when she realizes who she is talking to. Of course, she does not recognize the first names of Lucille Clifton’s family members. “Who remembers the names of the slaves? Only the children of the slaves” (12). Clifton seamlessly blends different voices into the narrative. This is memoir as polyvocal harmony rather than singular voice. Lucille recalls what her father told her about Mammy Ca’line and her Dahomey heritage: “And she used to tell us about how they had a whole army of nothing but women back there and how they was the best soldiers in the world. And she was from among the Dahomey people and one day her and her Mama and her sister and her brother was captured and throwed on a boat and on a boat till they landed in New Orleans” (18). Later, he tells Lucille, –“Oh slavery, slavery…It ain’t something in a book, Lue. Even the good parts was awful” (28). But in their family’s history, Mammy Ca’line’s story is one of those defiant parts, if not the good parts. She was born in 1822 in Dahomey, and as an enslaved eight-year-old girl walked her way to freedom from New Orleans to Virginia. Her father says Caroline always used to tell them: “Get what you want, you from Dahomey women” (17).
In Book Two, “Lucy,” Lucille Clifton provides an origin story for her name. She was born as Thelma Lucille Sayles in Depew, NY, June 27, 1936. She was named for Mammy Ca’line’s daughter Lucille, nicknamed Lucy, who killed a white man named Harvey Nichols, a carpetbagger from the North. Lucy had a child with Nichols named Gene, who had a son named Samuel Sayles, Lucille Clifton’s father. Lucy was found guilty of murdering Harvey Nichols and hanged, the first Black person to be legally hanged in the state of Virginia. The story about Lucy’s execution is one of the most dramatic episodes in Generations. In a moment of scholarly curiosity, Lucille Clifton wonders about the veracity of this story and confides in her husband Fred about it. “I would be dissatisfied and fuss with Fred about fact and proof and history until he told me one day not to worry, that even the lies are true. In history, even the lies are true” (39).
“Gene” is titled after the light-skinned, disabled son of Harvey and Lucy who was raised by Caroline. Gene married a woman named Georgia Hatcher who had a son, Samuel Sayles, Sr. In this book, Lucille relates all of this through her father’s stories about his parents. The section also introduces more about Lucille Clifton’s mother, Thelma, and the tumultuous marriage she had with Samuel, which began when he was thirty-five and she was twenty-one. A subtle commentary floats up out of this section on African-American health disparities. There’s Gene’s withered arm. Lucille Clifton’s mother suffered seizures from epilepsy. Her father had emphysema as well as unspecified problems with one of his legs; it eventually was amputated. Like Whitman, Clifton pays close attention to the human body, in all of its many diverse forms, and lovingly portrays these lived-in bodies existing on the margins of American life.
Back at the beginning of Generations, the inscription reads, “for/Samuel Louis Sayles, Sr./Daddy/1902-1969/who is Somewhere,/being a Man.” The book titled “Samuel” delves into the meaning of the man. “He had been a great storyteller. His life had been full of days and his days had been full of life,” (34) Lucille writes of him. One way to read Generations is that it is a unique reflection on Black masculinity from the perspective of a Black woman. Samuel embodies all of the complexities of Black manhood: the ritual humiliation and emasculation under slavery and Jim Crow, the pride in resisting that emasculation to become a patriarch of one’s own family and own a home, the favoritism for sons, the unprocessed traumas that end up getting projected onto Black wives and daughters, who in turn must learn to carry them.
“Thelma,” the last book, is a double-entendre for Lucille Clifton herself and her mother, who was born in Rome, Georgia in 1914. Clifton speaks of her mother with pride. “Oh she made magic, she was a magic woman, my Mama. She was not wise in the world but she had magic wisdom” (82). This section chronicles her mother’s challenges living with a difficult, older husband. It is also the closest that we get to a conventional Lucille Clifton memoir, as her voice takes over, and we see her sprouting into young adulthood. She writes about her brief experiences as a college student at Howard University, including the colorism and classism that she felt there as a dark-skinned black girl from an uneducated family. Despite being a scholarship student, she left Howard, and returned home feeling ashamed about it, facing her father’s disappointment. She wanted to be a poet, and eventually found her way there.
In “Sifting Legacies in Lucille Clifton’s Generations,” Cheryl A. Wall includes a troubling but necessary discussion on Clifton’s decision to exclude any mention of the sexual abuse she endured from her father. Clifton is candid about that abuse elsewhere in her poetry. In “mercy” she writes, “how grateful I was when he decided/ not to replace his fingers with his thing…” (Collected Poems 588). And in another untitled poem she writes, “my father hasn’t come back/ to apologize…i do not hate him/ i assure myself/only his probing fingers…” (Collected Poems 658). In this way Generations is an example of how Black feminist and queer thinkers have often addressed the multiple, layered struggles of race and gender oppression. Black women and queer intellectuals often make such strategic decisions in the name of racial solidarity and in response to the immediacy of racialized oppression under white supremacy. Clifton’s body of work shows an artist negotiating her way through life being Black, woman, mother, disabled. When it comes to her father, it seems she chose to forgive but not forget, and she clearly addressed the abuse the way she wanted to, by writing about it in stirring poems that continue to provoke and inspire.
As I thought about her work over the course of 2022, I returned often to a video of a reading that she gave during a residency at the University of Memphis (then Memphis State University) in 1992. Those months in Memphis inspired a section titled “A Term in Memphis” in the terrible stories (1996), a collection which includes “slaveships” among other notable Clifton poems. She mentions that this was her first significant time spent in the deep South. Her performance as a poet is like a great standup comic, as she riffs on various words and delivers one-liners with impeccable timing. In that lecture she addressed why she spoke on and wrote about abuse. “I like to read something about abuse at every reading. The reason of course is that I have never read such a poem in any group of more than six people when it has not directly or indirectly touched somebody, believe it or not. And also because one of the things I like to think that I can do is try to speak for those who have not yet found their voice to speak.” In her poetry and performance, Clifton showed that there is no perfect way to respond to trauma, but with intelligence and wit she faced the profound absurdity of being alive.
“Things don’t fall apart,” Clifton writes at the end of Generations, in a rebuttal to “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats. “Things hold. Lives connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept” (86). Generations is Lucille Clifton’s only work of prose, but it is perhaps best read as an extension of her poetry. It is a book that gives further insight into the generations who created this poet “born in babylon both nonwhite and woman.” Spending time with this memoir led me to revisit a perennial favorite among Clifton’s poems, and to see it with fresh eyes:
“why some people be mad at me sometimes”
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and i keep on remembering
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