Pearl Cleage Talks Prose and Politics

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.


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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