Farewell My Mentors

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It is with a heavy heart that I heard the news of first Howard Zinn’s death and then Lucille Clifton’s. I guess I’m getting to an age when my mentors are getting on in years, but it still leaves a little hole in my heart to know that they are no longer here fighting the good fight with us. I have seen both Lucille Clifton and Howard Zinn only a couple of times, at readings and rallies, but I still  felt like they were my mentors. I remember when I was a freshman in college going to dinner at the apartment of a senior that I knew. My fellow freshman friends and I combed her bookshelves for the books that would give us knowledge that we wouldn’t find in our classrooms. When she found out that we hadn’t read Howard Zinn, she was shocked and sent us home with her copy. It was the same year as the 500th anniversary of Columbus discovering America. Or not, as I soon began to find out. I read the first chapter with great zeal. Not only was the history not quite the same as what I had learned in high school, which made me angry, but I loved reading the “people’s” perspective from diaries, newspaper accounts and other primary sources. I admit, that I didn’t finish The People’s History of the United States until after I graduated college, but it changed my view of history from the first and appealed to that part of my nature that loves to see things from all sides.

My experience with Lucille Clifton was somewhat different, but she could be described as a “people’s” poet. I loved poetry from the time I first encountered it and wrote my own tragically awful poems. The thing that was liberating to me about reading Lucille Clifton was that her poems are beautiful and meaningful but with simple language. They are not simple poems by any stretch. Some of them are almost like haiku they are so short, but they leave the reader with that same profound feeling of a good haiku. Although her experience is much different than my own I still felt like I could relate to her poetry in a way that I couldn’t with many other poets. She writes about history, politics and religion, but she also writes about women and families and those were the kinds of poems that perhaps I had been looking for and not finding. As a budding young feminist, that was important to me. Of course, you don’t have to be a feminist to love the poem, “homage to my hips.” Is there a woman who doesn’t love this poem? I suppose, but come on. It’s a poem about hips! There is a sense of pride and also a sense of joy in some of her poetry that is infectious.

Nothing I write here does justice to either Howard Zinn or Lucille Clifton. They are much more than the few thoughts I’ve put down here. Just wanted to remember them. For more info:

Howard Zinn

He’s also the subject of a great documentary called You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train narrated by Matt Damon (remember the book’s cameo in Good Will Hunting?)

Lucille Clifton

She was also one of the featured poets in Bill Moyers PBS series The Language of Life.

I might have actually been in the audience for this reading and whenever I saw this replayed it filled me with hope and courage but now, it also makes me a little sad too.


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