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)

PC: My father was active in the civil rights movement and helped define liberation theology. He was a friend of Malcolm X. He was a brilliant, charismatic guy, and I saw that with Reverend Wright. They really demonized this guy. People were shocked by what he said, but it was like that every Sunday at my church!

TR: Your novel What Feels Like Crazy on An Ordinary Day was an Oprah’s Book Club selection. When did you learn that it had been chosen?

PC: I had written a couple of cover stories about Oprah for Essence, and Susan Taylor sent her a copy of the book. When Oprah called, I thought she was calling about the article, that she wanted to add something. But she called to tell me that she had made What Feels Like Crazy a selection.

TR: What was your reaction?

PC: You have a moment when you’re a blithering idiot.

TR: What do you think of the Obama administration so far?

PC: I think he’s doing great. The health-care thing was a big struggle. He’s trying to get out of a mess of stuff, like international stuff he didn’t even start. The “teabaggers” and people like that drive me crazy, but just watching Obama, seeing how calm he is, calms me down. I met both [him and Michelle] at Oprah’s Legends Ball, and [Barack] had just made that wonderful speech at the Democratic Convention. Michelle is wonderful. [Cleage, invited as a “young’un” to the 2005 event honoring 25 African-American women prominent in the arts and civil rights, wrote the poem We Speak Your Names for the occasion.]

TR: If you could speak to Obama again, what would you tell him?

PC: Stay strong. Ignore the screaming and hollering from the right, talk to your wife, play with your children, listen to your advisers. It’s such a dangerous, crazy job. I’m not a conventional Christian, but I’m praying for him.
 I think it’s a time of big upheaval. The Bush years were so terrible, and people are nervous and scared, and it brings up all that insecurity. But I think that will fade. Health care, trying to end the wars, getting people back to work, are good things.

TR: Tell us about your play.

PC: It’s [a comedy] called The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years and will be staged jointly by the Alliance Theatre [in Atlanta] and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in September. It takes place around December 1964, around the same time as the events that happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the civil rights struggle. [The Nacirema] Society has a cotillion every year, and the director is upset because “all of these wild radicals” are messing up their cotillion. So it shows that not every African-American family was supportive of the movement. This family just wants to have their cotillion!

TR: What’s next?

PC: Well, I’m having another book [a novel] out next year. I always say that I’m going to take six months off after a book. That lasts about three weeks. I experience the world best through my writing.

TR: Any parting words?

PC: Everybody be optimistic! And do your work! Don’t get distracted!


Arlene McKanic is a freelance writer from Queens, New York, and Blair, South Carolina.


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