Lucille Clifton, Memory, and Remembering: A Reflection

The Network for Responsible Policy invited me to join a panel to talk about “gender.” Their goal is to bring experts together to talk to their community about politics, policy, and culture. Last night’s event was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters. I was the only humanities person on the panel, so I decided to talk about poetry. And since this was a panel on gender, and I will take any excuse to discuss Lucille Clifton, I did. She always gives me a spot of hope. After the talk, audience members wanted to read my prepared comments so here they are…

Remembering, Memory, and Intersectional Feminism in the Long Age of Trump:

The African-American poet Lucille Clifton has a very short poem titled “why some people be mad at me sometimes.” Here it is:

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and i keep on remembering
mine

Clifton is the favored poet of almost every black feminist thinker I know. She captures our triumphs, challenges, and bodies. In one of her poems called “wishes for sons,” she imagines a world where a man finds himself in a strange city, with an unexpected period, a single tampon, and no idea where to find a convenience store. She writes about the material precarity of black women in poem’s like “miss Rosie, and she celebrates our bodies in poems like “homage to my hips” with the line, “these hips are big hips/they need space to move around in.” And my favorite line “they don’t fit into little/petty places.” For so many, her poem “won’t you celebrate with me” is an invitation and an anthem. I teach nineteenth-century British literature, but I still share it with students all the time. Here it is:

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

It’s a lovely poem, unflinching, clear, and celebratory. Clifton is like that, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this short poem, “why some people be mad at me sometimes” as we wrestle with memories, memory making, making history and whose history matters when. I’ve been thinking about what it means to remember and how memory has a particular valence in this current moment. This is a moment when men are forced to remember past encounters from a different position, and when politicians conveniently forget what the president said a day after they heard it.

This memory tug of war is not new, and sometimes it feels rather benign—the little-known fact about a memorial moment we take for granted. These are usually reminders of why we have Labor Day or why Memorial Day is in May. Sometimes, however, the push to shape memory feels more radical.

Every year, for example, when we remember Martin Luther King, Jr., someone steps forward to remind us that the King most people remember today is different than the King who was vilified, demonized, hounded, and unpopular during his lifetime, particularly in the 1960s when he started organizing for integrated housing in the north and was publicly opposed to the Vietnam War. Someone always asks us to remember which of the senators still serving today voted against making his birthday a federal holiday. And whenever anyone associated with the FBI tries to honor his memory (this year it was James Comey), someone else pops up and reminds the FBI of the letter sent to King encouraging him to kill himself. The pushback is to point out that celebrating one thing (King) does not erase a troubling past. This might seem self-righteous or pedantic (maybe those are the same thing) or like some empty exercise, but what we remember and what we choose to forget or not record is a political act.

The speaker in the Clifton poem explains what “they” want (without describing who that might be) and explains why they “be mad”– Here’s the poem again:

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and i keep on remembering
mine

It’s worth noting here the declarative tone at the end “and I keep on remembering mine.” The speaker doesn’t try—just does. And it makes folks angry. It’s easy to imagine how that push back expresses itself. It comes in different forms. Sometimes it is incredibly simple “why don’t we have white history month” (and then someone explains how many basic facts about black history are missing from the curriculum and then a black person, usually me, jokes that we only get 28 days so everyone should just relax). Sometime it masks itself by pretending that the act of remembering is neutral “and is labeled politically correct” or, in the humanities, especially in the field of literary study it gets dismissed as “identity politics.” We say this one someone asks why we canonize some authors (almost all white, mostly male) and ignore others. I’m a specialist in nineteenth-century literature, specifically the history of the novel. I’m interested in the novels and novelists we don’t read (you can think of them as Jane Austen’s forgotten literary sisters). I do this work, in part, because I want to help people remember the cultural past as it looked to the many instead of to the few. It means reading novels we’ve forgotten and spotlighting cultural conversations many don’t know exist. For example, did you know that when Austen was writing the debate to end England’s participation in the slave trade was actually fashionable? In fact, it’s one of the first public causes middle and upper class middle women organized themselves around. That kind of remembering ruffles some feathers, but it doesn’t invite the kind of outrage that is sparked when other memories and histories are brought to the forefront.

In other words, the tension between the “they” and “I” shifts depending on where we are in the hierarchy.

A woman stands up in congress and tells an inconvenient history that she wants on the record, parliamentary rules are put in force, and she is silenced (at least in one arena). In this case, a woman stands up to men who want to silence her. And that old phrase, “well behaved women rarely make history” is akin to the political act of remembering what one wants that Clifton refers to in the poem. That’s one kind of push and pull—between women and patriarchy.

The tension can shift when it’s black women (or latinx women or Asian-american women, or Muslim women) who want a different history than white women. Then they, then we, are reminded that we are all sisters and told that we are threatening and angry if we don’t comply. These differences, these memories might be considered minor by some (we’re stronger together fighting the same fight), but that approach can obscure some harsh economic truths. Every year, for example, we remember the wage gap and women’s organizations show what it means that women make 78 cents to every man’s dollar by explaining that, in actually, women start working for free in October. But that’s only for white women. Black women start working for free in August*. Hispanic women start working for free in July. Those months matters, that wage gap matters, and money shapes memories:

• Single black and Hispanic women have a median wealth of $100 and $120 respectively; the median for single white women is $41,500.

• While white women in the prime working years of ages 36-49 have a median wealth of $42,600, the median wealth for women of color is $5.

• Nearly half of all single black and Hispanic women have zero or negative wealth.

Here’s another fact from the study (called Lifting as We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth and America’s Future).
I think the stakes are clearer, but here’s how that translates to the place where so many memories are made and: When it comes to home ownership, one of the major markers of financial stability and cultural maturity, here are the numbers about home ownership:

• 57% of single white women

• 33% of single black women

• 28% of single Hispanic women

Of course you can make memories without home ownership, but those memories feel different in the face of economic precarity.
Here are those lines from Clifton again:

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and i keep on remembering
mine
In this instance, let’s make the “they” in the poem those who record our history in real time, journalists, writers, pundits, and bloggers. Think of the language we use when we want to point out that something significant has happened. We say “this is unprecedented.” Inevitably, in the age of Google, someone, usually on Twitter says, “well, actually this happened before.” “They” just don’t remember or, probably, never new in the first place. This happened in the #MeToo moment if you remember. Alyssa Milano used the hashtag MeToo and because of who she is (beautiful, famous, heterosexual, and white), she was credited with “founding” it. That was in 2017, but Tarana Burke started that hashtag in 2006 and because of who she is and, more precisely, who she isn’t, it didn’t get the attention it should have. In fact, even when news outlets picked up on this fact, Burke was still a sidenote in the history. Time magazine names the women of the “me too” movement (the silence breakers they called them) their person of the year and left Burke off the cover. (I’ll note here that Alyssa Milano Milano was very quick to honor what Burke had done and wasn’t on the cover), and this is how the TIME story begins:
“Movie stars are supposedly nothing like you and me. They’re svelte, glamorous, self-possessed. They wear dresses we can’t afford and live in houses we can only dream of. Yet it turns out that—in the most painful and personal ways—movie stars are more like you and me than we ever knew.” Now, you could argue that this is news BECAUSE we pay more attention to famous and infamous people than your everyday woman or your everyday man. And that would make sense. As Rebecca Traister points out, it’s depressing to note but the attention to sexual harassment is as much because we pay attention to the powerful, rich, and famous as it is about what too many people, most of whom are women, have to endure.

But here’s where it’s important to pay attention to Tarana Burke. Partly it’s respect for the person who got there first. It’s no small thing to coin a phrase, to put it in the atmosphere. Partly it’s because too often the contributions of everyday people who actually are pushing change forward is erased. It’s important for young people (girls, boys, and others who may not identify with a specific gender) to know that one needn’t look like Gwenyth Paltrow to make change. All of that is important but just on a practical matter it’s important to remember the memory that puts Burke at the start. She started working for social justice in this particular area in 2006. I’m imagining that she has a wealth of hard-earned lessons that would benefit everyone.

There’s a hashtag that always makes me chuckle, even though I think it’s not widely circulated, #ListenToBlackWomen. That might come off as arrogant, and I worry that it makes black women seem supernatural, but it makes sense because all too often it’s black women and women of color who have to learn to:
Make do with less
Develop strategies to succeed around oppressive structures
Build community to thrive
Develop the muscle of caring for everyone around them

That old adage that necessity is the mother of invention means that those who have less (like black women and women of color often) have to be creative and inventive. They have to be strategic. Their memories, what they remember, shouldn’t only matter to them but to everyone. We can actually be stronger together but only if we have a shared sense of what we all remember.

Things are bleak, I know. I have a lot of mixed feelings about how we are making memories, how quickly we are moving, especially around MeToo. I think these are difficult and confusing times, but I’m also hopeful because I see a multiplicity of voices in this particular movement. Intersectional feminism means that we don’t limit our focus. When Kimberely Crenshaw coined the term it was about how analyzing and discussing how oppression often intersects, creating unique and varied experiences of discrimination. In other words, it’s not just being a woman that matters—one’s class, sexual orientation, and physical abilities should matter too. I’m seeing intersectionality in the movement after #MeToo blew up. Those svelte, famous, beautiful, rich women bonded together to focus their energy on helping invisible workers—women in service industries who can’t hashtag their way to justice. That movement is evolving with everyone’s memories there to shape it. There’s always going to be a gap between the “they” and the “I” of Clifton’s poem, but it doesn’t have to mean there’s no progress.

I guess it’s the hope I hang my heart on—that honoring memories is the first step towards meaningful change.

*There are different rhetorical moves to show this gap. The months I noted in the talk were in Tweets a few years ago. Here is one source for that data.

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