won’t you celebrate with me by Lucille Clifton

won’t you celebrate with me by Lucille Clifton faces the racism and inherent gender inequality that is rampant in society. Against all the odds, being ‘nonwhite and a woman’, Clifton has achieved great things, and calls the reader to celebrate with her.


Summary

won’t you celebrate with me by Lucille Clifton begins with a call to action, ‘won’t you celebrate with me’. The rest of the poem explores the reasons for the celebration, Clifton having gone against odds of privilege and still managed to come out as a success. The inherent racial and gender bias in society still being present within modern society will not keep her down, it is ‘has failed’.

You can read the full poem here.


Structure

Clifton splits won’t you celebrate with me into 14 lines. Instantly this bares a slight link to the sonnet form. Although not following a traditional rhyme scheme, the suggestion of the form could indicate that Clifton is writing a love poem to herself, congratulating her own resilience. I think it’s appropriate to actually distance herself from the typical form, the sonnet form very much being represented through a canon of white men which she is actively rallying against. The change of form, only lighting using sonnet structure, therefore embodies the idea of love that a sonnet holds, but does not comply with the expectations of society, much like Clifton herself.


Poetic Techniques

One technique that Clifton uses throughout the poem is a distinct lack of capitalization. In doing this, Clifton could be suggesting that her poetry is not conforming to the traditional grammar structures of English writing, furthering her sense of difference and nonconformity. Similarly, this could reflect the way that black writers are underrepresented in the English canon, with the small typeface insinuating a certain minimization.


won’t you celebrate with me Analysis

Lines 1-6

won’t you celebrate with me begins with a call to action, Clifton asking the reader if they will celebrate her achievements with her. The focus on ‘me’ at the end of the first line, the syntax of the line placing the emphasis on the pronoun, furthers the importance of the sense of self in the poem. The key focus here is Clifton achievements, symbolized by ‘me’ being the focal point of the first line.

The consonance of ‘w’ across ‘won’t’ and ‘what’, the first two words of the first two lines creates a soft sense of aural anaphora, the repeating sounds giving a sense of structure to the poem.

The focus on ‘shaped’ as the key verb of the second line contains connotations of effort. It is almost as if Clifton has moulded her life, individually and purposefully, the word ‘shaped’ focusing on the sense of energy that has gone in to achieving what she has. The focus on the active case of this line, ‘I have shaped’, rather than the passive, ‘my life was shaped’, emphasises the idea that Clifton herself has forced these achievements. Clifton focuses on the idea that it is her, and only her, that has worked for her achievements – the poet here examining the self-drive she possesses.

The lack of a ‘model’ suggests that Clifton, representing both ‘nonwhite and woman’, does not have anyone to which she can turn and look up to. This frames the argument of a lack of representation in media, with most roles in cinema and TV going to white people, over people of colour. This lack of representation is detrimental, with young black people having very few options for role models when watching the media. This is something that is gradually beginning to change in the modern world, but still has a long way to go. Without a sense of connection to any role-models, she argues that ‘what did I see to be expect myself’, suggesting that it looked as if there were no options for a black women when growing up. When all the characters on tv, in movies, and in positions of power around the world are just white men, it looks as if the only roles in society are for those people.

The idea of presenting her race as ‘nonwhite’, instead of something more specific creates the idea that there is a racial prejudice that sees people as either ‘white’ or other. Clifton is suggesting that it does not matter the race, it is the idea that ‘white’ is given so much privilege over all other races, therefore identifying herself as ‘nonwhite’ to act as a form of representation for all those reduced to an ‘other’. The compounding of ‘and woman’ furthers this argument of representation, with Clifton embodying someone to which everything has been stacked against.


Lines 7-14

The use of ‘between / starshine and clay’ represents the divide between opportunity and reality. On one hand, there is a clear possibility in the future, the ‘stars’ representing the promise of the future. The ‘clay’ is the earth in this metaphor, the lack of opportunity and the absolute reality. Clifton argues that being ‘nonwhite and woman’ places you within this liminal space ‘between’ these ideas. You can see that opportunity, ‘star’ that others are taking, but without a defined path to get there, are stuck almost the ‘clay’.

The idea that she must ‘hold tight’ to her current situation relates to the precarious nature of her place in society. As a black woman in a society which still contains deeply racist and ingrained bias against black people and women, Clifton fears for the stability of everything she has built. On one hand, she invites the reader to celebrate her achievements, but always with the other hand she is ‘holding tight’ to everything she has achieved, ensuring it cannot be taken away.

The final three lines clarify why exactly we should celebrate with Clifton. She argues that she has achieved so much, even in the face of the ‘everyday’ in which ‘something has tried to kill me / and has failed’. She has survived and succeeded, despite racial and gendered bias holding her back. The short sentence, isolated from the rest of won’t you celebrate with me, ‘and has failed’ elevates this concept, the focus on her success being the final concept drawn into the narrative. won’t you celebrate with me celebrates success against all odds, Clifton going against prejudice to excel.

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