Writer Pearl Cleage Tells the Messy Stories of Her Life

Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: The author pens a revealing memoir about tough life choices in hopes that others can learn from her.

Pearl Cleage in the play Speak Truth to Power: Voices From Beyond the Dark at Ebenezer Baptist Church Jan. 14, 2005, in Atlanta Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images

PC: I’m at the point where I’m at peace with everyone. No one’s mad at me, and I’m not mad at them. I don’t have any secrets. I was conscious of needing to respect someone who didn’t want to have all their business all out. But I had enough material which was focused on me. I asked my daughter, and she was fine [with it]. I asked her father; he was fine. I asked my husband; he was fine. I figured if all three of them were fine, we were all good.

TR: Reading your book, and your experiences in Atlanta, I can’t help but feeling like you were rebelling from the whole black bourgie thing. Were you rebelling against the whole proper-Negro-woman thing?

PC: I don’t think it was specifically a black, middle-class Atlanta environment I was rebelling against. [In the ’60s and ’70s], we were all challenging all the things we were conditioned to accept: traditional marriages, sublimating your career desires to your husband. That’s what the women’s movement was reacting to. We were trying to define things in a different way—what can a relationship be between equals?

I feel like the book has two big movements that sweep through it. One was the civil rights movement, the freedom movement. The other part is the women’s movement. Those were the two movements that shaped my life and what I thought my journey should be.

TR: You had some very high-profile jobs that you left behind to pursue your writing. You were Maynard Jackson’s press secretary.

PC: I was very involved in Maynard’s campaign. I thought he would be a great mayor. I came to that campaign as a speechwriter. I’m a playwright. Listening to someone and being able to reproduce how they speak was very much part of the brain I was used to using. And that was wonderful that he won.

Being part of the first African-American mayor’s staff was incredibly stressful. And he wanted to be great at this job. He demanded of all of us. He was famous for calling us up at 5 in the a.m. and saying, “Did I wake you?” And of course, he did. But we were trained to say, “No, Mr. Mayor, what can I do for you?” We knew if he was calling us at 5, then he’d been up since 3 a.m.

But this job did not allow for the brain that was writing poetry and plays any space to move around. I was trying to write a love poem, and I could not get the mayor’s voice out of my head … It was clear to me I really had to choose. If I was going to be a writer, then I was going to have to find another way to make a living. I had a dream of my own.

TR: Any regrets?

PC: Oh no, not one. I’m a writer. I’m an artist. I needed to recognize that and pursue it. That was the last full-time job I ever had. I left the mayor’s campaign in 1976 and never had another full-time job since then. And that was the best thing I could’ve done.