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Generations: A Memoir

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Buffalo, New York. A father’s funeral. Memory. In Generations, Lucille Clifton’s formidable poetic gift emerges in prose, giving us a memoir of stark and profound beauty. Her story focuses on the lives of the Sayles family: Caroline, “born among the Dahomey people in 1822,” who walked north from New Orleans to Virginia in 1830 when she was eight years old; Lucy, the first Buffalo, New York. A father’s funeral. Memory. In Generations, Lucille Clifton’s formidable poetic gift emerges in prose, giving us a memoir of stark and profound beauty. Her story focuses on the lives of the Sayles family: Caroline, “born among the Dahomey people in 1822,” who walked north from New Orleans to Virginia in 1830 when she was eight years old; Lucy, the first black woman to be hanged in Virginia; and Gene, born with a withered arm, the son of a carpetbagger and the author’s grandmother. Clifton tells us about the life of an African American family through slavery and hard times and beyond, the death of her father and grandmother, but also all the life and love and triumph that came before and remains even now. Generations is a powerful work of determination and affirmation. “I look at my husband,” Clifton writes, “and my children and I feel the Dahomey women gathering in my bones.”


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Buffalo, New York. A father’s funeral. Memory. In Generations, Lucille Clifton’s formidable poetic gift emerges in prose, giving us a memoir of stark and profound beauty. Her story focuses on the lives of the Sayles family: Caroline, “born among the Dahomey people in 1822,” who walked north from New Orleans to Virginia in 1830 when she was eight years old; Lucy, the first Buffalo, New York. A father’s funeral. Memory. In Generations, Lucille Clifton’s formidable poetic gift emerges in prose, giving us a memoir of stark and profound beauty. Her story focuses on the lives of the Sayles family: Caroline, “born among the Dahomey people in 1822,” who walked north from New Orleans to Virginia in 1830 when she was eight years old; Lucy, the first black woman to be hanged in Virginia; and Gene, born with a withered arm, the son of a carpetbagger and the author’s grandmother. Clifton tells us about the life of an African American family through slavery and hard times and beyond, the death of her father and grandmother, but also all the life and love and triumph that came before and remains even now. Generations is a powerful work of determination and affirmation. “I look at my husband,” Clifton writes, “and my children and I feel the Dahomey women gathering in my bones.”

30 review for Generations: A Memoir

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jonfaith

    A rather compelling but achingly thin family memoir written on the occasion of a poet mourning her dead father. Stretching back a half dozen generations to the abduction of Caroline (Mammy Ca’line) of the Dahomey tribe in West Africa to the dying industrial dream of Buffalo, New York, Generations cluster (in the form of description and genealogical connection) about certain events and then blends and bleeds both forward and back in a tacit estimation of life’s meaning in these here United States A rather compelling but achingly thin family memoir written on the occasion of a poet mourning her dead father. Stretching back a half dozen generations to the abduction of Caroline (Mammy Ca’line) of the Dahomey tribe in West Africa to the dying industrial dream of Buffalo, New York, Generations cluster (in the form of description and genealogical connection) about certain events and then blends and bleeds both forward and back in a tacit estimation of life’s meaning in these here United States. There simply isn’t much to this narrative.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    After her father’s death, Clifton, an award-winning poet, felt compelled to delve into her African American family’s history. Echoing biblical genealogies, she recites her lineage in a rhythmic way and delivers family anecdotes that had passed into legend. First came Caroline, “Mammy Ca’line”: born in Africa in 1822 and brought to America as a child slave, she walked north from New Orleans to Virginia at age eight, became a midwife, and died free. Mammy Ca’line’s sayings lived on through Clifton After her father’s death, Clifton, an award-winning poet, felt compelled to delve into her African American family’s history. Echoing biblical genealogies, she recites her lineage in a rhythmic way and delivers family anecdotes that had passed into legend. First came Caroline, “Mammy Ca’line”: born in Africa in 1822 and brought to America as a child slave, she walked north from New Orleans to Virginia at age eight, became a midwife, and died free. Mammy Ca’line’s sayings lived on through Clifton’s father, her grandson: she “would tell us that we was Sayle people and we didn’t have to obey nobody. You a Sayle, she would say. You from Dahomey women.” Then came Caroline’s daughter, Lucy Sale, famously the first Black woman hanged in Virginia – for shooting her white lover. And so on until we get to Clifton herself, who grew up near Buffalo, New York and attended Howard University. The chapter epigraphs from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” call into question how much of an individual’s identity is determined by their family circumstances. While I enjoyed the sideways look at slavery and appreciated the poetic take on oral history, I thought more detail and less repetition would have produced greater intimacy. Originally published on my blog, Bookish Beck.

  3. 4 out of 5

    James Murphy

    This is a lovely book. In this memoir the poet Lucille Clifton remembers her family, and especially its women, all the way back to her great-great grandmother Caroline who came from Dahomey to New Orleans then walked to Virginia in 1830. Clifton covers all the distance from Dahomey to where her family eventually wound up in Buffalo, NY in only 87 pages. The prose is spare and as lyrical as the poetry she's known for. The portrait of individuals is clear-eyed, and she assembles them into a story This is a lovely book. In this memoir the poet Lucille Clifton remembers her family, and especially its women, all the way back to her great-great grandmother Caroline who came from Dahomey to New Orleans then walked to Virginia in 1830. Clifton covers all the distance from Dahomey to where her family eventually wound up in Buffalo, NY in only 87 pages. The prose is spare and as lyrical as the poetry she's known for. The portrait of individuals is clear-eyed, and she assembles them into a story that's profound. The outspoken love she expresses runs deep, all the way back to 8-year old Caroline walking to Virginia.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Nakia

    More like 3.5 stars but rounded up because I love Lucille Clifton. This book is very hard to find. No longer in print and can't purchase online for a reasonable price. Thank God for inter-library loans! An extremely quick read about Clifton's family, with most of the focus on her father and great grandmother. Reads like poetry. I wish this was a fuller read, but I'll take what I can get from Clifton. More like 3.5 stars but rounded up because I love Lucille Clifton. This book is very hard to find. No longer in print and can't purchase online for a reasonable price. Thank God for inter-library loans! An extremely quick read about Clifton's family, with most of the focus on her father and great grandmother. Reads like poetry. I wish this was a fuller read, but I'll take what I can get from Clifton.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Fraser Simons

    Though sometimes retreading ground, you can tell this is written by a poet. A cadence forms in the reiteration and the story itself takes on a kind of shape that, had it been a simple exposition dump like most contemporary memoirs, probably wouldn’t have had the same gravity. The space between, small though the overall book is, is highly effective at the through line. Something many, maybe most, memoirs tend to struggle with. I was surprised at how much love and hope there is for the future, eve Though sometimes retreading ground, you can tell this is written by a poet. A cadence forms in the reiteration and the story itself takes on a kind of shape that, had it been a simple exposition dump like most contemporary memoirs, probably wouldn’t have had the same gravity. The space between, small though the overall book is, is highly effective at the through line. Something many, maybe most, memoirs tend to struggle with. I was surprised at how much love and hope there is for the future, even in the same breath as acknowledging some of the generational pain and harm done, and how it effected her father. Another point that might have been made in much more detail in other styles in the same format. Had it not had as much retreading for sake of the musicality of some structural choices, I think this might have been a five star read.

  6. 5 out of 5

    André

    Things don’t fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept. “We come out of it better than they did, Lue,” my Daddy said, and I watch my six children and know we did. They walk with confidence through the world, free sons and daughters of free folk, for my Mama told me that slavery was a temporary thing, mostly we was free and she was right. And she smiled when she said it and Daddy smiled too and saw Things don’t fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept. “We come out of it better than they did, Lue,” my Daddy said, and I watch my six children and know we did. They walk with confidence through the world, free sons and daughters of free folk, for my Mama told me that slavery was a temporary thing, mostly we was free and she was right. And she smiled when she said it and Daddy smiled too and saw that my sons are as strong as my daughters and it had been made right. And I could tell you about things we been through, some awful ones, some wonderful, but I know that the things that make us are more than that, our lives are more than the days in them, our lives are our line and we go on. I type that and I swear I can see Ca’line standing in the green of Virginia, in the green of Afrika, and I swear she makes no sound but she nods her head and smiles. Notes: Finished on the Fourth of July.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Dree

    This slim book is a memoir, and a family history. Written by a poet, which gives it an ease and pacing and repetition that is memorable, comfortable, and feels very safe and homey. Clifton frames this around her father's funeral, a time when she traveled home, saw lots of relatives, and thought a lot about her father's life and the stories he told about their family history. And that is what we have here. The repetition feels exactly like a parent telling their children stories--the same things p This slim book is a memoir, and a family history. Written by a poet, which gives it an ease and pacing and repetition that is memorable, comfortable, and feels very safe and homey. Clifton frames this around her father's funeral, a time when she traveled home, saw lots of relatives, and thought a lot about her father's life and the stories he told about their family history. And that is what we have here. The repetition feels exactly like a parent telling their children stories--the same things pop up here and there, with different phrasing and context. She frames how he taught her to be brave and capable and confident despite your surroundings, just like his great-grandmother who raised him from the age of 8. Clifton took all of this to heart. There is a good family tree (with sources) on familysearch.org. It does not go back to Caroline and the first Lucy--whether their passed-down history is exactly 100% true (lack of online sources does not mean it is not true, as any historian or genealogist can confirm) is irrelevant in light of the relevance and importance of the stories to the later generations, giving them history and background and love. As a historian and genealogist, I wish everyone (especially the oldest generations) would write their own version of this. No they would not be poetic and evocative like this, but they would still be important within their own families and even to their own local historical/genealogical societies.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Valerie

    I've been reading a lot of Lucille Clifton's poetry after recently being reminded of her greatness. As such, I was curious to know where this force of a woman came from. In short, she came from Dahomey women. Each generation, from the paternal matriarch Caroline born in Africa in 1822 to Sam and Thelma (Clifton's adored father and beloved mother whom she was named for), is introduced to the reader with a stanza from Walt Whitman's Song of Myself. As with everything else she's written, this is co I've been reading a lot of Lucille Clifton's poetry after recently being reminded of her greatness. As such, I was curious to know where this force of a woman came from. In short, she came from Dahomey women. Each generation, from the paternal matriarch Caroline born in Africa in 1822 to Sam and Thelma (Clifton's adored father and beloved mother whom she was named for), is introduced to the reader with a stanza from Walt Whitman's Song of Myself. As with everything else she's written, this is composed beautifully and reads just as wonderfully as her poetry. Though a quick read, it offers a little backstory into the origins of an incredible woman and literary icon. The brevity did leave me wanting more, but I am still very appreciative of the insight it did provide on Clifton's personal, familial history.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Theodore

    the work I dream to read, a marvelous display of archival practice, kin, history, and linage. Clifton can do no wrong in my eyes. “In history, even the lies are true.” "Things don't fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept." the work I dream to read, a marvelous display of archival practice, kin, history, and linage. Clifton can do no wrong in my eyes. “In history, even the lies are true.” "Things don't fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept."

  10. 5 out of 5

    betta.read.books

    4.5 stars phenomenal.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Devin Farmiloe

    Lucille Clifton beautifully paints her complicated family dynamic. I really enjoyed the way she tells of her love for each family member despite their faults and the tribulations that may have occurred to complicate those relationships!

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    Poetic prose, immersive, powerful. I recommend it.

  13. 5 out of 5

    C.L.N.

    More of a 'prelude to the actions of a life', Clifton's work connects threads that, when put together, build her into who she is. These threads already have a multiple articulation. Take laughter, she writes (Pg.19) "There was a Pennsylvanian driving behind us, driving too close to our station wagon. A whiteboy driver in a cowboy hat driving a cowboy car and bent down low and stiff over the steering wheel. Sammy and I pointed at him and laughed loud and fell down all in the seat and the poor Penn More of a 'prelude to the actions of a life', Clifton's work connects threads that, when put together, build her into who she is. These threads already have a multiple articulation. Take laughter, she writes (Pg.19) "There was a Pennsylvanian driving behind us, driving too close to our station wagon. A whiteboy driver in a cowboy hat driving a cowboy car and bent down low and stiff over the steering wheel. Sammy and I pointed at him and laughed loud and fell down all in the seat and the poor Pennsylvania whiteboy sat straight up and gunned around us three crazy spooks driving North and sped the hell in front of us and across the mountains scared and driving like hell. Fred started to speed and we strained trying to catch up with him and laugh at him some more but we looked across every mountain and he was gone." Here, laughter forms a territory, a place of safety that can be carried around. However, laughter also is necessarily unstable, a hazy defense. Pg.84: "I always felt that I was supposed to make things right, only I didn't know how, I didn't know how. I used to laugh and laugh at the dinner table till they thought I was crazy but I was so anxious to make things right." When reading the work, I felt this uneasy laughter constantly, able to burst out or not, but always haunting the mood of the work, just like past relatives. At the end, Clifton writes, "Things don't fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept." Laughter, similar to repetition, doesn't break these lines up, but it can express their thinness.

  14. 4 out of 5

    WndyJW

    I read this novella for Black History month. Written in poetic prose, the author, poet Lucille Clifton, tells the history of her family from slavery to the present. Although it is not a thorough excavation of her family history with lots of places and experiences, she does reveal her family through vignettes of the family members that shaped the family’s sense of who they are, women like Mammy Ca’line, born into slavery and walked from New Orleans to Virginia at age 8 and her aunt who was the fi I read this novella for Black History month. Written in poetic prose, the author, poet Lucille Clifton, tells the history of her family from slavery to the present. Although it is not a thorough excavation of her family history with lots of places and experiences, she does reveal her family through vignettes of the family members that shaped the family’s sense of who they are, women like Mammy Ca’line, born into slavery and walked from New Orleans to Virginia at age 8 and her aunt who was the first black womanly hung in Virginia. I recommend this because of all that Clifton revealed in so few pages.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Erica

    a heartwarming little book

  16. 5 out of 5

    Helen

    ok no more devastatingly beautiful Black intergenerational stories for a while :') ok no more devastatingly beautiful Black intergenerational stories for a while :')

  17. 5 out of 5

    G

    It’s short but what a voice!

  18. 5 out of 5

    Mai

    Beautiful. The audiobook is read lovingly by Lucille Clifton’s daughter.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Andrea

    This is a short and elegant history of Clifton's family. The structure recalls poetry through repetition and intergenerational themes. It's beautiful! I rarely fail to be impressed by poets' memoirs and this is no exception. This is worth seeking out. This is a short and elegant history of Clifton's family. The structure recalls poetry through repetition and intergenerational themes. It's beautiful! I rarely fail to be impressed by poets' memoirs and this is no exception. This is worth seeking out.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Bonnie

    I wish I had more of my family stories recorded just this way, in the language in which I heard them, complete with repetitions and speech patterns that bring the speakers into intimate space. A beautiful memoir.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    Poetic memoir written by my favorite poet.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kim Shively

    Lucille Clifton is a magnificent poet and the poetry comes through in this memoir. She tells the story of her family -- filled with Dahomey women -- in snippets and glimpses, creating an impressionistic sense of the 19th and 20th century experiences of her ancestors. The book I had included old photographs as well, unlabeled, but you could deduce who was in each picture. These photos contributed to the impressionistic, poetic aspect of the memoir. The book is very short but it packs a big punch.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sharon Bruni

    A phenomenal accounting of familial memory. Through the author’s reduction of personal reflection there is an emphatic immediacy in the recounting of the Sayles family history which links Lucille with her powerful African Dahomey ancestors. This captured immediacy allows for a directness and historical truth that feels unmediated by Lucille’s individual memory. The power and pain of generations flows through these sparse pages.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Devan Bennett

    This was excellent. I recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Zami by Audre Lorde or bone Black by bell hooks, or Brown Girl Dreaming.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Judy Owens

    Powerful and beautiful. A very short but impactful memoir of a great poet.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Andy

    “Smoke was hanging over Buffalo like judgment.” Just go ahead and read it. (Then, read it again.)

  27. 5 out of 5

    Janine

    Poetic and lyrical is the best description for this very short but poignant memoir chosen as the New York Review Classic November 2021 selection. Clifton writes a tribute to her father and to her family’s history as she recounts her father’s funeral. While white plantation owners may have tried to obliterate black family history by breaking up families, it is clear from this book that black slaves knew their lineage and had great pride in the family lines and traditions. In recounting her family Poetic and lyrical is the best description for this very short but poignant memoir chosen as the New York Review Classic November 2021 selection. Clifton writes a tribute to her father and to her family’s history as she recounts her father’s funeral. While white plantation owners may have tried to obliterate black family history by breaking up families, it is clear from this book that black slaves knew their lineage and had great pride in the family lines and traditions. In recounting her family’s history she tells of one relative, Lucy, who shot and killed the white man who fathered her son and how she stood by the body and waited and then rather than being lynched she was tried, convicted and hung. Interspersed between the chapters are quotes from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” which Tracy K, Smith notes in her Introduction to the book, come before pictures of Clifton’s family and which she believes call out for “a radical reconfiguring . . .” of meaning: “here in America, and perhaps everywhere, no matter who we have been made to believe that we are, we are - all of us - the children of slaves (page xi).” Perhaps this is best summed up in the most memorable part of the book for me when Clifton wrote: “Oh slavery, slavery,” my Daddy would say. “It ain’t something in a book, Lue. Even the best parts were awful (page 28).” Clifton tells her story in two parts: in remembrances of what she remembers her father and others told her and in her own story of her life up to her father’s death. While this is a remembrance of het father, the strength and courage of the women in her family shines through. A most stirring and memorable read.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Christina

    Clifton’s prose memoir is a slim little book, fewer than 90 pages, but it contains more wisdom & insight than some 500 page tomes. She recounts her beloved father’s death (“The morning of my father’s funeral was grey and wet. Everything cried.”) & the stories he told about their family. He was raised by his great-grandmother Caroline, who had been a slave. She & her siblings & mother were kidnapped from The Kingdom of Dahomey, brought to New Orleans, sold & separated. Her father was a great stor Clifton’s prose memoir is a slim little book, fewer than 90 pages, but it contains more wisdom & insight than some 500 page tomes. She recounts her beloved father’s death (“The morning of my father’s funeral was grey and wet. Everything cried.”) & the stories he told about their family. He was raised by his great-grandmother Caroline, who had been a slave. She & her siblings & mother were kidnapped from The Kingdom of Dahomey, brought to New Orleans, sold & separated. Her father was a great storyteller & though she sometimes questioned the accuracy of his stories, the line Caroline always told him, “Get what you want, you from Dahomey women,” became embedded in Clifton’s consciousness. Though she grieves, she also sees & feels the bonds that connect her to her family, both blood & not. She begins each section with lines from Whitman’s "Song of Myself" & if you think of that poem as quintessentially American, it becomes very clear that the American identity is incomplete without the stories told in books like Generations. “Things don’t fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept.”

  29. 4 out of 5

    Kkraemer

    The Sayles began in the South and later came North. "When the colored people came to Depew (New York), they came to be a family. Everybody began to be related in thins ways that lasts and last. The generations of white folks are just people, but the generations of colored folks are families." This is a memoir of generations. Stories and pictures of the generations that led to the writer and her children. Generations that lived and loved and took care of each other and celebrated as much as they c The Sayles began in the South and later came North. "When the colored people came to Depew (New York), they came to be a family. Everybody began to be related in thins ways that lasts and last. The generations of white folks are just people, but the generations of colored folks are families." This is a memoir of generations. Stories and pictures of the generations that led to the writer and her children. Generations that lived and loved and took care of each other and celebrated as much as they could, from Georgia slavery through the changes and challenges of time through present Baltimore. Poverty. Low paying, hard work jobs. Men and women who succumbed to things. Laughter. Dahomey women, all...even the men. Clifton, known more as a poet, is magical in her telling, noting that "Things don't fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept."

  30. 5 out of 5

    Betsy Jacobs

    I appreciated the obvious emotional depth, but this was written in a very stream-of-consciousness way that I could not follow. There was also a great deal of repetitiveness without any apparent point. There didn't seem to be a great deal of narrative, and I find myself at the end of it, and wondering what it was about. I admit up front that most poetry glances right off of me - and this was most definitely the memoir of a poet. Most of the story was between the lines. Memoirs are one of my favor I appreciated the obvious emotional depth, but this was written in a very stream-of-consciousness way that I could not follow. There was also a great deal of repetitiveness without any apparent point. There didn't seem to be a great deal of narrative, and I find myself at the end of it, and wondering what it was about. I admit up front that most poetry glances right off of me - and this was most definitely the memoir of a poet. Most of the story was between the lines. Memoirs are one of my favorite genres, and I've never read one and come away from it not knowing the author at all.

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