Hearing Lucille Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me” at a celebration of her work is the Humanities Moment that offered both comfort and a model for how to navigate life as a Black academic. I was a new English professor and was unprepared for the isolation I felt in the academy when a senior colleague invited me to the Clifton event. The evening was packed with more dazzling poets than I can remember, and I really couldn’t take it in. I still don’t remember much about it except hearing this poem and the story behind it.
Clifton had been named a distinguished professor of the arts and because she didn’t have all of the right credentials a man in the office next to hers didn’t think she deserved the honor and took time out of his day to tell her so. The poem is her response. The whole of that moment was affirming, not just the poem but the reason it came to me. More than affirming me, it showed me how to live this life of the mind—to do the work with fierce joy and to invite students, colleagues, and my communities to celebrate it with me.
The whole of that poem was me. It “affirmed” my lived experience. Poems do that every day. They clarify a feeling, give us a glimpse into ourselves or, if we’re paying attention, into some other person or place. And they can show us how to live.
Hearing poets talk about their work is another experience all together. Clifton was being celebrated by writers like Toni Morrison and Sharon Olds that evening, and hearing that story from this dazzling artist in the company of her peers not only inspired me personally but also helped me remember that in the midst of all the research and interpretative work I do, it’s the art and the community around it that matters. The structure of the poem, with its repeated call to “come celebrate,” reminds me that we have to remain open, regularly invite people to join us.