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Growing Up Clifton

Categorizing 1960s America has become a favorite past-time over the years. Whether for those of us who lived through it, or the ones who researched and wrote about it, it was unquestionably the decade that changed the nation. But rarely in this country’s long history has there ever been a year like 1968. It was a uniquely tumultuous year marked by social movements for civil rights, anti-war protests, women’s rights, and deep divides in American politics. It was in this national environment, from her personal space in her comfortable Victorian home in Baltimore that Lucille Clifton launched her impressive career as a poet. Where, in this 100-year-old house on Talbot Road, that she willed herself to hold on to the intoxicating rapture of writing while simultaneously balancing the practical necessities of motherhood and family life.

It was in this house where, listening to her inner voice of integrity, she wrote for her own mother, who was forced to succumb to “limits too often placed on Black female imagination”. Over the years, another significant portion of Lucille Clifton’s work addressed racial pride, Black empowerment and the ongoing struggle for racial equality, and newer generations of her readers would do well to examine her brilliant insights and observations.

Imagine the memories created within the walls of the spacious 4-bedroom Victorian house in the historic Windsor Hills section of Baltimore. Childhood memories of an artistic environment headed by two talented parents, Fred and Lucille, who approached the task of parenting their six children with a balance of love and discipline and encouragement as well as creative self-expression and racial pride. In addition, as is so clear among many inspiring threads so evident in Lucille Clifton’s work is her personal approach to motherhood. This was a mother who clearly knew each one of her children very well. Acknowledging their strengths and talents and allowing their individual personalities to blossom and flourish fully.

Alexia Clifton, the youngest of the six Clifton children, recalled and described her mother’s work process in a recent interview. “…This room is important because this is where my mom did most of her writing…She had an old-fashioned typewriter that she would use long after people didn’t use typewriters anymore, and she would sit right here in this chair and she would type away. And I used to think of her, as she would say, giving birth to her poems.” Remarkably, as a result of that labor of love, Lucille’s first collection of poetry, Good Times, published in 1969, was selected as one of the 10 best books of that year.

For the children of Lucille and Fred Clifton, growing up Clifton had to have been unique and special. What must it have been like living in this creative household in which your parents’ house rules were far removed from previous generations’ proclamation “children should be seen and not heard”? Where they regularly welcomed numerous writers, artists and civil rights activists, all of whom you were allowed to observe and learn from. For this beautiful circle of four sisters, Sidney, Fredrica, Gillian, and Alexia, and two brothers, Graham and Channing, growing up Clifton meant blossoming in a genuinely artistic environment and learning and laughing together under one roof. Moreover, growing up Clifton and being raised by a talented poet and an acclaimed educator and community leader had to have placed an indelible “watch, listen and learn” asterisk on the psyche of the Clifton children. As first-born, Sidney Clifton recently said

“It’s where I learned to be nurtured by the community. My parents encouraged and attracted people who were like-spirited in the activist community and younger people who they would mentor. They would come and sit in the living room, and there would be these amazing conversations with the kids.”

Although the Clifton children have mourned the losses of their parents and two siblings, Fredrica and Channing, the remaining family is solid and strong and devoted to one another, and united in preserving their parents’ tremendous legacy. The alliance they formed to create Clifton House is an enduring symbol of the love that made them.

“It’s such a testament to my mom and dad. I know how tickled they would be. It puts a smile on my face, thinking of my parents,” says Gillian Clifton-Monell.

If there is anything to birth order theory, no matter what one’s position is in that familial alignment, whether the prized first-born, the classic middle child, or the babied later born, every child has a unique relationship with mother and father. Each exclusive in its own way. And even long after our parents have left us, the dialog between parent and child continues as a brilliant beacon to guide us for the rest of our lives. Embodying their spirit, upholding their legacy, and reclaiming their beloved childhood home, as the Clifton children have done so magnificently.

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