Becoming the Elder


Two weeks ago, there was a memorial celebration for Lucille Clifton at the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University. Seventy-three poets read seventy three of her poems. Furious Flower, it was founded by Dr. Joanne Gabbin to “advance the genre of African American Poetry by providing opportunities for education, research, and publication.”

It was a wonderful, lovely, classy event. You can see some of the photos at Tayari Jones’s website here.

When I arrived back home, though, I sort of crashed emotionally.  I realized that Miss Lucille is really gone and now I’ve got responsibilities, ones that I keep trying to forget about.

I crossed over the Grown Woman’s River Jordan back in January and I remain confused. I thought that when my grown woman moment happened, my personality would change. Quiet would descend upon me. I’d become soft-spoken and extremely classy and very ladylike and take to wearing muted colors and small pearl earrings. I’d stop pissing people off and getting into fights, something I’ve done since I was in elementary school, first physically and then intellectually.

When Miss Lucille passed, I understood in one quick moment that one day soon, I would be an elder in this Black community and also, in this Black poetry and writing community.  And I understood that on a practical level, but since the memorial it’s really, really hit me–in my gut.

I remember once I went to a poetry reading she did five years ago. At that time, her health wasn’t the best, but when she walked on that stage I saw something fill her and her body literally lifted up. As someone who has a strong belief in God I believe what filled her was the Holy Spirit. For an hour and a half on that stage, she wasn’t frail. Then she came down and she was frail again.

At one point in her reading, she said, “I’m not here on this earth to make White people comfortable.”  I sat there and I was in complete awe of her. And I was completely ashamed of myself, because I knew I could never say something like that out loud, even if I believed it inside. I could never be like her or any of those other women, like Sonia Sanchez or June Jordan or Audre Lorde. I was a hopeless Black Feminist in name only.

Two weeks ago, I saw seventy-three poets celebrating Miss Lucille, her beauty as a person, her poetry, her truth-telling spirit in her life and work, and her courage to tell that truth. Her daughters were there, and I knew they knew her struggles and courage. And I believe her close friends knew that, too.

But from those poets who were my age and younger, I kept waiting for some sign to alert me that they understood that Miss Lucille didn’t  just spring from the head of God, unafraid and ready to do battle in life and poetry. As my oldest friend Kimberly can say, “They don’t know the story, all they see is the glory.”

Black poets do this with the other strong Feminist and/or Womanist poet/women that have passed on, too, including June Jordan and Audre Lorde. These women have given us something more than just words on a page. Because those words weren’t just sent out into the atmosphere. Somebody White and male read them, and many times, got pissed off by those words. And then, they used their power to block those women’s successes and tell them they were insane–because of those words.

Success is not just about money and awards and the adoration of the public. Those who are successful get to change the society for the better or worse. I know now that these Sisters were just as scared as I am and other Sisters like me, but kept fighting anyway. Now that I am grown, I know that strength and courage is not automatically self-replicating from one generation to the next. It is not something passed down through the blood or through community. You have to reach for it. I can’t wait for the warrior spirit to come find me while I sit on my couch, eating potato chips and talking on the phone with my girlfriends about how such-and-such is a damned shame.

Sidebar: Sometimes, I might say something stupid while I’m warrior mode, or start crying because I feel afraid or cuss somebody out and thus, disappoint people who thought I was classier and more ladylike than that. Or I might lose some friends, the folks who sat on the phone talking to me, egging me on to “get buck,” might turn on me in public, and this will really put me down low, because when I love somebody, I love strong and hard and will go to any lengths to make him or her happy. I will also fight somebody in the middle of the street for a friend. Or at least, at the AWP Conference.

That’s the most hurtful part about my trying to be a warrior, understanding that people whom I love will talk of “good” in theory and know all the right vocabulary words, but can’t roll deep with the “warrior” part. Then they start trying to tell me I’m crazy or turning a personal beef into a political battle. This has been going on with me since my late teens, and it makes me wonder why other Black people always want to dismiss a Black woman’s personal issue when it comes to Black (male) community politics.

I mean, ain’t we always telling the White folks that our personal Black lives translate into political American issues? Our inferior schools, our violent neighborhoods, our Brothers in overflowing prisons, our high diabetes and high blood pressure rates because the little store around the corner don’t sell fresh produce–ain’t all that really just personal beefs in the Black community? Yet we Black Feminists/Womanists used to know that “political” doesn’t only take place in a brick building downtown where the (mostly) White folks make laws. It takes place in “personal” communities, because those communities make up the body politic.

See, I can say all that–what I just said in the paragraph above–because I was taught it was okay by Black women with some guts: my mama, my Miss Lucille, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Ida B. Wells-Barnett–oh, just keep going all the way back to the planks of the slave ship. I was even taught how to say it in the first place.

That truth didn’t come easy to those women and neither did the courage to open up their mouths and say it. Certainly not to Miss Lucille. But it came. She was a regular person, not a saint or an angel from God– I tried to make her that because I didn’t want to think that I could do what she did. I wanted to think I wasn’t capable of her courage and that would excuse me of my responsibilities. But she kept telling me she was human.

Now that I am past the age where Miss Lucille was  when she first started fighting those battles, I realize what she did for me–alone. Mostly by herself–except for a good loving man and her children and some friends–with no back-up from her Black community, and certainly not White America. As she said in her most famous poem, “i had no model/born in babylon/both non-white and female/what did i see to be except myself…”

But she was my back-up, and my model, too.

4 thoughts on “Becoming the Elder

  1. I am sitting here on the couch attempting to write a story. I have no model for the story I am trying to write. And even if I had one, my story must and will ultimately be my own unique creation crafted in the belly of my essence (whatever that is). And so it goes with you and every woman or man attempting to embrace a meaninful life, you can only be and “do you.” Even with the courageous “models” we are blessed to have, in the end we wind up with our own personal and unique outcome, which like our heroes and heroines, feeds and encourages the young ones (i.e. Your vocal outrages are giving some certain young woman or man permission to speak or scream to avoid or abate further suffering). This cirle of giving and receiving is never broken. So,as shining lights burn into the galaxies(the Cliftons, Hansberries, Jordans–June and Barbara etc)others lights like you and your peers are constellations, guides in a midnight sky. Growing old is a beautiful thing, yes?

  2. Well well well Sister Honoree, thank you so much fr this lovely and timely piece. I just finished writing a piece “Reviving Lorde: This Black Woman’s Journey to Self-Definition in Academe”.
    It’s about those who got me to this point where I am today and the realization of what I now
    must responsibly pass on. So I take my hat off to you in the grandest way. Peaceful cheers. Gina

  3. Lucille Clifton meant a lot to me. Though I didn’t know her personally and I’m not much of a poet, I read her poetry in college knowing that she, like me, grew up in the Buffalo, NY area and at the time I was struggling to extricate myself from the area’s persistent patterns of racism (see Carl Paladino) that I grew up around and which structured my white privilege. I also was always on the lookout for role models who were true thinkers who grew up near where I did.

  4. My grandmother recently passed away. She was 90. We talked a great deal because she was of course my grandmother and I loved her dearly. I say that to say that she was the same woman at 90 that she was at 50… just chronologically older. Listening to the stories of her friends she was actually the same woman at 90 that she was at 20. Again… just chronologically older. That’s not to say that she didn’t learn and grow and change and mature… but that thing that made her ‘her’ was the same.

    That being said… I believe that I know what you’re going through and understand exactly how you feel… you’ve probably been going into warrior mode since you were 5. 🙂 Just didn’t know it then. Sensitive and caring and compassionate to the core as a teenager… that’s just you… it’s actually pretty cool when you come to the point in your life that you say… “This is me. It ain’t gon change.”

    I think that younger people view things as they view their own lives. They’ve not seen the repeated patterns of their existence so they are unaware of the patterns.

    Regarding speaking your mind on issues that you feel are real… keep on doing it. (Not that you were going to stop mind you) I, as a black man, may get uncomfortable at times because that’s my individual personality but I know enough about this existence to know that it’s impossible to receive without first giving. One must sow before reaping. Since I personally believe the black woman to be the most fertile ground I know that the harvest will be great if only I plant the good that I want for you in you.

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