CLIFTON: Well, let me tell you what happened with that poem. I went to Walnut Grove Plantation in South Carolina in 1989 and I was the only person of color on the tour. It's a wonderful two thousand acres, but on the tour there was no mention of slaves. The plantation had the original furniture, and the guide talked about the difficulty of the work for a small family, but there was no mention of slavery. Now I'm very nosy--I want to know everything when I travel to give readings, all the gossip, everything. I like to know what happened here, so I always ask about the people who were here before these people? And then the uncomfortable question always is "Where are they now?"
Well, Walnut Grove Plantation has the family burying ground, and on the sides of the roped-off path leading to that burying ground there are crosses and rocks and other things sitting on edge that to me clearly mark the graves of slaves. So I asked, "Why don't you mention slaves?" The first answer was "Maybe the guide didn't want to embarrass you." "Well," I said, "I'm not a slave. I don't know why he would think I'd be embarrassed." Then I asked again, and the answer was, "Maybe they didn't have any." Well, they had two thousand acres in South Carolina in the early part of the nineteenth century. Be serious!
When I suggested that the guide check the inventory--because slaves were considered property and were often inventoried--they discovered that the plantation had an inventory of ten slaves, but they might have had more because women weren't counted. Now, well, I had to find out about that! I mean, some things say, hey, like "No!" Then when I learned that the women were not considered valuable enough to inventory, I definitely wanted to write about that.
MOYERS: What do you want the readers to do at the end of the poem when you change the word "here" to "hear"?
CLIFTON: I want them to recognize that only half the truth was being told. At that time schoolchildren were taken there on field trips to Walnut Grove, and half the children in the town were denied the knowledge that their ancestors had helped to build that plantation. That is unjust, and I'm into justice big-time.
I read that poem in South Carolina a lot, and someone in the audience--I think she was the director of the group which has restored the plantation--wrote me a letter saying that she just didn't realize. Two years ago they began building a model slave cabin, and now they are going to include all the people who lived there in the tour. So that's one poem doing something, making a difference. Then once when I did a reading at the nearby town a woman came up and told me that her family had owned Walnut Grove, but she had never gone back--she was ashamed--so I said the next time I come here, we must go together. You see, we cannot ignore history. History doesn't go away. The past isn't back there, the past is here too.
MOYERS: Is it part of poetry's job to recover history, to proclaim it, and to correct it when necessary?
CLIFTON: Yes. All that may be needed is that the injustice in the world be mentioned so that nobody can ever say, "Nobody told me."
From The Language of Life: A festival of Poets. By Bill Moyers. Ed. James Haba. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Public Affairs Television, Inc., and David Grubin Productions, Inc.