Lucille Clifton’s children have reclaimed the century-old Baltimore house where their mother wrote some of her greatest work.
She used to say that’s why her poems were so short, because she had six children and no closed doors.
In 1968, poet Lucille Clifton and her husband Fred moved into a house in the Windsor Hills neighborhood of Baltimore. For more than a decade, they raised a family while Lucille Clifton built her writing career, completing a memoir and six books of poetry. The house was a place of creativity, service, and activism, and always filled with artists, recalls Sidney Clifton, the eldest of the couple’s six children, until it was lost to foreclosure in 1979.
Losing their home was devastating for the family, which makes the story of its recovery all the more remarkable: on February 13, 2019, the year anniversary of her mother’s death, Sidney Clifton contacted the owners of the house, who, to her amazement, had put it on the market that very day. The family home was reclaimed, and soon afterwards, Sidney Clifton and her siblings established Clifton House, a place for art and writing workshops, residencies, and mentorship opportunities.
She spoke with us about her plans for Clifton House, her childhood memories, and one of her mother’s most powerful and best-known poems.
Now that you’ve reclaimed the house, does it still feel like the family home it was when you were a child?
The vibe is still in there. The question is how to make the design efficient while maintaining the integrity of the house so that both my mom and my dad’s influence show up organically. The writing workshop space will be in what was our family room, where my mom also worked and typed. I want to reflect my father’s creativity was as well. He was a community activist but also a painter. On the second floor, what was originally two bedrooms is being turned into a gallery space that will have a lot of my dad’s art, but also paintings that other people have done of my mom, and later, once we have workshops for young artists, their work too.
What do you remember of your mother working in the house?
She would write in the family room but mostly typed on a manual typewriter at the dining room table. She was always writing. My siblings and I talk about this all the time—we felt like everybody’s mom typed at the dinner table. It was so natural to us, there was never a time where we felt like she could have been doing something else. She was accessible, and we knew to just let her write.
She didn’t need solitude or silence to write?
No. She used to say that’s why her poems were so short, because she had six children and no closed doors.
Did your mother read her work aloud to you?
She did, and after I left home, she would call me on the phone and ask, “Can I read you this poem?” just to hear how it felt. She was meticulous about phrasing, about wanting to make sure a word was correct and clear.
It has been interesting to see how many young people know her work now.
When did you first hear or read “won’t you celebrate with me”? How did the poem resonate for you?
I heard her read it in person. It made me cry. It felt so triumphant and validating for her, knowing many of the things that she’d gone through. It also feels like... a proclamation: “This too? All right. This is my responsibility, to recognize and remember that despite having no models, despite having to make it all up—that’s the state of Black women in America, of a lot of people in America honestly. This is a thing I don’t know if I can live through. And yet I did. It is possible to not to die. It is possible to live, to experience the depths of grief and tragedy, and decide to live. That’s my job.”
For me, it represents the history of our family and the generations of women in our family, and this line, just continuing to live despite the things that try to kill you, and a reminder that it’s possible.
You’ve envisioned Clifton House as “a sanctuary for young artists.” What will make it a sanctuary?
I really feel it’s the history of the place that informs the definition of sanctuary. I want to create a place where you feel immediately safe, where my mother’s work, spirit, resolve, inspiration, and energy is accessible, not rarefied—that’s an important piece. When you talked to my parents or were in their presence, you felt the depth of their. . . I don’t want to say greatness, but it felt like that. At the same time, you thought, “This is someone who would give me a hug.” There really wasn’t a separation. What I’m hoping the space can do is show people that we all have that capacity for being fully and authentically realized as our creative selves. That’s a way of being that we want to nurture there.
How is the project going?
Renovations are underway. The team at the National Trust for Historic Preservation African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, and its director, Brent Leggs, are collaborating with us on our strategic plan and helping us be thoughtful stewards of the preservation piece. We recently received a proposal from Howard University offering to provide instructors for writing workshops, and to collaborate with us to publish a book of the writings by workshop attendees through Black Classic Press in Baltimore. The editor there, Paul Coates, would also give his guidance. It’s been amazing and humbling to see how deeply this project resonates with people.
What does Clifton House as a cultural site and center mean for your mother’s legacy and for the appreciation of poetry more broadly?
The project helps center her legacy on a place that was really part of her life, so that’s a beautiful thing. It has brought attention to the conversation about not only her and her work, but about poetry and its place in our lives. It has been interesting to see how many young people know her work now. They quote it and talk about how she’s accessible in a way that they didn’t know that poetry was. I’m hoping that Clifton House is part of a movement toward seeing poetry not only as a means of expression, but of also a way of being that is valid. Amanda Gorman [reading her poem at the presidential inauguration] was a great example. Poets knew of her, but the general public perhaps did not. Now they do. Now they see what a poet can look like. It’s going to be an interesting process, an interesting movement, I think, for many voices to be validated.