The Spirit Writing of Lucille Clifton


Arts & Culture


It all began one night in 1976, when the poet Lucille Clifton was lightheartedly using a Ouija board with two of her daughters. The board began to spell out the name of Clifton’s mother, Thelma. At first, Clifton was incredulous, but as she received more messages, she came to believe that they were truly from her mother’s spirit. Later, Clifton wrote that “There was no point, no single statement that said unequivocally ‘this is she.’ It was/is the accumulation of things, the pattern of her self. Which is how we know anyone.” According to Clifton’s first-born daughter Sidney, over the years Clifton “evolved from the Ouija board” to automatic writing to, eventually, a spiritual state in which she could directly access the spirits without the need for writing. In the seventies and eighties, the Clifton’s Baltimore home became a spiritual way station through which a wide assortment of spirits apparently passed.

Despite her fame as a poet, Clifton’s trajectory as a self-described “two-headed woman” is a little-known part of her legacy. “Two-headed woman” is a traditional African American term used to describe women gifted with access to the spirit world as well as to the material world. Clifton’s unpublished spirit writing is housed at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University. These materials range from past life regressions to treatises on Black astrology to pages of unbroken cursive detailing the histories of Atlantis and Egypt. In many of Clifton’s documents, Blackness and the Black body are decentered by the concept of reincarnation. When she asks her spirit interlocutors about her previous incarnations, she is surprised to learn that in many of them, she was not a woman at all. Clifton’s spirit writing, while ostensibly fitting into a race- and gender-blind New Age tradition, should be read as an important contribution to Black feminist theories of embodiment. Clifton’s spirit communications foreshadow contemporary global issues like climate change and the rise of the far right, and they position Black women at the vanguard of addressing these issues.

In August and September of 1978, for example, Clifton received a series of dire warnings about the fate of the human world from a mysterious group of spirits she called “the Ones.” The Ones did not assume the personality of a departed human, and they did not weigh in on day-to-day affairs. They spoke of things of cosmic importance: the deep past of human civilization (for instance, the origins of Atlantis and demystifications of ancient Egyptian civilization) and its tenuous future. They returned “to remind human beings that they are more than flesh,” and in 1978 they warned Clifton:

If the world continues on its way without the possibility of God which is the same as saying without Light Love Truth then what does this mean? It means that perhaps a thousand years of mans life on this planet will be without Light Love Truth It is what we were saying indeed that there will be on Earth that place which human beings describe to the world of the spirits Hell Now there is yet time but not very much your generation Lucille is the beginning of the possibility and your girls generation is the middle etc.

The Ones, characterized by their mythic tone and liberal use of a royal we, peppered their messages with a line they repeated like a refrain: “There are so many confusions so many potential dangers in the world of the Americas.” It was a strange way of phrasing it, given that the fate of the entire world, not just the Americas, seemed to be in the balance. These spirits seemed to espouse a kind of post-racial universalism, yet they located “the Americas,” and their increasing globalization, as a place of unique evil. The spirits tell Clifton, “America is not a country where things sounding right are taken as right,” and say that this resistance to the truth is destroying the world. According to the Ones, the generation born at the end of the twentieth century would be the last to have the possibility to avoid an earth turned to Hell, making now the time to act on their message.

In the loneliness of the two-headed woman, the burden of saving the world falls disproportionately on Black women. In popular culture, the figure of the Black woman medium fulfills a deep social need for white people to see Black people as channels to a past they otherwise pretend to ignore. In the 1990 film Ghost, the psychic character played by Whoopi Goldberg asks, in dismay, when the ghost of Patrick Swayze’s character first speaks to her, “Are you white?” She already knows her body will be used as a surrogate for white people to connect with the afterlife they otherwise pretend not to believe in. In a society that consumes yet ridicules the supernatural abilities of Black women, Clifton sidesteps these narratives by emphasizing her own Blackness as a gift both linked to and on par with her supernatural abilities. Despite the heaviness of her role as a medium, Clifton regards it as a privilege of her present incarnation as a Black woman. An untitled poem in Clifton’s 1980 poetry collection Two-Headed Woman reads:

the once and future dead
who learn they will be white men
weep for their history. we call it

To be born a white man, despite its material benefits, is here represented as a kind of cosmic misfortune, a sullying of the soul with all the dirty deeds of white men’s history. If a soul’s incarnation as a white man is cause for weeping, then it follows that a soul’s incarnation as “both nonwhite and woman” should be cause for something akin to celebration.

Two-Headed Woman is her first published work to narrate her spirit communication. It begins, however, not with the story of Clifton’s spirit visitations, but with a series of oft-quoted homages to various aspects of her body: “homage to my hair,” “homage to my hips,” and “what the mirror said.” The latter poem ends with the exhortation:

you not a noplace
mister with his hands on you
he got his hands on

This poem both reveals the interchangeability of the Black woman’s body and challenges it. The anonymity of “somebody” is interrupted by the emphatic imposition of an admonitory “damn.” Clifton’s emphasis on her body in a poetry collection that describes the demands of the spirits is not accidental. Clifton asserts the preciousness and integrity of her body in the draining work of spirit communication. In an untitled poem in her 2004 collection Mercy, Clifton describes the Ones chiding her with, “your tongue / is useful / not unique.” Her embodied poetry is itself a rejoinder to the spirits’ insistence that she is “not unique.” Just as Frantz Fanon famously ends his philosophical meditation in Black Skin, White Masks with an appeal to his body—“O my body, make of me always a man who questions”—Clifton similarly enshrines the importance of the body in questions of the spirit. When read together, Clifton’s poetry and her spirit writing represent a both/and reality, one in which race is merely earthly, profane, and temporary, and yet the racialized body matters in this realm.

Clifton’s spirit interlocutors view race in interesting ways, neither disavowing its existence nor inflating its importance in the afterlife. They are post-body but not post-racial. In 1977, Clifton put out an open call to the spirit world for celebrity spirits who would like to take part in an anthology of sorts, which she titled “Lives/Visits/Illuminations.” By asking the spirits questions like “What was the experience of death like for you?” and “Would you like to clarify anything about your life for our world?”, Clifton hoped to bring them peace and closure through a discussion of the lessons they had learned since their deaths, and sought to serve spirits and humankind by allowing them to share their experiences in their own words. The resulting replies were a strange, rollicking, and deeply moving compilation of voices, often speaking against racism and the human tendency to hierarchize physical differences. Of the twenty spirits who volunteered, many of them would today be recognizable as important historical figures, but Sidney Clifton emphasizes that the lessons of the afterlife made their messages more important than their worldly identities and accomplishments. The spirits seem to have learned a gentle disregard for human markers of difference. For instance, when Clifton interviews one spirit, who was a religious leader in his life, and asks what he looked like, he replies somewhat dismissively, “Shall we deal in statistics?” But he concedes that he had brown hair, brown eyes, and was of medium height. A spirit who lived in eighteenth-century Germany, when asked whether it was true that he was of African descent, replies, “Yes. Yes, Grandfather, yes. Of course in the old days in my country we would never admit it. Silly.” Another spirit insists that she does not want to be reincarnated, “Not for awhile, till things get better. I want to come back when I can go anywhere and be a Negro and nobody notices.” Spirits who had been secretly queer in their previous incarnations returned to say that they “didn’t hurt a soul and didn’t corrupt no children” and to warn the living that in their time to be queer was to be “like a [sic] animal, a dog, worse than a dog – DON’T BE LIKE THAT PEOPLE. Don’t make somebody miserable.” All of these answers strip back class, race, gender, and sexuality, revealing them as the changing weather of a soul’s journey, not the journey itself. Certainly, these were not the most valued aspects of the spirits’ incarnations on earth. When asked what things still attract them to our world, the spirits’ answers are simple: trees, autumn, “sparkly places,” children, happy families, laughter, singing, running around.

In her writing, Clifton adopts an ethereal stance in which “the soul survives bodily death, has survived numerous bodily deaths, will survive more. There is some One in each of us greater than the personality we manifest in any life. The soul does not merely select her own society, the soul is her own society. And love is eternal, is God. Is.” And yet, while impermanent, she does not view the Black woman’s body as a halfway house on the way to more fortuitous incarnations. Like the soul, the body is its own society with its own values, lessons, and codes. Although the spirits admonish Clifton for her fixation on earthly matters of race and gender—“you wish to speak of / black and white […] have we not talked of human”—she maintains a delicate balance between the idea of a raceless soul and her incarnation as a Black woman. In her view, it is no accident that her body and its specificities became a channel for the spirits. In her writing, being a Black woman is a way of listening, a radical form of receptiveness to the lessons that history teaches. And as her daughter Sidney puts it, “I think her actual gift was her openness and ability to hear.”

Clifton’s theory of spirit does not succumb to fatalism. When one considers the trials Clifton’s mother Thelma faced —poverty, epilepsy, a philandering husband, death at forty-four years old—there is some comfort in this expansive view of the soul. Thelma’s spectral return represents a Black woman’s soul unbound by the structural misfortunes of her life. She bears witness to these trials but is not erased by them. Lucille Clifton’s spirit writing makes the pangs of my own embodiment as a Black woman easier to bear amid constant reminders of the perils of Black embodiment. There is solace in the idea that this brown skin and these wide hips were made for listening to the voices that could not be erased by time, history, or death. Oh my body, make of me always a woman who listens.


Read Lucille Clifton’s poetry in our archives.

Marina Magloire is an assistant professor of English at University of Miami and a Public Voices fellow with the Op-Ed Project. She is currently writing a spiritual history of Black feminism and Afro-diasporic religion. Sidney Clifton, whose help was invaluable in writing this essay, is an Emmy-nominated producer and the president of the Clifton House, an artists’ and writers’ workshop project designed to honor the legacy of Lucille and Fred Clifton. Inquiries about the Clifton House can be directed to [email protected]