The Mischief of Memory and Making the Self: Thoughts on Lucille Clifton’s Conceptual Construct of Memory in Generations

DaMaris B. Hill is a doctoral candidate in the English-Creative Writing Program at the University of Kansas.  She is a member of the National Writing Project and graduate of Morgan State University with a MA degree in English.  Her story “On the Other Side of Heaven – 1957” won the 2003 Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award for Short Fiction. Her writing is published with or is forthcoming in the following literary spaces: Blue Island Review, Shadowbox, Tongues of the Ocean: Words and Writing from the Islands, Kweli Journal, Telling Our Stories, Sleet Magazine, Reverie, Bermuda Anthology of Poetry, Warpland, Mourning Katrina: A Poetic Response to Tragedy, Women in Judaism and The Sable Quill.
In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, Sethe states, “Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay…What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head.  I mean even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened” (P. 43). Recent studies in (re)memory, oral histories, and uncovering lost literatures have demonstrated that linear narratives and singular testimonies are problematic.  Often, singular narratives are an insufficient means of conveying the past.

We understand autobiography to be a writer’s presentation of herself. Most autobiographies are constructed in a linear fashion.  The reader accepts an autobiography as a testimony comprised of history and memory. Lucille Clifton’s autobiography, Generations, caters directly to the reader.  The story offers history and memory, but it also forces the reader into an uncomfortable psychological space in which the reader must balance this new information with the existing dominant narrative within autobiography.  The African American slave narrative tradition is one of the most popular subgenres of autobiography.  Its popularity can be associated with its cultural significance.  The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel reminds us that the classic American slave narratives expresses American values. It is democratic, businesslike, plainspoken, and self-assertive.  I considered how Clifton wrote her  autobiography. I was intrigued by her retelling of the self and how this narrative contrasts with genre expectation for American individualism.

I believe that Clifton carefully examined the intersections of American history and her personal journey.  She concluded that a linear, chronological biography would bridal and subjugates her life story within the larger context of the dominant American autobiographical narrative.    Clifton constructed an autobiography that reflected the pragmatics of her experiences and multiple identities within the landscape of American memory.

In her poem “Walnut Grove” Clifton asks the reader who remembers the names of slaves?  Attempting to tell her life without acknowledging the presence of her ancestors, African slaves, and family would create an artificial rather than official record of her life. This artificial narrative would be not be historically accurate and would not reflect Clifton’s memory of self.  The vignettes provide the contextual space for the reader to constantly question what has been ‘forgotten’ or left out of history.  The content of her autobiography is explained in context with her relationship with ancestors.  The artificial linear construction would have privileged the individualist spirit above the members of her community essence that contributed to her success and continued to shape and inform her life.

Another important feature of Clifton’s Generations is that it is comprised of pictures and words. This narrative structure conceptually carves out space for visual narrative and personal testimony.   Thus using the technology of the book, Clifton conceptual shapes memory. She challenges the narrow cultural memory of American History. The American cultural memory is such a dominant singular narrative that it has the potential to suppress and challenge the integrity of autobiographies that do not affirm the popular narrative.

The dominant individualist American narrative tempts any one familiar  with the individualist narrative to question Clifton’s life claims.  I believe that Clifton incorporated the photographs as a means to counter such temptation. Clifton’s photographs interspersed throughout Generations serve as documentary evidence of her truths.  Her artistic genius is also expressed in terms of the vignettes featured within the story.  The short vignettes within Generations also serve as linguistic and contextual snapshots. They create a mirror like symmetry with the photos, creating a composite memory of Clifton’s life for the reader. 

I am grateful to Lucille Clifton and the work Generations. The work served as an n early model for a memoir I am writing to my son.  It demonstrates how to express the relational aspects of identity and historical context of present state.  I am also grateful to Dr. Joann Gabbin of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, Cheryl Wall, and Hillary Holladay.  Their archives and research on the Clifton provided spaces for exploration and reflection.