Inspired by MLK and Lucille Clifton

Alyssa Hawkins, English major and Lucille Clifton admirer


I can think of no better way to honor the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death than to share a Lucille Clifton essay I received last fall from an African American first-year student. After reading poems from quilting, Alyssa Hawkins felt empowered to stand tall and speak out. In other words, she is fulfilling King’s dream for America.

The poems Alyssa chose all feature whites who are blind to issues that African Americans know intimately. In a particularly egregious letter sent to W. E. B. Du Bois in 1905, a university psychologist clearly did not regard “the Negro” as fully human. Clifton’s response, powerful in its dignified simplicity, puts the questioner to shame:

From a Letter Written to Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois by Alvin Borgquest of Clark University in Massachusetts and Dated April 3, 1905.

“We are pursuing an investigation here on the subject of crying as an expression of the emotions, and should like very much to learn about its peculiarities among the colored people. We have been referred to you as a person competent to give us information on the subject. We desire especially to know about the following salient aspects: 1. Whether the Negro sheds tears…”


he do
she do
they live
they love
they try
they tire
they flee
they fight
they bleed
they break
they moan
they mourn
they weep
they die
they do
they do
they do

“The Negro” knows only too much about shedding tears. Alyssa writes,

White people can’t seem to understand the idea that even though someone has darker pigmentation of melanin, they are just as human as they are. Clifton reveals that America’s very roots are deeply set with racism and dehumanization, and in not viewing Black people as human, many of the privileged within America are in denial of this fact or are simply unaware. She ends her poem almost mournfully and angrily, hoping to convey the depth of severity within her words: “they do/ they do/ they do.” Black people are human too: why is that so hard to understand?

It’s one thing for whites in 1905 to think this way. In the next poem that Alyssa chose, however, Clifton discovers defensiveness in her white acquaintances whenever she brings up painful moments in America’s racial history, accusing her of obsessing about the past or making things up. Only those who do not feel the effects of history, she could point out, can afford to ignore it. Alyssa, writing out of her own experience as well as Clifton’s, observes,

[W]hen African Americans speak of past maltreatment, they are accused of “not letting things go” when in reality the events that revolve around their race, such as police brutality and mass incarceration, do not allow this group of people to just abandon the past in hopes of a better future.

Of “i am accused of tending to the past,” Alyssa notes, “When Black people stand strong in their past and in their future, many white people view that action as a threat to their standard of living”:

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. 

Alyssa’s last poem hits the closest to home since, as I told the class, Clifton had me in mind when she wrote it (see the story here). Alyssa has moved from the obtuse white to the angrily defensive white to the sympathetic white who still doesn’t totally get it (“even the best”). Clifton, tired to being constantly misunderstood, is understandably irritated:

amira baraka—I refuse to be judged by white men.

or defined. and i see
that even the best believe
they have that right,
believe that
what they say i mean
is what i mean
as if words only matter in the world they know,
as if when i choose words
i must choose those
that they can live with
even if something inside me
cannot live,
as if my story is
so trivial
we can forget together,
as if i am not scarred,
as if my family enemy
does not look like them,
as if i have not reached
across our history to touch,
to soothe on more than one
and will again…

Alyssa writes,

Clifton feels the history of black people on her as she battles this invisible racism that is highly prevalent in the world currently. This racism consists of whitewashing the pain and hurt of black men and women who have struggled and travailed all throughout history, just to end up with their descendants being told that their struggle “wasn’t real” or is “overdramatized” or “wasn’t that bad” or “it ended 500 years ago”… Clifton feels this pain and loathes it—it seems [that] Black people can never be human, can never convey their thoughts and feelings without being stigmatized or dehumanized…

In a poem that Alyssa does not cite but which I include here because I think it speaks to the hope that she represents, Clifton looks back at King’s assassination and writes of the shock of no longer having an external savior. The job is now up to them:

the meeting after the savior gone

what we decided is
you save your own self.
everybody so quiet
not so much sorry as
we was going to try and save you but
now i guess you got to save yourselves
(even if you don’t know
who you are
where you been
where you headed)

Because of Clifton, Alyssa realizes that she has a role to play in “sav[ing] yourselves.” Her conclusion reveals that she at least has a clear sense of who she is, where she’s been, and where she’s headed:

Despite the dehumanization and stifling of my people, I stand as a Black woman proud to be graced with her sun-kissed skin. I stand as a whole human being, with skin the color of the good earth and a history behind my name. Though I daily hear and see the lack of understanding in my environment here at St. Mary’s College, reading Clifton’s poetry reminds me that my struggle as a Black woman is not uncommon, and I am a part of a shared experience. Lucille Clifton…reveals that, through it all, we, as a people, stand strong in our past, our present, and our future…Though living while Black may be an uphill battle, there’s no other race or color I’d rather be.

Both King and Clifton would be proud. And hopeful.

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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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