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Raised in Washington DC, she reflected in some of her earliest work the troubled times of the 1960s and the rebellions that ripped through the District of Columbia following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Clarke is the author of four collections of poetry: Narratives: Poems in the Tradition of Black Women (originally self-published in 1981 and distributed by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1982); and for Firebrand Books Living as a Lesbian (1986), Humid Pitch (1989) and Experimental Love (1993).
She also published After Mecca - Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (Rutgers University Press, 2005), the first study of its kind that made more visible the contributions of black women to a field that traditionally recognized black men; Days of Good Looks: Prose and Poetry, 1980-2005 (Carroll & Graf Publishing, 2006), a collection that represented 25 years of published writing.
Cheryl Clarke has served on the editorial collective of Conditions, an early lesbian publication and has been published in numerous anthologies and journals including: Home Girls, The Callaloo Journal and Black Scholar.
A graduate of Howard University in 1969, Clarke later received her Masters and Ph.D in English from Rutgers University in 1974 and 2000, respectively. This presaged the long relationship with the university where she has taught and worked since 1970. She was on the graduate faculty of the Rutgers University Department of Women and Gender Studies, the founding Director of Diverse Community Affairs and Lesbian/Gay Concerns, which became the Office for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities in 2004. She served as the Dean of Students of the Livingston Campus at Rutgers University from 2009-2013. Clarke retired from Rutgers in 2013, after 41 years.
She has served on a number of boards and community organizations, including New York Women Against Rape (1985), New Jersey Women and AIDS Network, Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, and the Astraea Lesbian Action Foundation for Social Justice. Currently, Clarke is a member of the Board of Directors of the Newark Pride Alliance, which is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to LGBTQ advocacy and programming in the city of Newark, New Jersey. She lives and writes in Jersey City, New Jersey.
- Beverly Guy-Sheftall (1995). Words of fire: an anthology of African-American feminist thought. The New Press. p. 241. ISBN 978-1-56584-256-4. Retrieved 31 December 2011.