If you live near Middlebury College, you’ve probably witnessed a rousing performance by François Clemmons. The self-described “DivaMan” wows crowds every January with melodic renditions of American Negro spirituals. Come summer, he sings in multiple tongues for students of the Middlebury language schools.
Clemmons’ silky pipes are well known to local listeners. Now the college’s 63-year-old Twilight Scholar and artist-in-residence says he’s honing his literary chops on a slew of new manuscripts.
The first, a children’s fable called Little ButterCup & The Majic Cane, takes place in the Republic of Benin and will be published by Rochester-based Schenkman Books. Clemmons says the book’s central figure is a young musician who “seduces” an angry lion. Its wise narrator is modeled on Clemmons’ grandfather.
As ButterCup heads to press, Clemmons is busy with four other projects. First is a collection of poems he workshopped at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Clemmons is also penning a history of the American Negro spiritual — a project inspired by a class he teaches on the subject. Another work in progress, DivaMan’s 100 Meditations for an Extrovert, offers inspirational vignettes for folks who “have trouble being quiet.” As if that weren’t enough, Clemmons says he’s almost done with a dense autobiography called A Song in My Soul.
Half of that manuscript, which he started writing in 2004, documents his early life in Birmingham, Alabama. A child of sharecroppers, young Clemmons was troubled by his father’s violent streak and felt conflicted about being a homosexual member of the Baptist Church. The manuscript’s second half concerns his stint as a freelance artist in New York City. That’s where, in between professional singing gigs, he founded the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble and commuted to Pittsburgh for appearances on the popular children’s television show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“It’s kind of a legacy statement,” Clemmons says of his autobiography. “I’ll be 64 in April, and I am beginning to be concerned about what message I’m leaving behind, what I’m saying to people about my life in America as a black, openly gay person.”
Brett Millier, who chairs Middlebury’s Department of English and American Literatures, has read the unpublished autobiography and thinks an editor could cut it in half. That said, she appreciates how Clemmons’ vernacular writing voice begs to be read aloud. “He has quite a fascinating life story,” Millier notes. “But he’s also willing to push at the edges of how we understand ourselves in relation to God, family and abstract categories like race and sexual orientation.”