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Lucille Sayles Clifton was born in Depew, New York, to Samuel L. and Thelma Moore Sayles. Her father worked for the New York steel mills; her mother was a launderer, homemaker, and avocational poet. Although neither parent was formally educated, they provided their large family with an appreciation and an abundance of books, especially those by African Americans. At age sixteen, Lucille entered college early, matriculating as a drama major at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Her Howard associates included such intellectuals as Sterling A. Brown, A. B. Spellman, Chloe Wofford (now Toni Morrison), who later edited her writings for Random House, and Fred Clifton, whom she married in 1958.

After transferring to Fredonia State Teachers College in 1955, Clifton worked as an actor and began to cultivate in poetry the minimalist characteristics that would become her professional signature. Like other prominent Black Aesthetic poets consciously breaking with Eurocentric conventions, including Sonia Sanchez and her Howard colleague, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Clifton developed such stylistic features as concise, untitled free verse lyrics of mostly iambic trimeter lines, occasional slant rhymes, anaphora and other forms of repetition, puns and allusions, lowercase letters, sparse punctuation, and a lean lexicon of rudimentary but evocative words.

Poet Robert Hayden entered her poems into competition for the 1969 YW-YMHA Poetry Center Discovery Award. She won the award and with it the publication of her first volume of poems, Good Times. Frequently inspired by her own family, especially her six young children, Clifton's early poems are celebrations of African American ancestry, heritage, and culture. Her early publications praise African Americans for their historic resistance to oppression and their survival of economic and political racism. Acclaimed by the New York Times as one of the best books of 1969, Good Times launched Clifton's prolific writing career.

In 1970 Clifton published two picture verse books for children, The Black BC’s and Some of the Days of Everett Anderson. Everett Anderson, a small boy living in the inner city, became the protagonist of eight of the fourteen works of juvenile fiction she published between 1970 and 1984. One in this series, Everett Anderson’s Goodbye, received the Coretta Scott King Award in 1984. Another of her children's books, Sonora Beautiful (1981), represents a thematic departure for Clifton in that it features a white girl as the main character. Like her poetry, Clifton's short fiction extols the human capacity for love, rejuvenation, and transcendence over weakness and malevolence even as it exposes the myth of the American dream.

Clifton's prose maintains a familial and cultural tradition of storytelling. Adapting a genealogy prepared by her father, Generations: A Memoir (1976) constitutes a matrilineal neo-slave narrative; it traces the Sale/Sayles family from its Dahomeian ancestor who became known as Caroline Sale Donald (1823-1910) after her abduction in 1830 from West Africa to New Orleans, Louisiana. Most of the biographical sketches in Generations are written from a first-person perspective in which various family members are represented as narrating their own stories. In them, Clifton further honors African American oral and oratorical traditions with her use of black vernacular.

In 1987 Clifton reprinted her complete published poems in Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, which, in addition to Generations, contains Good Times, Good News about the Earth (1972), An Ordinary Woman (1974), and Two-Headed Woman (1980), a Pulitzer Prize nominee and winner of the Juniper Prize. The themes of these exceptional poems reflect both Clifton's ethnic pride and her womanist principles, and integrate her race and gender consciousness. Casting her persona as at once plain and extraordinary, Clifton challenges pejorative Western myths that define women and people of color as predatory and malevolent or vulnerable and impotent. Her poems attest to her political sagacity and her lyrical mysticism. Poem sequences throughout her works espouse Clifton's belief in divine grace by revising the characterization of such biblical figures as the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary, and in An Ordinary Woman she shows herself in conflict and consort with Kali, the Hindu goddess of war and creativity.

Good Woman also narrates a personal and collective history as it addresses the poet's enduring process of self-discovery as poet, woman, mother, daughter, sibling, spouse, and friend. Some of its most complex and effective poems mourn Thelma Sayles's epilepsy, mental illness, and premature death when Clifton was twenty-three. A persistent witness to America's failed promises to former slaves, Native Americans, and other victims of its tyranny, Clifton is nonetheless witty and sanguine as she probes the impact of history on the present. She testifies to the pain of oppression manifested in her parents' tormented marriage, in racism that undermines progressive movements for social change, in disregard for the planet Earth as a living and sentient being.

In 1987 Clifton published Next: New Poems, most of which are constructed as "sorrow songs" or requiems. Some lament personal losses--the deaths by disease of the poet's mother at age forty-four on 13 February 1959; of her husband at age forty-nine on 10 November 1984; and of a Barbadian friend, "Joanne C.," who died at age twenty-one on 30 November 1982. Other poems grieve for political figures or tragedies, including an elegy sequence for the American Indian chief, Crazy Horse, and a trilogy mourning the massacres at Gettysburg, Nagasaki, and Jonestown. The persona also testifies, to the crime and tragedy of child molestation, a theme developed in poem sequences featuring the mythical African shape-shifter in both Next and The Book of Light (1993). In the tradition of Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Etheridge Knight, Clifton's heroic meditations in The Book of Light offer pithy and grievous contemplations of diverse epistemological and metaphysical questions.

Clifton served as Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1979 to 1982. Her achievements also include fellowships and honorary degrees from Fisk University, George Washington University, Trinity College, and other institutions; two grants from the National Endowment of the Arts; and an Emmy Award from the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Clifton is Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College in Maryland and has a position at Columbia University from 1995 to 1999.


From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.