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Maternal Identity: Odes and Elegies

Updated: May 22, 2023

Maternal Identity: Odes and Elegies

…i am not grown away from you

The maternal-fetal bond is a powerful and age-old phenomenon. A profound and eternal connection. From the earliest moments when our bodies send the first signal of the presence of new life from within our tender wombs to the final seconds of letting go. We are forever joined in innumerable ways, and the internal dialog continues. Nowhere is this more beautifully demonstrated than in Lucille Clifton’s poems and recollections of her mother, Thelma Moore Sayles, who was a poet in her own right, but painfully silenced. After being forbidden to publish her poems, Thelma burned them. And witnessing her mother’s disturbing act was a life-altering experience for Lucille. As she said in an interview: “It is one of the reasons I keep writing. . . I wish to persist because she did not.”

Although this circumstance of living out the un-lived, unfulfilled lives of our mothers may be generational, parenting traditions and skills from our upbringing remain sacrosanct. Enabled by the inherent maternal intuition, mothers learn early on how to interpret their infant’s pre-verbal communications. However, over subsequent years and various stages of parenting, each one presenting its own challenge, the maternal connection is often tested. But if we’ve done our job as mothers sufficiently, we demonstrate that we were up to the task.

For several decades, public perceptions of the Black mother figure in the American consciousness were greatly and inaccurately shaped by systemic disparities around race and ethnicity and the Black historical experience. But generations of Black mothers have defended their humanity, often embracing a warrior spirit, and lovingly nurturing and raising their children and preparing them for adulthood.

In my own life, having been born in the Deep South and raised by a strong Black mother who was also raised and surrounded by other strong Black southern women, I was familiar with the source of their strength, resiliency, and courage. My mother’s generation of women became mothers under much more difficult circumstances than my generation. And they were, for the most part, unfulfilled as women. Yet they dared not reach beyond their perceived roles as wife, mother and keeper of the home. With this single model of motherhood in my community, I knew early on the type of mother I did not want to be. Years later, somewhere between the joy and exhilaration of first-time motherhood at age twenty and several groundbreaking feminist books, I discovered my own truth about the realities of motherhood. It was somewhere between my mother’s generation’s day-to-day selflessness and complete devotion to family and the glamorous celebrity mothers’ photos depicted on magazines covers.

When Lucille Clifton emerged on the scene sometime during the second wave of the feminist movement, she presented a refreshing perspective on the Black female experience as well as fierce racial pride. And in an atmosphere in this country during which nationally known White feminists were being taken to task for the classist nature of their platform, she was quietly creating her poems, “doing her own thing” as we used to say, and skillfully weaving race, motherhood, and the female experience into a beautiful and relatable tapestry for generations of readers. The poems she was creating empowered Black women and defied Caucasian standards of beauty. All while managing her own personal dominion as she was raising her six children. What a seemingly insurmountable challenge it had to have been for her. Being a wife and mother with all the inherent responsibilities.

Transcending the hidden complexities of Black motherhood, steadfastly refusing to acquiesce in her own obstruction and subsequent silencing, and inadvertently becoming a beacon of hope for other female poets and writers, such as myself.

Being a divorced mother of four children at the time, and juggling my own creative struggles, Lucille Clifton’s work was a refreshing perspective on the Black female experience, which she was writing about while navigating her own way through societal norms. Her lived experience and mothering proficiencies were always on full display during poetry readings. As were her warm demeanor and humorous interaction with audiences. With grace, courage and articulate brilliance, as well as humorous and empathic style, she recounted the ups and downs, mistakes and triumphs of motherhood, while simultaneously defining and protecting her children’s authentically black identities. In her poems, she also shared learning to apply different parenting strategies for sons and daughters, while acknowledging the unavoidably tenuous relationship between mothers and daughters.

At the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, work, family, and culture, Lucille Clifton solidified her place in history, while doing the thing that she loved and simultaneously acknowledging her mother’s invaluable gift to her. But above all, in final analysis, it is the Clifton children in whom she successfully implanted the magnificent roots of her genius and the extraordinary family that will live on in them and theirs.

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