Cheryl Clarke was born in 1947 in Washington, D.C. Her father served in the U.S. Army in the Red Ball Express in France during World War II. Growing up in Northwest Washington, D.C., Clarke attended parochial schools, including Immaculate Conception Academy for high school.
From 1965 to 1969, she attended Howard University and majored in English. During college, she worked part time at the Washington Post and at a Peace Corps office.
In 1969, Clarke came to Rutgers-New Brunswick as a graduate student in English. She earned her M.A. in English in 1974. She taught courses in the Urban University Program and discusses educational opportunity programs in the interview. From 1972 to 1974, she taught courses in the English Department at Rutgers.
A life-long activist, Clarke discusses her many experiences participating in social movements, including the anti-war and Black Power movements at Howard University, anti-apartheid activism at Rutgers, LGBT activism, feminism and lesbian-feminism, and activism surrounding the defense of Assata Shakur.
From 1974 to 1978, she worked in Middlesex County in the Comprehensive Employment and Training Program. In 1978, she returned to Rutgers to study social work, obtaining her M.S.W. in 1980.
In 1980, she began working in Student Affairs at Rutgers. In 1992, she served as the founding director of the Office of Diverse Community Affairs and Lesbian/Gay Concerns (now called the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities). From 2009 to 2013, she served as the Dean of Students for Livingston Campus. In 2000, she earned her Ph.D. in English.
At Rutgers, Clarke coordinated the University-wide Committee to Advance Our Common Purposes and the New Brunswick-wide Bias Prevention Education Committee, in addition to establishing the university-wide network of "Liaisons" and teaching numerous courses.
Clarke is the author of Narratives: Poems in the Tradition of Black Women (1982); Living as a Lesbian (1986); Humid Pitch (1989); Experimental Love (1993); After Mecca: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (2005); and The Days of Good Looks: Prose and Poetry, 1980-2005 (2006). From 1981 to 1990, she served as a member of the editorial collective of the feminist literary journal Conditions.