This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.


The first reading was from a family memoir by the poet Lucille Clifton:

“Mammy Ca’line raised me,” Daddy would say. “After my Grandma Lucy died, she took care of Genie and then took care of me. She was my great-grandmother, Lucy’s Mama, you know, but everybody called her Mammy like they did in them days. Oh she was tall and skinny and walked straight as a soldier, Lue. Straight like somebody marching wherever she went. And she talked with an Oxford accent! I ain’t kidding. Don’t let nobody tell you them old people was dumb. She talked like she was from London England and when we kids would be running and hooping and hollering all around she would come to the door and look straight at me and shake her finger and say, ‘Stop that Bedlam, mister, stop that Bedlam, I say.’ With an Oxford accent, Lue! She was a dark old skinny lady and she raised my Daddy and then raised me, lest till I was eight years old when she died. When I was eight years old. I remember everything she ever told me, cause you know when you that age you old enough to remember things. I remember everything she ever told me, Lue, even though she died when I was eight years old. And then I knowed about what she remembered cause that’s how old she was when she got here. Eight years old.”

The second reading was from the same family memoir by the poet Lucille Clifton:

“Walking from New Orleans to Virginia,” Daddy would say, “you go through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. And that’s the walk Mammy Ca’line took when she was eight years old. She was born among the Dahomey people, and she used to say ‘Get what you want, you from Dahomey women.’ And she used to tell us about how they had a whole army of nothing but women back there and how they was the best soldiers in the world. And she was from among the Dahomey people and one day her and her Mama and her sister and her brother was captured and throwed on a boat and on a boat till they landed in New Orleans. And I would ask her how did you get captured, Mammy, and she would say that she was a child and I would ask her when did it happen, Mammy, and she would say ‘In 1830 I walked from New Orleans to Virginia and I was eight years old.’ And I would ask her what was it like on the boat and she would just shake her head. And it seems like so long ago, you know, because when I was asking her this it must have been 1908 or ‘9. I was just a little boy. I was a little boy and my Mama was working in the tobacco plant and my Mammy Ca’line took care of me and I took care of my brothers and my sister. My Daddy Genie was dead. He died young. He was my real Grandmother Lucy’s boy and of course she was dead too. Her name was Lucille just like my sister and just like you. You named for Dahomey women, Lue.”

Sermon — “Generations”

This is the last in a month-long series of sermons on poetry and religion. On the first Sunday in February, I gave a sermon on the poetry of James Weldon Johnson; the next week on the poetry of Langston Hughes; last week, Jorge Pereira gave a sermon on the poetry of Niki Giovanni; and this week I’d like to speak to you about the poetic prose of Lucille Clifton.

When I say that I’m preaching on the topic of poetry and religion, I’d using “poetry” in its broadest sense. Some poetry is written in verse, some is written in prose. I mean poetry in the sense of what the ancient Greeks called poesis, which was a kind of making. We might say that poets make the world. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that when we read certain poems, those poems make us anew, remake us, and in that sense our world is made anew.

Or put it this way: In a post-Christian religion like ours, where do we turn for religious inspiration? If ours were an orthodox Christian faith, we would know to turn to the Christian scriptures, and to orthodox Christian writers, for inspiration. Since ours is a post-Christian faith, we can still turn to the Christian scriptures for inspiration,– and some of us indeed do read the Christian scriptures to help us on our spiritual journeys, while others of us have no interest in the Christian scriptures. Yet all of us recognize that the world has changed since the days when Christian scriptures were written down. We know that revelation is still going on all around us, and we are open to the idea of finding religious and spiritual inspiration in other literature: in any of the scriptures of any of the world religions, for example; and we are willing to look for religious revelation in any literature where we sense the religious or the spiritual.

For us, spiritual writing does not need to contain the word “God” any more than it needs to contain the word “Allah” or “Buddha” or “Confucius.” Spiritual writing does need to be poetic; that is, it needs to reveal our deepest selves to us, it needs to reveal what truly is around us. It doesn’t matter whether poetic spiritual takes the form of verse or of prose — the form matters less than the effect it has upon us. Does it remake us? Then it is poetry; then it may be spiritual and religious.

I said I am preaching this month on poetry and religion. Specifically, I am preaching about poetry written by American poets of African descent. I wanted to speak about American poets because I wanted to address some of the immediate spiritual and moral issues that confront us as people living in this time and place. In our country, one of the key moral and spiritual issues that we are continuing to deal with is the ongoing legacy of slavery. We now have a new president who is of African descent, and the fact that he was of African descent made history. At this time last year, there were still those who said a Black man wouldn’t be elected president, and the fact that people could say this and be widely believed, tells us that the legacy of slavery continues in our country today. Since religion concerns itself with matters of morality, and since the legacy of slavery remains a central moral issue, this moral issue should be the concern of any religion that claims to take morality and ethics seriously. And if we as a post-Christian religion are going to be serious about the legacy of slavery, we cannot rely solely on ancient scriptures; we will also read American poets of African descent in order to make spiritual sense of this national moral issue.

And so this week, I’d like to speak about the African American poet Lucille Clifton. In particular I’d like to speak about her poetic memoir called “Generations.”

Let me tell you part of the story of “Generations”; let me tell you that part of the story which concerns a woman who came from Africa, known by the name of Caroline, and which tells about her descendants down to the poet herself. This is the story as it was told to Lucille Clifton by her father, Samuel.

In 1822, a girl was born to the Dahomey people of West Africa. She never told any of her descendants what her African name was, so we don’t know what she was originally named. When she was eight years old, she and her brother and sister and mother were captured and taken to New Orleans and put into slavery.

She and her brother and sister and mother survived the Middle Passage — something she would not talk about later in her life — and arrived in New Orleans in 1830. She was made to walk from thence to Virginia. In Virginia, she was sold to a white man named Bob Donald; her brother was sold to another white man nearby; and her mother was sold off somewhere else, Caroline never knew where. Caroline lived as a slave from the time she was eight. She heard about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion; she heard about John Brown’s daring raid.

Caroline’s master owned an orchard, and one day while she was working in the orchard, an older slave named Louis Sale drove his white master’s carriage past the orchard, saw Caroline, and asked his master to buy her to be his wife. Louis was born in 1777, so he was 43 years older than Caroline; but Caroline was bought and they were married, legally married in fact. Caroline’s new master had her trained as a midwife. They named their eldest daughter Lucille, or Lucy.

Well, Lucy was a strong-willed woman. The Civil War came, Emancipation came, and white carpetbaggers came down south. Lucille had a baby with one of those white carpetbaggers, a man named Harvey Nichols. The baby boy’s name was Gene, and he was born with a withered arm. Lucille went out one night with a rifle, and shot Harvey Nichols in a crossroads. Amazingly, she wasn’t lynched, because (says the poet’s father) she was from Dahomey women; so she became the first African American woman to be legally hanged in the state of Virginia.

The little boy Gene was raised by Caroline, now known as Mammy Caroline. He grew up to be a ladies’ man, and “wild.” (When Samuel Clifton told this story to his daughter, he said that Gene was “just somebody whose Mama and Daddy was dead.”) Gene has a little boy who was named Samuel (this is the Samuel who is telling the story), and when Samuel was four or five years old, Gene used to take him into beer gardens and have him whip other little boys on a bet. Gene died when Sam was five, so Mammy Caroline raised him, too, until she died when he was eight years old.

This is how Lucille Clifton summarizes these generations in her memoir:

“‘The generations of Caroline Donald, born free among the Dahomey people in 1822 and died free in Bedford Virginia in 1910,’ my Daddy would say, ‘and Sam Louis Sale, born a slave in America in 1777 and died a slave in the same place in around 1860
are Dabney and Gabriel and Sam and Helen and John and Lucille,
called Lucy
who had a son named Gene by a man named Harvey Nichols
and then
she killed him,
and this boy Gene with a withered arm had three sons and a daughter
named Willie and Harvey and Samuel and Lucille
and Samuel who is me
named his boy Sam and
his daughter Lucille.
We fooled em, Lue, slavery was terrible, but we fooled them old people We come out of it better than they did.’”

So it is that Lucille Clifton’s poetic memoir begins to remake the world. “‘We fooled em, Lue, slavery was terrible, but we fooled them old people We come out of it better than they did.’” This poetry remakes something that needs to be remade. We’ve got slavery in our shared national story, and we don’t quite know what to do with it. We try to balance the story of slavery with the story of Emancipation, but in my view that never quite balances out. We’ve got Jim Crow and racism in our shared story, too, and again we don’t quite know what to do with it. We try to balance the story of racism with the story of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, except that racism didn’t end with Martin Luther King. So what do we do with the story of slavery, and with its sequel, institutionalized racism?

Lucille Clifton adds something to our shared story; this is what poets do, they reshape our shared stories. Lucille Clifton adds Caroline to the story, a Dahomey woman who was born free and then enslaved and then emancipated, and who died free. Caroline, who talked with an Oxford accent. Caroline, who remembered from her girlhood a whole army of Dahomey women, women who were the best fighters around. Caroline, who makes slavery personal, as we think about a crazy and immoral economic system that would enslave a powerful Dahomey woman. Lucille Clifton tells us that her father said this about slavery: “It ain’t like something in a book, Lue. Even the good parts was awful.” And so this poetic memoir that I read in a book manages to take slavery out of the book and make it real, for when you read this book the poetry makes you feel as if you know Mammy Caroline; and even the good parts of slavery were awful.

Lucille Clifton adds her own children to the story, the great-great grandchildren of Caroline. Speaking of her own children, Lucille Clifton says: “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 so this poetic memoir remakes the world for us by telling us that slavery was a temporary thing, It was something that humans made, and eventually they unmade it. This gives us the hope that all such human-made evils can someday be unmade, if we will but put our minds to unmaking them.

Lucille Clifton tells her family’s story about how they survived slavery through the generations, and so she remakes the world.

You see now, don’t you, that telling our stories and religion are somehow mysteriously linked? After all, what is the Bible but the stories of the children of God? and out of these stories a grand religion has grown. For that matter, what is the Koran but the story of how Allah revealed himself to Mohammed? and out of that story another grand religion has grown. And what are the Buddhist suttras but stories of how Gotama Buddha lived his lives and taught his followers? and out of those stories yet another grand religion has grown. Somehow, religions grow out of stories — not out of just any old story, but out of a kinnd of poetry.

There is a moral point here, too. We all tell stories about ourselves. Those stories can shape the way we live, and the way we shall act in the future. Poets are a kind of storyteller who can shape, not just themselves, but the rest of us as well; because poets can shape the way we tell our own personal stories.

As I read Lucille Clifton’s story of the generations of her family, I found myself wondering about my own family’s story. If I were a poet — and I’m not — what could I say about my own people? My mother’s people lived in this part of the world for many years: the lands east of Providence, the Cape, and the Islands. Living where they did, along the coast, these people earned a living from the sea. Some of them earned a living in the whaling trade, and I have no doubt that some of them earned at least part of their living in the slave trade, because these weren’t the ship owners and wealthy merchants and they earned their living where they could.

Now some of my mother’s family came from Martha’s Vineyard, and in the middle of the 19th century we lose track of some of them. Where did they come from? Were they simply swamp Yankees who had so little money that they didn’t get included in any written records? Islands being what they are, I sometimes wonder if one or two might have been colored folk who slipped onto the island from somewhere else and were passing as white; it’s unlikely but not outside the realm of possibility. Surely there are some Americans who are both descended from slaves, and from those who engaged in the slave trade. We like to think to separate the American story into black and white, but it is more complex than that.

Our national story is far more complex than the simplistic story that appears in high school history books. We Americans are descended from Dahomey women and from white slave traders. As a people, we are descended from abolitionists, white and black, and from slave owners in the south and in the north. We are descended from Caroline Donald and from Harvey Nichols. And our story goes far beyond simple black and white: we are descended from Azoreans and Cape Verdeans and Irish and English and Wampanoag and Vietnamese and on and on.

Telling our stories in all their complexity is a matter of national morality. If we can tell our national story in all its complexity, some day we will be able to look at ourselves and our neighbors and say: We all are free children born of free folk. We will remake ourselves into a truly free people. That is what poets like Lucille Clifton help us to do: she tells a very personal story, but in her personal story is something of the national moral dilemma.

This is where it gets religious. This is where I tell you about the basic Universalist theology that underlies our religious faith, the certainty that there is inherent worth and goodness and dignity in all persons.

As Americans, we are descended from all these people, and there is some goodness in all our forefathers and foremothers, in spite of our national tragedies and our national moral disgraces. Slavery was a national tragedy and a disgrace, and we’re still not done with it. The way the Europeans pushed Indians off the land was a tragedy, and we’re still not done with it. This goes back still further: the way the English pushed my Welsh ancestors off the land, so that they had to come and settle here in southern Massachusetts, was a tragedy, and in Wales they’re not done with that tragedy yet. These are all tragedies that continue today.

As a religious matter, we know that it doesn’t do any good to cover up these old tragedies; just as they Bible doesn’t cover up some of the ancient horrific tragedies of slavery and wars and rapine and conquest. Covering up tragedies only makes us feel worse. But we need our poets to tell our tragedies to us in ways that make sense. Our poets can tell us how things are so that we appreciate that within each of us that is worthy of dignity and respect.

We are all worthy of dignity and respect. Our best poets will have to keep on telling us this until we have finally freed ourselves, and freed our children. That kind of freedom will come only when we know, in our heart of hearts, that every person is worthy of dignity and respect; acknowledging that is the road to true freedom.