Remembering Lucille Clifton

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On March 1, 2016, the cusp of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, the college hosted a special night of poetry, music, and memories in order to honor the legacy of Lucille Clifton. Friends, family, colleagues, and admirers of Clifton gathered in the Daugherty-Palmer Commons in order to reminisce on their relationship with Lucille and talk about how her legacy has inspired them.

Lucille Clifton was born on June 27, 1936 in Depew, New York. She attended Howard University from 1953 to 1955, when she transferred to the State University of New York at Fredonia. She married her long-time husband Fred James Clifton, a professor of philosophy at the University of Buffalo, in 1958. The couple had six children, Sidney, Fredrica, Gillian, Alexia, Channing, and Graham. Lucille was soon noticed by Langston Hughes, whose poetry anthology The Poetry of the Negro included works by Clifton. She moved to Baltimore in 1967 and she became poet-in-residence at Coppin State College in 1971. She published her first poetry collection in 1969 and it made The New York Times list of the year’s top ten books. In 1979, she was named Poet Laureate of Maryland and held that title until 1985. During her career, she was a professor at several prestigious colleges and universities, including Columbia University, George Washington University, University of California, Santa Cruz, Dartmouth College, and, of course, St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Clifton died on February 13, 2010 at the age of seventy-three. Throughout her writing career, Lucille won prestigious awards such as the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Juniper Prize from the University of Massachusetts, and the National Book Award. She was also a nominee and two-time finalist and for the Pulitzer Prize. Her immortal words can be found along the path, commemorating the events of September 11, 2001, and on the wall on the steps of the Campus Center.

Lucille’s words still touch several around the St. Mary’s Community. Presenters for the evening included Jeanne Vote, Vivian Jordan, Ray Raley, Jeffrey Coleman, Wayne Carlin, Brian Ganz, Iris Ford, Kathleen Glaser, Karen Leona Anderson, Michael S. Glaser, and current students Noni Ford and Crystal Worrel. The evening opened with a prelude played by Brian Ganz and an introduction by President Tuajuanda Jordan. President Jordan explained the importance of poetry and Lucille’s legacy in the community, “One thing poetry can do is speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. Poets give voice to the voiceless.” The event then proceeded with each presenter explaining their relationship to Lucille or recounting lessons they learned or laughs they shared with their friend and loved one. They each had a poem of Lucille’s selected to read, a poem which held a specific meaning to them. President Jordan concluded with the announcement of an award in Lucille’s name to celebrate “one who embodies the spirit of Lucille and the values of the St. Mary’s Community.” The award is to be given on the same evening next year to an honored faculty member. As the evening came to a close, the audience was invited to stand and join hands as a recording of Lucille’s reading of “Blessing of the Boats” filled the room.

Lucille’s legacy leaves the St. Mary’s Community with the responsibility of sharing love with one another and standing up for injustices in the community. Her poetry invites future generations to celebrate life and diversity. Lucille writes, “Words call us and we go.”

blessing the boats

Lucille Clifton, 1936 – 2010

(at St. Mary’s)

   may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back    may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

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