Born on 19 February 1945 and raised in Glen Allan, Mississippi, Clifton Taulbert graduated from high school in Greenville in 1963, served in the US Air Force, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Oral Roberts University and a graduate degree from the Southwest Graduate School of Banking at Southern Methodist University.
While pursuing his education and banking career, Taulbert began writing a memoir, Once upon a Time When We Were Colored (1989), in which he introduced uncles and aunts, godparents, cousins, neighbors, and others who inspired and taught him. Dealing with leisure, religion, work, organizations, and above all family life, the book portrays a community of people who care for and help each other, especially in times of trouble.
Once upon a Time When We Were Colored differs from most African American autobiographies (most obviously Richard Wright’s Black Boy) in that it has an optimistic tone and considerable nostalgia about the strength of family relationships, church life, and community institutions among African Americans. In addition, Taulbert’s book does not concentrate on racism or deprivation. To be sure, the book dramatizes injustices done to African Americans, detailing such painful moments as when Taulbert was turned away from a whites-only circus and was humiliated by a white store clerk. But according to Taulbert, “Even though segregation was a painful reality for us, there were some very good things that happened. Today I enjoy the broader society in which I live and I would never want to return to forced segregation, but I also have a deeply-felt sense that important values were conveyed to me in my colored childhood.” The book was made into a 1995 movie.
The volume has attracted some critics who argue that the use of the discredited term colored and the overall positive tone do too little to critique a racist system. Taulbert has responded that he wrote to describe the positive features of the people who helped raise him. From memories he described in Once upon a Time When We Were Colored, Taulbert developed the concept of the “porch people”—adult neighbors and family members who provided security and good examples to all the children of the neighborhood. He returned to this theme in his first book for children, Little Cliff and the Porch People (1999).
His second memoir, The Last Train North (1992), describes people’s fascination with the possibility of leaving Mississippi. The sound of the train and stories about people who left on the train raised hopes for young people as they dealt with everyday frustrations and wondered about life beyond Mississippi. A high point was his return from St. Louis, where he had moved in 1963, to enjoy the pleasures of home from the perspective of one who had left. The third memoir, Watching Our Crops Come In (1997), describes his time in the military and his hopes for the civil rights movement. Again, a trip home to Glen Allan was central to the story, but this time he was observing the changes stimulated by civil rights activism. The latter two books consist more of individual stories and concentrate a bit less on the personalities and moral lessons that dominate Taulbert’s first memoir.
Taulbert lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and has now written a total of twelve books, including three works for children. He speaks regularly to audiences on education, values, and relationships. His 1997 book, Eight Habits of the Heart, uses lessons he learned in Glen Allan that can help people care about and live with each other. The eight habits, all linked to specific moments of his early life in the Mississippi Delta, are Nurturing, Dependability, Responsibility, Friendship, Brotherhood, High Expectations, Courage, and Hope. Another volume, Who Owns the Ice House? Eight Life Lessons (2010), coauthored with Gary Schoeniger, used Taulbert’s life to discuss entrepreneurial lessons about Choice, Opportunity, Action, Knowledge, Wealth, Brand, Community, and Persistence.
His work has won an Image Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Mississippi Arts and Letters Award for Nonfiction.
- Mississippi Writers Page website, www.olemiss.edu/mwp
- Clifton Taulbert, The Invitation (2014)
- Clifton Taulbert website, www.cliftontaulbert.com