The day before Valentine’s Day in 2010, the legendary poet Lucille Clifton passed. At the time, Sidney Clifton, Lucille’s eldest child, was working on a series for the Hallmark Channel with Maya Angelou. Angelou sent Sidney flowers.
Sidney called Angelou in tears, thanking her for her gift.
“Miss Clifton, your mother was one of the greatest poets of our time,” Angelou said. “But Miss Clifton, you are also a poet. Now you must claim it.”
A couple of months ago, Sidney and I spoke on the telephone three hours apart from one another—she in LA, I in Baltimore—about her purchasing her childhood home and turning it into a writers workshop and studio. I could hear her choking up over the phone. “Yeah girl, she said that to me, I forget that sometimes. And the Clifton House will help me. It will be another way for me to remember that.”
From 1968 to 1980, Lucille and her husband Fred Clifton—a community activist, philosophy professor and sculptor—raised their six children in a big white house on a hill in the Windsor Hills community of West Baltimore. It was in this big white house, which Sidney calls the Clifton House, that Lucille Clifton’s career took off.
Channing Clifton on the bike, Gillian Clifton in front, circa 1970
It was in this white house in 1969 that her first collection of poetry, Good Times, was published. The New York Times named the collection as one of the 10 best books of that year. It was also where, from 1979 to 1985, Lucille Clifton claimed the title Poet Laureate of Maryland. By the end of the ‘70s she had crafted five more books of poetry and a memoir, all written in that big white house on the hill.
Due to financial struggles, the Cliftons lost their house in 1980. Between the combination of budget cuts at Fred Clifton’s job and the poetry world irregularly paying artists, neither income could supplement the loss. With the stress of suddenly losing their home and having to house eight people, the family was split up—mom took the four girls, and dad took the two boys. This separation lasted for a few weeks until they found a place to rent for everyone together. Still, the trauma of losing the big white house on the hill lingers.
“Our family has never recovered from losing that house,” Sidney recalls. “That was 40 years ago. Since that time both my parents have passed, we’ve lost two siblings, and even when I dream about home—that’s the home I dream about.”
That’s why this year, on the 9th anniversary of her mother’s passing, one day before Valentine’s Day, Sidney felt called to reach out to the owner of the house. She paused here a bit, breathless, sounding as if she was about to tell me she’d played the number and won the lottery of her childhood.
“The owner told me the house had gone on the market that very day!”
What were the odds?
“I knew I couldn’t afford the house, but I knew it was a sign and I had to do it. So I made an offer, and she countered, and we met in the middle.”
Sidney Clifton’s siblings Gillian and Alexia, circa 1972
But what was she to do now? It had been nearly 40 years since she’d been in the house, and almost just as long since she’d lived in Baltimore. What was the condition of the property? How was she going to afford renovations? And who would live there?
Sidney took to dreaming.
Sidney has built her career on being a creative fountain. She is an Emmy-nominated producer who has worked for over 20 years developing animated and live-action content—including animated live-action films and series for Madea’s Tough Love, Hellboy, and BET’s animated series Black Panther. During her prolific career, Sidney has focused her skills on identifying and mentoring creative talent across race, geography, and discipline. Like her mother, Sidney knows how to create and nurture creative communities.
One night, shortly after purchasing the house, it hit her: She was to make her childhood home, the Clifton House, an artist sanctuary.
The Clifton House will be a hub for creatives across Baltimore to hone their craft through low- to no-cost programming, including writing workshops, arts programs, and history workshops. Artists will also be able to rent rooms and work on their craft for weeks at a time.
Lucille Clifton and kids dancing circa 1969
Sidney is carrying on the legacy and precedent her parents set 50 years ago. As a child, their white house on the hill was always full of Black love, Black laughter, Black art and Black mischief.
She remembers the elevator in the house. Once, the children were playing on the elevator and one of her little sisters, Gillian, got her finger caught. The tip of her finger came off. The elevator was never turned on again.
Another memory: the time she got in trouble and her mother chased her all around the house. Her mother went up the front staircase and Sidney dodged her by going down the back staircase. The game of cat and mouse became so ridiculous that the two of them just ended up on the floor laughing.
Alexia, the youngest Clifton child, and the sister who showed me around the house, remembers how they all sat at the dinner table in birth order. When the Brussels sprouts hit her plate, she’d funnel the vegetable under the table to her other siblings until it got to the one closest to the door. Then they’d throw it out the open door.
Lucille Clifton on steps circa 1974
The doors of the Clifton House were always open.
Fred and Lucille Clifton used to throw huge parties where writers such as Januwa Moja, Haki Madhubuti, Afaa Michael Weaver, Laini Mataka, Evelyn Y. Burrell, Dr. Eugenia Collier, Vincent and Rosemarie Harding, and even Honorée Fanonne Jeffers as a child, would come. There would always be food, drumming, art, and laughter. “There were times when people were talking mess, but it all came back to love,” Sidney says. “There was just a level of safety, freedom, and unmitigated joy that lived there.”
When Alexia Clifton gave me a tour of the property, I was struck by how much it feels like a sanctuary with its tall, stately trees, its corridors and hideaways, and its ability to turn natural light into a photograph. Walking through the house, Alexia told me a story of each room. I felt like I was stepping over toys and watching the children play. When we reached Lucille’s writing room, it was hard to look at long—it was small, intimate, and full of light. Witnessing the space she worked in gave me more context to Lucille Clifton’s work, which often thematically centered light. Books such as Two-Headed Woman, Quilting: Poems 1987-1990, and The Book of Light, speak to her connection to the luminary—after all, it is the meaning of her name.
Lucille Clifton at typewriter
The Clifton House is a project that also values connecting Black people across the diaspora to the African continent itself. This connection, like the house, is still under construction, but has the ultimate goal of stretching Black artists’ community further than the front lawns of Baltimore.
The efforts for launching the Clifton House are well under way, with crowdfunding, individual donations, and a $20,000 grant from Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising Foundation. There are also non-monetary ways to support the project. Sidney calls the space a “literary potluck” and, more than anything, letting folks know it’s there and showing up is a huge way of showing support. Renovations for the project are projected to be completed by 2021 and by that time there will be more specifics as to how folks can run workshops, contribute books for the book lending library, and donate art materials. ”It’s like, come to the potluck and bring what you can bring,” Sidney says. “And whatever it is, do it joyously.”
Creating the Clifton House is Sidney’s poetic reclamation. This vision has long been in the works due to the model set by her parents, encouragement from mentors such as Maya Angelou, and Sidney’s specific gift of bringing creative communities together.
Even though Angelou called her a poet, Sidney does not identify as one. But she walks in the world as one. “My mother taught me to walk into a room because I belong there, not as if I belong there, because ‘as if’ signifies that you have to convince yourself of something,” she says.
The Clifton House will once again soon be a home where Black artists, Black artistry, and Black people are welcomed to walk in and take up space. “My mom always validated our experiences even if it was different from hers. And as an artist it’s part of what you do, you understand that your perspective is not the right one or the only one, it’s just yours,” Sidney tells me. “So one of my biggest passions is reminding young writers, artists, and young folks in general that you do matter. There’s a reason for you being here.”
Lucille and Fred, daughters Fredrica and Gillian, 1969
June Jordan, Alice Walker, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde
For more information on Clifton House, email Sidney Clifton at [email protected] Funding support can be sent to The Clifton House, Inc., c/o Sidney Clifton, 5871 Kelvin Avenue, Woodland Hills, CA 91367.
Images courtesy of Sidney Clifton.
Featured image: Clifton children (L-R) Gillian, Alexia, Sidney, Graham; 2019