Abstract

Lucille Clifton, a northern-born woman with Southern roots, was a writer of profound illumination and plain speaking. This combination in her work—spare elegance of tone and deep practical wisdom—is often remarked upon by literary critics and admirers. Those who know Clifton's work well also note key elements of her poetic voice in which she honors the everyday mysticism of African American experience, a firm claim to agency and creativity in the face of terror, and an insistence on telling the truths of history—the joyful truths as well as the hidden and hurtful ones. In all of these elements, black women and our ways of knowing are privileged in Clifton's writing. There is a strong measure in which the poet's oeuvre and sensibility may be described as “womanist” in the broadest sense of the term developed by Alice Walker (1983). Using a framework informed by Walker's womanism, African American literary studies, and the history of Afro-Atlantic religions, this essay explores connections among these signal components of Clifton's work: namely, the poet's sense of agency and authority; the power of personal and collective history; and a nonsensational mystic spirituality linked to broader diasporic understandings of the sacred.

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