The daughter of James Sheridan Clarke (September 18, 1912 – January 18, 2009), a veteran of World War II, and Edna Clarke, Cheryl was born and raised in Washington, D.C. at the height of the American civil rights movement, one of four sisters and a brother. The family was Catholic, descended from freed slaves who had emigrated to the nation's capitol after the Civil War. Both parents were civil servants and registered Democrats: James Clarke worked for the National Bureau of Standards for 33 years, and was considered to be the "mayor" of their neighborhood in the NW section of Washington. Experiencing Jim Crow segregation first hand in Washington for much of their lives, James and Edna raised their children with a strong sense of social justice and a belief in the importance of political activism.
When she was 13, Clarke crossed a picket line of African-American activists protesting segregation at Woolworth's on 14th Street, believing that this was a rebellious act. However,when she came home her mother, a staunch union member, told her never to cross a picket line again, educating her about the role of direct action politics in the civil rights movement. At 16, Clarke was allowed by her parents to attend the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with them, despite their concerns that there might be violence. The day before the march, on the way downtown to acquire information about the route, she ran into Martin Luther King, Jr.
Clarke attended parochial schools in the District of Columbia, and matriculated at Howard University in 1965. She received a B.A. in English literature in 1969. Subsequently, she enrolled at Rutgers University, completing a master's degree in 1974, an MSW in 1980, and a Ph.D in 2000. For much of this time, she also worked for Rutgers, beginning her employment there in 1970 as an administrator in student services. At Rutgers, Carke was a pioneer in co-curricular programming that made the university more accessible to students of color and LGBT students. In 1992, she was 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 to 2013. After 41 years in higher education, Clarke retired from Rutgers in 2013.
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, and Days of Good Looks: Prose and Poetry, 1980–2005 (Carroll & Graf Publishing, 2006), a collection that represented 25 years of published writing.
Clarke has served on the editorial collective of Conditions, an early lesbian publication, and has been published in numerous anthologies, journals, magazines, and newspapers, including Conditions 5, The Black Women's Issue (1979), This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1982), Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1984), The Black Scholar, The Kenyon Review, Feminist Review of Books, Belles Lettres, The Gay Community News. Clarke's iconic articles, "Lesbianism: an act of resistance" and "The Failure to Transform: Homophobia in the Black Community", published in This Bridge and Home Girls, respectively, are often included in women studies, black studies, and English studies curricula.
Clarke's fifth book of poetry, By My Precise Haircut (2016), is published by The Word Works Books of Washington, D.C., a press committed to the publication of contemporary poetry.
Clarke 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 Foundation for Justice. Currently, she is a member of the Board of Directors of the Newark Pride Alliance, 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.