Pearl Cleage Talks Prose and Politics

The acclaimed writer chats with The Root about her new novel and play, her controversial father and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and her thoughts on how Obama is doing.

Pearl Cleage in 2005 (Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images)
Pearl Cleage in 2005 (Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images)

It’s spring in Atlanta, the flowering shrubs are blooming, and writer Pearl Cleage‘s most recent novel, Till You Hear From Me, is newly published. Her latest play, starring Jasmine Guy, is debuting in September. And she has something else to look forward to: tomatoes, which her husband, Zaron W. Burnett Jr., has just planted in their garden. Best of all, she doesn’t have allergies.

“I’m knocking on wood as I say this!” she says, laughing.

The celebrated novelist, essayist, playwright and poet was born in 1948 in Springfield, Massachusetts, where her father, the late civil rights activist Bishop Albert B. Cleage Jr., had a church. The family, however, moved to Detroit when the community found him a bit too radical. She went on to Howard University and then to Atlanta, where she finished at Spelman. She’s been in Atlanta since 1969.

Funny, warmhearted and insightful, Till You Hear From Me takes place mostly in the fictional Atlanta neighborhood of West End. Set in the present day, it examines the tensions between old-school civil rights leaders and the new guard, represented by the Obama administration. The protagonist and sometime narrator is Ida B. Wells Dunbar, a young woman in her 30s, and thus removed from the civil rights struggle. She has worked tirelessly for the Obama campaign and waits with no little anxiety for the phone call that will summon her to the West Wing.

In the meantime, her father, the Rev. Horace Dunbar, a charismatic preacher and activist, shocks Ida and their friends with a speech denouncing his old colleague the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Their enemies also pay heed: Wes Harper, a sleazy operative working for the Republicans to hobble the Democratic Party and the new administration, jumps at the chance to use the controversy to his own nefarious ends.

To add complexity to this tale, Cleage makes Wes the son of the Rev. Dunbar’s best friend, Eddie, as well as Ida’s former teenage crush. Joining Wes in his villainy is the femme fatale Toni Cassidy and a handful of oily neocon types. The Dunbars have on their side not only Eddie but also the loyal Miss Iona, the Rev. Dunbar’s longtime friend and confidante and a surrogate mom to Ida (whose biological mother, a feminist, blames everything on the patriarchy). The Dunbars also have in their corner a village full of good people, including the cozy Lumumba clan and State Senator Precious Hargrove. This being a Cleage novel, we know what must happen to the baddies, but it’s a fun ride as we wait for the delightfully twisty ending that signals their comeuppance.

In this telephone conversation, Cleage talks about the novel as well as her father, her new play and the Obama administration.

The Root: What was the inspiration for the novel?

Pearl Cleage: I really wanted to look at the Jeremiah Wright question. I was saddened by what happened between Wright and Obama, the positions that the old-line civil rights guys had — I call them warriors — with Obama. Obama happened a little too fast for them. They were used to fighting. And the idea of stepping aside was inconceivable to them.