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

By her 20s, Pearl Cleage was on a completely different trajectory, living the kind of life for which a Spelman College degree presumably prepped one: power career as press secretary-speechwriter to Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor; power marriage to up-and-coming politico Michael Lomax (now president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund); powerful friends occupying powerful places.

And then the Detroit native stepped away from it all, ditching her marriage (but remaining friends through it all), the career, the paycheck, all in favor of finding the best way to fly free. And for her, “free” meant writing whatever she damn well pleased. Not writing speeches for someone else, not cranking out advertising copy, not penning scripts for famous black actors with famously difficult temperaments. (More on that later.) But writing, her writing, plays and poems and novels and essays. Hers.

None of this was easy, of course—some of it was downright terrifying. But through it all, the award-winning playwright and best-selling novelist kept a steady chronicle of it all, scribbling down her thoughts and fears: the birth of her daughter, Deignan, her mother’s death, her own abortion, the breakup of her marriage, her love affairs, everything. And then, decades later, she decided to take her journals public.

“I had to ask myself, ‘Are you prepared to show yourself, warts and all? If not, then you should keep writing novels,’” says Cleage, who is now married to writer Zaron W. Burnett Jr.  

Her answer? Yes, because telling those warts-and-all stories helps others trying to forge a similar path. And because who wants to live on a pedestal? Things I Should Have Told My Daughter (Simon & Schuster) is Cleage’s memoir of those early days, when she was a young woman struggling to find out what it means to live life as an “honorable woman.”

Cleage, who is doing a residency with Atlanta’s Tony Award-winning Alliance Theatre, recently sat down with The Root to talk about her new memoir.

(Full disclosure: Cleage’s ex-husband, Michael Lomax, is a family friend, and I was his editor at The Root whenever he penned op-eds.)

The Root: Why did you decide to release your journals now?

Pearl Cleage: When I spoke to my daughter about it, her idea was that journals are such a private thing but that they’re not useful. I believe the opposite. Diaries and journals can give you a real, unedited portion of a person’s life. I wanted to see if my daughter was right and [my journals] were just a bunch of personal whining or if it was a valuable account of a woman learning to be free. And I think I was right.

TR: Were you at all worried about angering someone because of something you’d written about them?