Born 2 November 1946, Kingston, Jamaica
Michelle Cliff spent her early years in Jamaica and in New York City, where her parents emigrated when she was a child. Although legally an American born abroad, Cliff claims a Jamaican identity. She calls herself "Jamaican by birth, heritage and indoctrination," an indoctrination she sees as separating Jamaicans into a hierarchy based on the gamut of skin tones from white to red to dark. Cliff went to a girls' private school on the island conducted by English women. Her experience there confirmed her sense of the divisive effects of color.
Cliff received a B.A. in European history at Wagner College in New York City (1969). Subsequently, at the Warburg Institute in London she earned a master's in philosophy (1974) for her work in languages and comparative historical studies. Between 1969 and 1979 she held a variety of positions in publishing in New York City.
Very light skinned, one of the fairest in her family, Cliff uses this relationship to society as a "white" woman of color as a central theme in her writing. Her characters are frequently based on herself and members of her family who are challenged by the dualities of colonialism and revolution, white and black, America and the Third World.
Cliff's first publication, The Winner Names the Age (1978), is an edition of antiracist writings by the Southern American writer Lillian Smith. Raised in the South, Smith was acutely aware of its racial divisions and uneasy with the privileges that came with whiteness.
Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise (1980) brings together poetry and prose, autobiography and history, to evoke the colors of Jamaica and memories of her family and to "conjure a knowledge" and vivid portrayal of her past. Cliff's The Land of Look Behind: Prose and Poetry (1985) demonstrates her strengthening feminist voice against colonialism. In "The Laughing Mulatto (Formerly a Statue) Speaks," she speaks of the link between passing for white and heterosexual in society despite the fact that she is in reality black and lesbian. The idea that it is impossible to separate aspects of one's identity like race and sexuality is a theme throughout her work Cliff explained her views on feminism and what the feminist movement gave her in an interview with African American Review in Summer 1994: "I think that liberation has to begin with oneself. The feminist movement allowed me certain things, like choosing to live alone, which was frowned on in the world in which I lived. Feminism for me was a way of looking in a mirror and seeing possibilities. It gave me support for my choices. One of these choices ultimately was to become a writer, which was something not at all encouraged in the world in which I grew up."
In her first novel, Abeng (1984), Cliff writes of a light-skinned Jamaican girl, Clare Savage, and her relation to the dark-skinned Zoe. The story focuses on the status and the damages with which Clare's lightness is associated; within the power her skin color gives her, she sees the true history of colonialism, racism, and privilege. At the novel's end, Clare is left unsure of herself and her place in society. Cliff describes the book as "emotionally an autobiography."
No Telephone to Heaven (1987), the sequel to Abeng, follows the Savage family's decision to leave Jamaica and migrate to America, leaving a predestined life in a racist and classist society for a place where so much more could belong to them. Tracing the adjustment of each family member to a new life, she focuses again on Clare who, like Cliff, moves through America, Europe, and back to Jamaica. On the island she is brought through an old friend into a group of revolutionaries; embracing their beliefs, Clare rejects the privilege of her skin color and turns to her community to find wholeness.
Cliff's sense of history and its effects on the present recurs in a collection of reflective short stories, Bodies of Water (1990), which looks at how ordinary people cope with extraordinary events like the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement. Cliff's next volume of short stories, The Store of a Million Items (1998), contains 11 stories about tragedy, grief, and the joy of everyday living. Her protagonists may experience sorrow, but they also celebrate life in small ways like the children in the title story, who note the passing of time through the changing displays in a store window. Cliff's understanding of the destructiveness of racism informs her feminist voice. As editor (1981-83) with her longtime companion Adrienne Rich of Sinister Wisdom, she enabled the publication of significant lesbian feminist writing. She has also written of the influence on her of Simone Weil and of the work of black women visual artists, and provided the introduction to Audre Lorde and Rich's book on black feminism in Germany, Macht und Sinnlichkeit (1983).
Free Enterprise (1993), Cliff's third novel, is about two African American women, the legendary Annie Christmas and the real historical figure Mary Ellen Pleasant, who join forces to assist John Brown's antislavery efforts. Like Cliff herself, the Caribbean-born Annie has very light skin, but is determined to reject the privileges that come with it in favor of an active role in the antislavery movement. Annie finds a mother figure in Mary Ellen, an entrepreneur who owned property in California that provided refuge to runaway slaves. The two women are contrasted with two white women, Alice and Clover Hooper, whose race enables them to openly oppose slavery and yet who are themselves proven racist in the end. Once again, Cliff's theme is the challenge to maintain one's identity when one is a minority, whether sexual or racial or both, in an oppressive, racist, homophobic society.
Cliff's work has been recognized by fellowships from the MacDowell Colony (1982), the National Endowment of the Arts (1982, 1989), and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation (1984); she was Eli Kantor Fellow at the Yaddo Writer's Colony in 1984. She has taught at the New School for Social Research (1974-76), Hampshire College (1980 and 1981), the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (1980), Norwich University (1983-84), Vista College (1985), San Jose State University (1986), University College of Santa Cruz (1987), Stanford University (1987-1991), and at Trinity College in Connecticut (1991-92). In addition to teaching, Cliff has been an invited participant at workshops and symposiums around the world and a member of the editorial board at Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society (1981-89). Her stories and essays have appeared in Chrysalis, Conditions, Sojourner, Heresies, Feminist Review, Black Scholar, and other journals.
Black Writers (1989). CA (1986). CANR (1999). FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
African American Review (Summer 1994, Spring 1995, Winter 1998). Conditions (1986). NYTBR (15 July 1987). WRB (Nov. 1987).
UPDATED BY LEAH J. SPARKS