Black Names in White Space: Lucille Clifton's South
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The Southern Literary Journal 34.2 (2002) 120-133



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Black Names in White Space:
Lucille Clifton's South

Hilary Holladay


As the daughter of a Virginian and a Georgian, the African American poet Lucille Clifton has always had the South in her blood, and the region has naturally found its way into her life and writing. Born in 1936 in Depew, New York, Clifton grew up there and later in Buffalo. Despite these northern credentials, she maintains that her upbringing was southern ("A Music in Language" 74). Her parents had come to the North during the Great Migration, but that did not mean that they had truly left the South behind. It was alive in their memories and in the stories they told their attentive daughter, who retells many of those tales in Generations: A Memoir (1976).

In recent years, Clifton—who won the 2000 National Book Award for Poetry for her eleventh volume of verse, Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000—has frequently read her poetry in the South, and she has held visiting teaching positions at Memphis State University and Duke University. But she has lived most of her adult life in Maryland, which is in or near the South, depending on your perspective and perhaps depending on where you are in Maryland. The poet and her husband, Fred Clifton, moved to Baltimore from Buffalo early in their marriage and brought up their six children there. Clifton became poet-in-residence at Coppin State College in 1974 and served as Maryland's poet laureate for a decade beginning the following year. Widowed in 1984, she [End Page 120] took a teaching position at the University of California at Santa Cruz but after several years returned to Maryland, where she now holds the Hilda C. Landers Chair in the Liberal Arts at St. Mary's College of Maryland. From the slight but seemingly strategic remove that Maryland affords her, Clifton is able to contemplate her ancestral South. Although she does not have the intimate knowledge of the region that her father and mother had, 1 her feelings about the region are nevertheless complicated and passionate. The South we encounter in her poems is a conceit enabling her to address two subjects, the first concrete and the second abstract, that have been equally important to her poetry for many years: 1) slavery and its seemingly endless impact on American life, and 2) the all-powerful role of language in determining our knowledge of ourselves and others. In her poems with southern settings, we don't see much of the region's landscape, but we do see how language, especially the language of names, can either obliterate or validate one's identity. While this is true to a certain extent for all, Clifton shows how names are especially germane to our knowledge and understanding of slaves and their descendants.

In "at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989" (Quilting 11-12), the silencing of slaves in their time haunts the poet in her own time:

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

The rocks are unmarked slave graves, and the narrator, confronted with this injustice, yearns to make contact with these lost souls and speak on their behalf. The slaves' silence paradoxically "drumming" within her calls to mind African drums and perhaps even the drums played during the Civil War. The drumming silence is, if not a call to arms, at least a call to speech. Significantly, the silence seems to emanate from the poet's own bones; what she doesn't know about the slaves amounts to things that she doesn't know about herself and her own ancestry.

Generations helps illuminate the emotion animating this poem. In this fifty-four-page memoir (which Toni Morrison shepherded into print at Random House), Clifton writes movingly of her great-great-grandmother Caroline, who as a young child was captured in western Africa's Dahomey region and brought to the United States as a slave. Caroline, who [End...