Diary: Lucille Clifton Remembers
“Walking from New Orleans to Virginia,” Daddy would say, “you go through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. And that’s the walk Mammy Ca’line took when she was eight years old. She was born among the Dahomey people in 1822, Lue. Among the Dahomey people, and she used to always say ‘Get what you want, you from Dahomey women.’ And she used to tell us about how they had a whole army of nothing but women back there and how they was the best soldiers in the world. And she was from among the Dahomey people and one day her and her Mama and her sister and her brother was captured and throwed on a boat and on a boat till they landed in New Orleans. And I would ask her how did you get captured, Mammy, and she would say that she was a child and I would ask her when did it happen, Mammy, and she would say, ‘In 1830 I walked from New Orleans to Virginia and I was eight years old.’ And I would ask her what was it like on the boat and she would just shake her head. And it seems like so long ago, you know, because when I was asking her this it must have been 1908 or ’9. I was just a little boy. I was a little boy and my Mama was working in the tobacco plant and my Mammy Ca’line took care of me and I took care of my brothers and my sister. My Daddy Genie was dead. He died young. He was my real Grandmother Lucy’s boy and of course she was dead too. Her name was Lucille just like my sister and just like you. You named for Dahomey women, Lue.”
“Lucille Sale, called Lucy, was the daughter of Caroline Donald and Sam Louis Sale,” my Daddy would say. “They called him Uncle Louis like they did back then. This man, Bob Donald, bought Mammy Ca’line and set her to work in the orchard. They was big fruit growers and Ca’line worked in the orchards from when she was a little girl. One day when she had got big she was in the field and a carriage come by and stopped. And two old men was in it. It was Uncle Louse Sale and he was a slave but he was too old to work in the field and so his job was to drive his master in the carriage. His master was Old Man John F. Sale and he was a old man too, Lue, and blind. Uncle Louis had been given to his family as a boy. He was a present to their family. He was somebody and he was a present, a wedding present, Lue. And he was driving this carriage, an old man driving another old man, and he saw Ca’line in the orchard. And he stopped the horses and asked Old Man John F. to buy her for him for his wife. And Old Man John F. did. She was a young lady by then, Lue, and Uncle Louis had been born in 1777 but she was bought and went off to the Sale pace and Old Man John F. Married them legal cause he was a lawyer and they always said he was a good man. She lived there on the Sale place and they trained her to be a midwife and Mammy Ca’line and Uncle Louis had seven or more children, Lue, and one of the first ones was a girl. They called her Lucy but her name was Lucille. Like my own sister. And like you.
“Oh slavery, slavery,” my Daddy would say. “it ain’t something in a book, Lue. Even the good parts was awful.”
When I went to college, well, that was some time. People couldn’t get it straight that I was going to Howard and not Harvard. Nobody in our family had graduated from high school at that time, and at that time no member of our church had ever gone to college. I had won this scholarship, you know, and they gave me this big party at the church. The Baptist church.
Now we didn’t know a thing about going to college. I remember I took my Grandma’s wedding trunk, all held together with rope. Me and Mama went over to Peoples’ and bought me a black silk skirt and a red see-through blouse and we packed Grandma Moore’s wedding trunk. When they delivered it at Howard, all those ritzy girls from Chicago and Texas, oh I was so embarrassed I went down at night to pick it up. This old trunk with thick rope around it and Georgia Moore written in ink. Anyway, I went away to college, and before I left I had to go and say goodby to everybody.
And we went to see Grandma and she was watching for us, and when we started down her block, she ran out on the porch hollering “Everybody, Everybody, Here come my Genius!” And all her neighbor people come running out on the porch. And here I come, here I come.
My Grandma Moore told me to behave myself away from home, and I promised that I would. I had never been away from home and my own people before and let me tell you I was scared but I didn’t let on. Then she asked me “Where was Moses when the lights went out?” and I said “Grandma, I just don’t know,” and she said “Well, that’s all right, just keep your dress tail down,” and I said “Yes ma’am,” because I understood that part.
There was another old lady, older than Grandma, named Miss Washington, and she had been born in slavery. I went to see her and she gave me these doilies, all these doilies she had crocheted with her own hands. She told me about when she was a tiny girl and Mr. Lincoln had come by in a parade and her mother had picked her up and made her wave her hand. She told me about this proud thing and gave me these doilies to take to college, and I went off to school.
My Daddy wrote me a letter my first week there, and my Daddy could only write his name. But he got this letter together and it said “Dear Lucilleman, I miss you so much but you are there getting what we want you to have to be a good girl signed your daddy.” I cried and cried because it was the greatest letter I ever read or read about in my whole life. Mama wrote me too and her letter said, “Your daddy has written you a letter and he worked all day.”
Oh she made magic, she was a magic woman, my Mama. She was not wise in the world but she had magic wisdom. She was twenty-one years old when she got married but she had to stay home and help take care of her brothers and sisters. And she had married Daddy right out of her mother’s house. Just stayed home, then married Daddy who had been her friend Edna Bell’s husband after Edna Bell died. She never went out much. She used to sit and hum in this chair by the window. After my brother was born, she never slept with my Daddy again. She never slept with anybody, for twenty years. She used to tell me “Get away, get away. I have not had a normal life. I want you to have a natural life. I want you to get away.”
A lot of people were always telling me to get away.
Lucile Clifton (1936–2010) wrote eleven books of poetry and twenty books for children. She won the National Book Award in 2000 and is the only author to have two books nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in one year. He poems are available in How to Carry Water: Selected Poems of Lucille Clifton and The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010. Earlier this year, her family turned the house in Baltimore where she raised six children with her husband Fred Clifton, a philosophy professor and the director of the Baltimore Model Cities program, into a sanctuary for young artists.
This diary was drawn from Lucille Clifton’s memoir Generations, to be reissued next month by NYRB Classics with an introduction by Tracy K. Smith. Generations was first published with Toni Morrison as editor at Random House in 1976.
Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing snack-sized book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box, as well as free posts like this one from time to time to those who follow us. Subscribe and receive straight-to-you book posts by Joy Williams, Marina Warner, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Àlvaro Enrigue, more!
Seminary Co-op and 57th Street Books are Book Post’s Fall 2021 partner bookseller! We partner with independent bookstores to link to their books, support their work, and bring you news of local book life as it happens in their communities. We’ll send a free three-month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 with our partner bookstore during our partnership. Send your receipt to email@example.com.
If you liked this piece, please share and tell the author with a “like”