Clifton Brings Black History Alive

Winslow Homer, "The Cotton Pickers"

Winslow Homer, “The Cotton Pickers”

Black History Month

Black History Month begins this week so I’m turning to Lucille Clifton reflections on the importance of looking back. Her book “quilting” ((1991) is particularly rich in the number of poems it has on this subject.

In “i am accused of tending to the past,” Clifton insists on talking about things that others would like to remain buried. Because history’s winners always want to forget the people they walked over to get where they are, history’s downtrodden need spokespeople to reconstruct the obliterated past. Clifton believes that the poet must provide history “faces, names, and dates” for this history, even if she offends when she does so:

i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.
this past was waiting for me
when i came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and i with my mother’s itch
took it to breast
and named it
she is more human now,
learning languages everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will.  

One piece of “History” that Clifton fills in is the Walnut Grove Plantation in South Carolina. In an interview with Bill Moyer, Clifton recounted how her tour made no mention of slaves, as though a small white family had managed a two thousand acre plantation by themselves. She discovered unmarked stones in a cemetery indicating where slaves had been buried and insisted on seeing the plantation’s inventory. The following poem was the result:

at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.

nobody mentioned slaves
and yet the curious tools
shine with your fingerprints.
nobody mentioned slaves
but somebody did this work
who had no guide, no stone,
who moulders under rock.

tell me your names,
tell me your bashful names
and I will testify.

the inventory lists ten slaves
but only men were recognized

among the rocks
at walnut grove
some of these honored dead
were dark
some of these dark
were slaves
some of these slaves
were women
some of them did this honored work.
tell me your names
foremothers, brothers,
tell me your dishonored names.
here lies
here lies
here lies
here lies

The word “lies,” of course, works as a pun, as does the final “hear.” The shift in spelling and the sudden silence, however, suggests another possibility. If we listen hard enough, we can “hear” the truth in the blank space. The poet’s job, Clifton told Moyer, is to point us to that truth:

Clifton: [W]e 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.”

When one gives faces and names to History, the descendants of those who have been erased can begin to walk tall. Clifton makes this point in “lucifer speaks in his own voice.” Lucille feels a kinship with Lucifer, with whom she shares the Latin prefix “lux” or light. In her version of the story, Her Lucifer is not an evil devil but a perceived troublemaker who upsets the established order of Eden. She, who “has some of the devil inside her,” sees Lucifer and herself herself upsetting people with their uncomfortable truths.

Truth-telling is vital because “some must walk or all will crawl.” Which is to say, only if we have justice for all will we have a truly just society. As a subversive poet, Clifton must “slither” into our lives to awaken us:

i who was called son
if only of the morning
saw that some must
walk or all will crawl
so slithered into earth
and seized the serpent in
the animals… i became
the lord of snake for
adam and for eve
i   the only lucifer
light bringer
created out of fire
illuminate i could
and so
illuminate i did

Black History Month is about illumination. The truth shall make us free.

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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.

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