Carrie Williams Clifford’s Poem, ‘Together’

Clifford
Carrie Williams Clifford.

I signed up for the Academy of American Poets’ (through poets.org) Poem-a-Day. According to them:

“Poem-a-Day is the original and only daily digital poetry series featuring over 250 new, previously unpublished poems by today’s talented poets each year.

In solidarity with the June protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, Poem-a-Day will be dedicated to featuring Black poets throughout the summer. From August 3–August 14, Marilyn Nelson is the curator for our special series.”

Unbeknownst to me, I picked a damn good time to sign up because today’s poem comes from a true pioneering black woman in the late 1880s and early 1900s, who is from Ohio, no less: Carrie Williams Clifford. She was born in Chillicothe, Ohio (less than two hours from me), and was a poet, of course, but she was also a clubwoman (women who believed that women have a moral duty to change public policy), activist in the women’s rights and civil rights movements, and was instrumental in recruiting women to the precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Niagara Movement. She also contributed to the women’s section of the Cleveland Journal as its editor.

“In her poetry and in her life, Clifford did indeed speak with a determination and resolve that would not be quenched by America’s accomodationist desires for its black constituency. Clifford was unwavering in reminding America of African Americans’ contributions of both their blood and labor for the progress of this country and in warning the ‘boastful, white American[s]’ who, as she saw it, must one day account to an avenging God for the offenses committed against blacks and other people of color.” – P. Jane Splawn, who wrote the introduction to a recent edition of Clifford’s poetry, courtesy of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania

What an accomplished early voice in women’s rights and the rights of black women in particular.

The poem for the day, which is in the public domain, comes from one of her poetry collections, 1922’s The Widening Light: Together.

O, come, Love, let us take a walk,
Down the Way-of-Life together;
Storms may come, but what care we,
If be fair or foul the weather.

When the sky overhead is blue,
Balmy, scented winds will after
Us, adown the valley blow
Haunting echoes of our laughter.

When Life’s storms upon us beat
Crushing us with fury, after
All is done, there’ll ringing come
Mocking echoes of our laughter.

So we’ll walk the Way-of-Life,
You and I, Love, both together,
Storm or sunshine, happy we
If be foul or fair the weather.

I’m particularly fond of the third stanza because it gets at what I think the overall theme of this poem is: Whatever may come, we will laugh in its face, and keep walking. In their way, they leave haunting echoes and mocking echoes of their laughter, whether it was a balmy day or a stormy day. Whatever may come, nothing will stop us (Love and I).

There’s also the idea that this sort of work — working through whatever ups and downs life may throw at us — is only possible, to some extent, because we both have Love with us and in our hearts, but also because we work together (and that’s the simple name of the poem, too). I think there’s long been a chasm in activist and protest circles between those who are driven by love and those who are driven by hate; those who are driven by peace and those who are driven by violence; and those who see the struggle as a lifelong, incremental one and those who see it as revolutionary, immediate and don’t want to wait.

There are legitimate arguments for both sides, and I’m particularly sympathetic for obvious reasons to the notion that, “Just wait,” is some BS that often gets tossed at those fighting for their rights. At the same time, process matters and process does take time. I also think there is a sense of that in this poem, too, because it’s a “walk down the way-of-life.” It’s not a jog, and it’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. Life is a marathon. Change within life is a marathon. Even when you’re fighting for your rights and life.

And it seems to me, at least with this poem, Clifford has chosen to walk with Love, and in so doing, can stare down anything, get passed anything, and laugh off any ill-will that may come her way.

I’m simply in awe of Carrie Williams Clifford and the life she led, and this poem that found its way into my email inbox today. But, I’m also a bit miffed, to say the least, and saddened. I did 19 years of schooling. 19 years! And I’ve never heard of Carrie Williams Clifford before. I’m even from Ohio!

Even beyond the scope of poetry, she contributed greatly, and you would think her name would have come up at some point in relation to women’s rights and civil rights. And yet.

And yet.

Both being a woman and being black has erased her contributions to history from the classroom. That seems indisputable. In an education system and in a society that valued those voices, it’s indisputable I would have studied her contributions.

Gah.

Gah, I say.

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