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A Memoir

by Lucille Clifton, introduction by Tracy K. Smith

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November 2021 selection of the NYRB Classics Book Club

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.”

Additional Book Information

Series: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 9781681375878
Pages: 104
Publication Date:


Generations is a book about staring history in the face. . . . she (Clifton) faced the profound absurdity of being alive.
—Lavelle Porter, JSTOR Daily

Those qualities—celebration, acknowledgment, recognition—are also abundantly present in Generations. . . In Generations, she tells the uniquely Black and quintessentially American story of her family. . . . Clifton brings a folksy poetry and an economy that amounts to a magic trick.
—Clifford Thompson, Commonweal

Impressive—honest, clear-eyed with a shapeliness natural to poets. . . . In addition to possessing the ease and intimacy of Clifton’s poetry, Generations speaks to, for, and from fictional and posthumous lives—Moses, Medgar Evers, Amazons, Bob Marley, Sleeping Beauty, etc. She is comfortable and knowing about the dead. . . . Lucille is another word for light, which is the soul of ‘enlightenment.’ And she knew it.
—Toni Morrison

Of great poets whose poems are kin to Clifton’s, I think of Emily Dickinson; to Dickinson’s intense compression Clifton adds explicit historical consciousness. And of Pablo Neruda: Clifton subtracts hyperbole from his elemental clarity.
—Elizabeth Alexander, The New Yorker

Lucille Clifton helped me hear things—helps all of those who love her work hear things that they would rather ignore.
—Reginald Dwayne Betts

[Clifton's] works are explicitly historical and of a palpable present moment.
The Paris Review

You can easily see the reflection of [Clifton's] tight, spare poetry in this exceedingly compact book, which is all the more affecting for its light touch and suggestive sketches of all the American Sayles, including a few of the white ones.
Kirkus Reviews

[Generations] is a song of self. All the defiant joy of [Lucille Clifton’s] verse is present in this family history, beginning with the ancestor who walked cross-country only to be sold into slavery at age 8. For those whose histories were stolen through violence, this is a proclamation of power and resistance.
—Jessica Ferri, Los Angeles Times

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