Black Students Find Strength thru Clifton

Lucille Clifton

Lucille Clifton


Last night, as part of our continuing celebration of our 175 anniversary, St. Mary’s College of Maryland commemorated Lucille Clifton, who taught at the college from 1989-2005. The theme of the night, which is also the theme of our African American president Tujuanda Jordan, was “Creating the Compassionate Community.”

Former students, colleagues, and friends read Clifton’s poems and reminisced. Two of the most powerful readings, however, were by current students who never met the poet. Black Student Union president Chrystal Worrel read “my dream about being white” after telling us about her own childhood dreams of being white. Noni Ford read “a dream of foxes.”

Crystal said that her dream of being white started when she was five. A fellow kindergartner told her that she couldn’t be a mommy because her skin was the wrong color, and Crystal went home and told her own mother that she needed to change her looks. Remnants of that fantasy stayed with her for years, but encountering Clifton’s poem at St. Mary’s helped her to finally let it go. Here’s the poem:

my dream about being white

By Lucille Clifton

hey music and
only white,
hair a flutter of
fall leaves
circling my perfect
line of a nose,
no lips,
no behind, hey
white me
and i’m wearing
white history
but there’s no future
in those clothes
so i take them off and
wake up

This poem has become particularly meaningful to me now that I have granddaughters of color. Already the three-year-old is asking her parents about her skin tone. Esmé observed recently that her skin is closer in color to her father’s than her Trinidadian mother’s, even though that’s not the way that America will see it.

In other words, Esmé too will need Clifton’s poetry in her life.

The other student reader, Noni Ford, told about being awed by the natural beauty upon her first visit to St. Mary’s. Her poet mother, on the other hand, couldn’t get over the fact that Clifton’s poetry is scattered throughout the campus.

Noni observed that, while she still appreciates the beauty, she also has come to realize that the college has race issues. It’s not, in other words, the Garden of Eden. Noni read “a dream of foxes,” which captures the dichotomy. In this case, the dream is positive. Although the world continues to hunt foxes, in the dream there are safe and generous fields:

a dream of foxes

By Lucille Clifton

in the dream of foxes
there is a field
and a procession of women
clean as good children
no hollow in the world
surrounded by dogs
no fur clumped bloody
on the ground
only a lovely line
of honest women stepping
without fear or guilt or shame
safe through the generous fields

Part of that “lovely line” is the lineage which reaches back to the Clifton’s strong female ancestors (written about in Generations) and down through Clifton to Noni herself. Taking inspiration from Clifton’s poetry, Noni said that Clifton would want her to keep struggling for social justice.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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