Pearl Cleage is a fiction writer, playwright, poet, essayist, and journalist who has lived in Atlanta since 1969. In her writing, Cleage draws on her experiences as an activist for AIDS and women’s rights, and she cites the rhythms of Black life as her muse.
Cleage’s first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, was an Oprah Book Club selection in 1998 and appeared on the New York Times best-seller list for nine weeks. Cleage has received numerous awards in recognition of her work, including the Bronze Jubilee Award for Literature in 1983 and the outstanding columnist award from the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists in 1991. In 2013 she was named playwright in residence of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, and in 2018 she received a Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities.
Early Life and Education
Cleage (pronounced “cleg”) was born on December 7, 1948, in Springfield, Massachusetts, the younger daughter of Doris Graham and Albert B. Cleage Jr. She grew up in Detroit, Michigan, where her father was a church pastor and played a prominent role in the civil rights movement. Many leaders of the movement passed through the Cleage house on their way to rallies and demonstrations in other cities throughout the Midwest and Northeast.
After graduating from the Detroit public schools in 1966, Cleage enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in playwriting and dramatic literature. In 1969 she moved to Atlanta and enrolled at Spelman College, graduating in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in drama. She later joined the Spelman faculty as a writer and playwright in residence and as a creative director. Also in 1969 she married Michael Lomax, an Atlanta politician and educator, who became the president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund in 2004. They have one daughter, Deignan Njeri. The marriage ended in divorce in 1979. Cleage married Zaron W. Burnett Jr., writer and director for the Just Us Theater Company, in 1994.
In her writing Cleage is zealous about those issues of Black life she feels need a forum for discussion, and she promotes practical education with regard to these issues whenever possible. In the essay collection Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot (1993), she discusses sexism and domestic abuse. Of particular interest in this nonfiction volume is a section entitled “Mad at Miles” (which previously appeared in a self-published volume, Mad at Miles: A Blackwoman’s Guide to Truth, in 1990) in which she criticizes jazz musician Miles Davis for brutality to women and draws parallels to abusive male behavior in everyday relationships. Among other topics, she has also written about the controversial hearings for Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court as well as the controversies sparked by the film director Spike Lee and his work.
Throughout her career Cleage has often been in the public eye. She worked as press secretary and speechwriter in the 1970s for Maynard Jackson, the first Black mayor of Atlanta. Since then, her contribution to the Atlanta community has been steady and intense, finding expression through her columns in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Atlanta Tribune; in the pages of Catalyst, a literary journal she cofounded and edited; and in her work as a faculty member at Spelman. Noted for her willingness to address difficult issues, Cleage explains her purpose for writing in the introduction to Mad at Miles: “I am writing to expose and explore the point where racism and sexism meet. I am writing to help understand the full effects of being Black and female in a culture that is both racist and sexist. I am writing to try and communicate that information to my sisters first and then to any brothers of good will and honest intent who will take the time to listen. . . . I am writing to allow myself to feel the anger. I am writing to keep from running toward it or away from it or into anybody’s arms. . . . I am writing, writing, writing, for my life.”
In 2014 Cleage published Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons, and Love, which chronicles her early years as a writer in Atlanta’s turbulent political climate of the 1970s and 1980s.
The novel What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (1997) deals with the ins and outs of living a truthful life, or as Cleage puts it, “getting to what the truth is.” After television personality Oprah Winfrey chose Cleage’s first novel for her TV book club in September 1998, Cleage’s work became known to a national audience. In particular Cleage focuses on the issues of sex, drugs, and pregnancy, aiming to keep her message centered on Black youth while presenting mature perspectives on coming to grips with good and bad life choices. In her second novel, I Wish I Had a Red Dress (2001), Cleage returns to the characters from What Looks Like Crazy to focus on the challenges that modern-day Black women face. In I Wish I Had a Red Dress, Joyce, a minor character in Cleage’s first novel, confronts the tragic elements of her past squarely with the hardness of her present relationships. The novel received an award for best work of fiction from the Georgia Writers Association.
Set in southwest Atlanta, Cleage’s third novel, Some Things I Thought I’d Never Do (2003), portrays West End as a utopian Black neighborhood under the protection of Blue Hamilton, the community’s self-appointed guardian. Her trademark—a highly readable style that imparts a sense of immediacy—is in evidence, and her flawed yet generous characters share their Atlanta community’s hopes and desires. In the novel, narrated by recovering drug addict Regina Burns, Cleage highlights such Atlanta landmarks as Paschal’s Restaurant, Lenox Square Mall, and Stone Mountain, as well as coastal Tybee Island. Using political themes Cleage addresses some of the same issues found in earlier works while grappling with newer ones, including reactions to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. Continuing the inspirational, idealistic, and spiritual themes she explores in Red Dress, Cleage weaves in the themes of mysticism and reincarnation in Some Things.
Cleage continues her exploration of Atlanta with subsequent novels set in the city’s West End and featuring overlapping, recurring characters. Political intrigue, particularly the power struggles within Atlanta’s Black community, characterize these novels, which develop such themes as poverty, domestic violence, addiction, and corruption, while simultaneously offering a positive portrayal of family, friendship, and community. Babylon Sisters (2005) chronicles the adventures of Catherine Sanderson, a single mother and entrepreneur living in West End who finds herself embroiled in an investigation to uncover a forced prostitution ring involving young illegal immigrant girls.
In Baby Brother’s Blues (2006) Cleage departs from her trademark use of the first-person to deliver an omniscient third-person continuation of her West End saga. The arrival of Wes “Baby Brother” Jamerson, a deserter from the Iraq War (2003-11), wreaks havoc in the neighborhood and allows Cleage to explore the consequences of the war on the homefront. The novel also offers a somewhat grittier depiction of Atlanta’s nightlife and entrenched political corruption than do her earlier works. The book won an NAACP Image Award in 2007.
Seen It All and Done the Rest (2008) introduces actress Josephine Evans, an expatriate living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, who returns to her family home and granddaughter, Zora, in the aftermath of the events chronicled in Baby Brother’s Blues. This novel takes on issues of urban decay and renewal, while exploring notions of citizenship, patriotism, individual responsibility, and healing against a backdrop that acknowledges the consequences for the country of Hurricane Katrina, which struck Louisiana in 2005, and the continuing war in Iraq.
In 2010 Cleage published Till You Hear from Me, which follows the personal and professional challenges of Ida B. Wells Dunbar, who comes home to Atlanta’s West End after working on the staff of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Cleage’s next novel, Just Wanna Testify (2011), returns to the characters Blue and Regina as they grapple with changes in their beloved West End community.
In the acknowledgments to her Atlanta novels, Cleage recognizes the Shrine of the Black Madonna, an Atlanta congregation of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church, a denomination founded in Michigan by Cleage’s father.
Cleage’s theatrical works include Bourbon at the Border, a full-length drama commissioned and premiered at the Alliance Theatre in 1997 under the direction of Kenny Leon, her frequent collaborator who was then the artistic director of the Alliance. Their previous collaborations include Blues for an Alabama Sky (1995) and Flyin’ West (1992), both of which were also commissioned for and first performed at the Alliance Theatre. An anthology of her plays, Flyin’ West and Other Plays (1999), offers a penetrating look at the African American experience over the past hundred years.
Blues for an Alabama Sky was performed in Atlanta as part of the 1996 Cultural Olympiad in conjunction with the 1996 Olympic Games. Since its opening, Flyin’ West has had more than a dozen productions across the country, including one at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Cleage’s work has also appeared in such anthologies as Double Stitch, Black Drama in America, New Plays from the Women’s Project, and Contemporary Plays by Women of Color.
A Song for Coretta, which opened at Spelman in 2007, pays tribute to Coretta Scott King through the experiences of five mourners waiting outside Ebenezer Baptist Church on the day of King’s funeral. Cleage next premiered two new comedies at the Alliance—The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years (2010), set during a debutante ball in Alabama, and What I Learned in Paris (2012). Set on the night of Maynard Jackson’s election in 1973 as Atlanta’s first Black mayor, What I Learned in Paris is a political comedy that draws on Cleage’s experiences as Jackson’s press secretary.
In 2015 Cleage’s play Tell Me My Dream opened at the Alliance after first touring to middle schools around the state. Written for a middle school audience, the play follows two middle schoolers who travel back in time to 1910, when the Atlanta Colored Music Festival Association presented its debut concert to an integrated audience at Atlanta’s Auditorium and Armory. Her most recent work, Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous (2019), was commissioned by Alliance as part of their fiftieth anniversary season.