Writer Pearl Cleage Tells the Messy Stories of Her Life

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?

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.


TR: Your book is a virtual “who’s who” of the black intelligentsia and the black arts and entertainment scene. You wrote a movie with Richard Pryor. What was that like?

PC: Bustin’ Loose was a bad movie. But I learned a lot. One of the things I learned was this is not a medium for writers. Richard Pryor was a great artist but a very temperamental artist. It was very difficult working around what mood he was in that day. The cast and the crew were trying very hard to make Richard Pryor comfortable, and that’s a very difficult task for someone as complicated as he was.


TR: In your book you really open yourself up, talking about taking on several lovers at a time. Were you worried about putting yourself out there like that?

PC: The thing is, if you decide as a writer you’re going to use your actual journals, then you have to use your actual journals. Then you can’t clean it up. You can’t pretend you were much smarter in 1982 or that you didn’t do something dishonorable in 1978. Sometimes at my readings, women come to me and they’re in despair of the messiness of their lives. I tell them, “Your 20s are going to be messy; 30s are going to be messy. Life is going to be messy when you try to figure out how to be a good person. But if you keep moving forward and try to get to the truth, then things will be much more than what you want to be.”


If we don’t tell these stories of our lives, then no one else can tell them. I think of my generation of women, writers who went through the civil rights movement, who pushed themselves to be good women. We have to keep telling these stories. It’s worthwhile. It does help people.

Teresa Wiltz is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. She is the author of The Real America: The Tangled Roots of Race and Ethnicity, published by SheBooks.net.


Teresa Wiltz is senior staff writer at Stateline, the journalism outlet of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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