The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon
Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

Pearl Cleage

Writer, playwright, poet, essayist, and journalist Pearl Michelle Cleage was born on December 7, 1948 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Cleage is the youngest daughter of Doris Graham and Albert B. Cleage Jr., the founder of the Shrine of the Black Madonna. After graduating from the Detroit public schools in 1966, Cleage enrolled at Howard University, where she studied playwriting. In 1969, she moved to Atlanta and enrolled at Spelman College, married Michael Lomax and became a mother. She graduated from Spelman College in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in drama.

Cleage has become accomplished in all aspects of her career. As a writer, she has written three novels: What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (Avon Books, 1997), which was an Oprah’s Book club selection, a New York Times bestseller, and a BCALA Literary Award Winner, I Wish I Had a Red Dress (Morrow/Avon, 2001), and Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do, which was published in 2003. As an essayist, many of her essays and articles have appeared in magazines such as Essence, Ms., Vibe, Rap Pages, and many other publications. Examples of these essays include Mad at Miles and Good Brother Blues. Cleage has written over a dozen plays, some of which include Flyin’ West, Bourbon at the Border, and Blues for an Alabama Sky, which returned to Atlanta as part of the 1996 Cultural Olympiad in conjunction with the 1996 Olympic Games. In addition to her writing she has been an activist all her life. Starting at her father’s church, The Shrine of the Black Madonna – Cleage has been involved in the Pan-Africanist Movement, Civil Rights Movement and Feminist Movement. She has also been a pioneer in grassroots and community theater.

Cleage is the mother of one daughter, Deignan, the grandmother of one grandson, Michael, and one granddaughter, Chloe Pearl. She is married to Zaron W. Burnett, a writer with whom she frequently collaborates.

Accession Number

A2004.177

Sex

Female

Interview Date

9/23/2004

Last Name

Cleage

Maker Category
Organizations
Schools

McMichael Intermediate School

Northwestern High School

Durfee Elementary School

Spelman College

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Pearl

Birth City, State, Country

Springfield

HM ID

CLE02

Favorite Season

Winter

State

Massachusetts

Favorite Vacation Destination

Beaches

Favorite Quote

Thank You.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Georgia

Birth Date

12/7/1948

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Atlanta

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Pasta

Short Description

Essayist, fiction writer, and playwright Pearl Cleage (1948 - ) has written three novels, including, 'What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day,' which was an Oprah's Book Club selection and a New York Times bestseller. Cleage has been involved in the Pan-Africanist Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and Feminist Movement. She has also been a pioneer in grassroots and community theater. Her father, Albert B. Cleage Jr., was the founder of the Shrine of the Black Madonna.

Employment

City of Atlanta

The King Center

Southern Education Program

WXIA-TV

Favorite Color

Purple

Timing Pairs
0,0:556,7:3916,84:9544,172:17342,324:17714,332:18086,339:18830,358:19326,368:19698,375:20132,390:21744,433:22116,441:24410,541:25154,555:28812,655:33648,759:34268,772:39540,790:40210,802:46039,939:46441,946:49121,994:49523,1001:50595,1040:50997,1053:51734,1065:53945,1106:63797,1331:64175,1338:64994,1354:65687,1368:66191,1378:66695,1388:68585,1430:68900,1436:69467,1448:69971,1457:70475,1467:71420,1499:72869,1541:73184,1547:74444,1576:77153,1636:77783,1648:79547,1688:84942,1702:87054,1747:87648,1766:88704,1789:89034,1795:89298,1800:90024,1818:93258,1929:95832,1993:98076,2036:98340,2041:99066,2053:103590,2064:103930,2070:104678,2089:105290,2099:106718,2136:107466,2148:108214,2166:108758,2175:111886,2244:117530,2377:117938,2387:119570,2422:119978,2429:121746,2461:129168,2558:129720,2568:131238,2592:132066,2607:132549,2615:133308,2634:139380,2761:140001,2772:143175,2839:144003,2856:144417,2863:145866,2893:146487,2905:147246,2915:153878,2959:154126,2964:154374,2969:154994,2981:158156,3039:158652,3049:158900,3054:160016,3076:160264,3081:161008,3097:162062,3119:164294,3176:167642,3267:167952,3272:168324,3281:169130,3300:169440,3306:170432,3334:171300,3356:176460,3368:179260,3425:179960,3438:181010,3457:181990,3476:182410,3483:182970,3496:187800,3589:191730,3601$0,0:748,12:1292,22:1564,27:3128,63:7684,250:9928,350:14416,435:16932,479:17544,497:18564,518:18904,524:19380,533:19788,541:35070,801:35560,811:40546,838:42202,865:42850,875:43570,893:66856,1295:67848,1312:68530,1325:68778,1330:70328,1363:70824,1373:72498,1422:73118,1446:73366,1451:73676,1457:74482,1480:74730,1485:75226,1500:79491,1518:80659,1549:81900,1581:83068,1602:83579,1610:86645,1670:87448,1684:88908,1716:90295,1751:96069,1770:103954,2004:104369,2010:105033,2020:107025,2054:111392,2073:111888,2082:112322,2091:115546,2188:116414,2205:117654,2234:118522,2281:118956,2290:119638,2302:120134,2312:122490,2378:123172,2391:123668,2401:129608,2461:133012,2518:133456,2525:138858,2650:141670,2655
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Pearl Cleage's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Pearl Cleage lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Pearl Cleage describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Pearl Cleage describes the life of her mother and maternal grandparents in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Pearl Cleage describes her father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Pearl Cleage describes her father's radical politics and how that influenced his preaching

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Pearl Cleage describes her earliest childhood memory

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Pearl Cleage describes her childhood community in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Pearl Cleage describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Pearl Cleage talks about the geographical boundaries of Detroit, Michigan during her childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Pearl Cleage talks about her experiences at Roosevelt Elementary School and McMichael Junior High School in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Pearl Cleage describes her childhood aspirations to become a writer

Tape: 1 Story: 13 - Pearl Cleage describes her experiences at Northwestern High School in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Pearl Cleage remembers deciding between whether to be a writer or a dancer during her time at Northwestern High School in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Pearl Cleage talks about how her father, Albert B. Cleage, Jr., influenced her relationship to religion and her writing

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Pearl Cleage describes her involvement in political activism as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Pearl Cleage describes her experiences at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Pearl Cleage recalls her experiences at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Pearl Cleage recalls her first jobs in Atlanta, Georgia after graduating from college

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Pearl Cleage explains her and her family's anxiety at the prospect of her moving to the South

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Pearl Cleage relates how she grew as a writer through her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Pearl Cleage shares her perspective on how women were treated within the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Pearl Cleage describes the resistance to feminism among politically radical men during the 1960s and 1970s

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Pearl Cleage remembers how she came to join the feminist movement in the 1970s

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Pearl Cleage talks about her tenure working as press secretary in Maynard Jackson's first mayoral administration in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Pearl Cleage describes her career in freelance writing after leaving her position as press secretary for Atlanta City Hall in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Pearl Cleage describes developing new plays during her years with Just Us Theater Company in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Pearl Cleage talks about the spoken word poetry movement

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Pearl Cleage talks about writing her first book, 'Mad at Miles: A Black Woman's Guide to Truth'

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Pearl Cleage talks about writing plays for the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Pearl Cleage recalls writing her first novel, 'What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day' in the mid-1990s

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Pearl Cleage talks about her career as a novelist after having her first novel selected by Oprah Winfrey for Oprah's book club

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Pearl Cleage reflects on her new role as a grandmother

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Pearl Cleage talks about her hopes and concerns for the women's rights movement and for international relations

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Pearl Cleage talks about the importance of life stories and storytelling for understanding history

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Pearl Cleage reflects upon her life, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Pearl Cleage offers advice for aspiring writers

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Pearl Cleage details her plans for her future

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Pearl Cleage reflects upon her life, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Pearl Cleage talks about the importance of the African American community of Atlanta, Georgia in her life

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Pearl Cleage talks about her values and beliefs

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Pearl Cleage describes how she would like to be remembered

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Pearl Cleage reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Pearl Cleage narrates her photographs, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Pearl Cleage narrates her photographs, pt. 2

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$2

DAStory

2$8

DATitle
Pearl Cleage talks about how her father, Albert B. Cleage, Jr., influenced her relationship to religion and her writing
Pearl Cleage relates how she grew as a writer through her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement
Transcript
Coming back to these experiences in the church, your father [Albert B. Cleage, Jr.] clearly was impacting how your spirituality was developing. What were your experiences like in the church?$$I really--I grew up in my father's church [Central Congregational Church; Shrine of the Black Madonna, Detroit, Michigan], and not just on Sunday morning, I used to follow my father around all the time, and I think I kind of inherited that from my mother [Doris Graham Cleage] trying to be her father's [Mershell C. Graham] son. My father had two daughters, no sons. I think I was trying to be my father's son too, so that I was always--if he had to go to the church, and oftentimes in these big old churches the pastor would go to the church the night before the service, and start the furnace because the church was so big and old that they didn't want to heat it all the time, but in order for the church to be warm enough to have church on Sunday morning, you would start the furnace up and get things going the night before. So I had done that with my grandfather because he was a trustee, and one of his jobs at Plymouth [Congregational] Church [Plymouth United Church of Christ, Detroit, Michigan] was to go start the furnace up on Saturday night, and then I had those same experiences with my dad. But those I think were just really important to me because I was around my father so often growing up that he would talk to me about what he was thinking about the church. He would talk to be me about what he was gonna preach about. He would talk to me about what he was reading, even when I was way too young to understand it. I remember my father talking to me about Frantz Fanon when I was so little, and thinking to myself, "Wow this is great, he thinks I understand this, and I don't know what he's talking about." But when I got older I went immediately and got 'The Wretched of the Earth' [Frantz Fanon] so I could read it and see what he was talking about. So then I adored my father, I really admired him, and he was a very charismatic speaker, a great speaker. He was a wonderful preacher who would take all of these complicated ideas that he was thinking about and put them in a form where the regular folks who came to our church could understand all of these very complicated ideas. But in order to do that he preached for a long time. The first time I went to a church and the pastor preached for twenty minutes I was amazed because my father thought nothing of talking for an hour and a half, I mean, on Sunday morning. And people would sit there and listen to him because he was able to excite them and to communicate with them in a way that made them sit there for that long to listen to what he had to say. So for me as a budding writer who really was interested in theater, wanting to write plays, it was a great gift to be around someone who was so skilled at talking, at using the language to move people to do things, and I know that watching my father preach had a great influence on me as a playwright because I know what words can do. I know that if you can figure out how to say something complicated in an accessible way, you can move people. Not only to change what they think about things but to do stuff, to march down to city hall, to change the way the world works, to picket the police station, all of those things. So that I was very motivated I think by the fact that in my father I saw someone who was so wonderful with the spoken word and was also so spiritually and politically active in things that he, you know, gave me something to work toward.$So you were coming at this point in terms of your professional experience from The [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] Center [for Nonviolent Social Change, Atlanta, Georgia] into media television [WXIA-TV, Channel 11, Atlanta, Georgia]. Were you writing at this time, were you (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) All the time.$$--speaking?$$Constantly. I was writing, I was writing a lot of poetry. I was writing plays at that time. So I was writing a lot, and I was saying my poems in public, you know, performing on all of those kinds of things, where before we had the political moment we're gonna let some of the poets read some of their revolutionary poetry, and I would be one of the poets with my African dress on and my earrings down to my shoulders reading my revolutionary poetry. So that I was a part of a group of black artists who were very much tied to the political changes that were going on. [HistoryMaker] A.B. Spellman, who was a wonderful poet, was here then. His wife Karen Spellman was the director of the Southern Education Program, so that through them I met lots of activist artists. She had been a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] so I met lots of SNCC people. That's really how I got the entree into inviting all these radicals to be on my television show, because they were friends of Karen's and she was a friend of mine. So we all knew each other, so that when I needed guests who could talk about reparations, who could talk about what was going on in South Africa, then I knew the people because we had all been sitting around drinking wine talking about these things the night before. So that it was a rich environment. Lots of very dedicated movement people. And the movement was at a very transition--a transitioning moment because of all of the assassinations that were going on, all of the violence that was going on. [Reverend] Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] had been killed. The SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] was still trying to regroup from all of that, so that there was a lot of activity that was going on in Atlanta [Georgia] because so many of the movement people were here, which really was wonderful for me because many of them knew my father [Albert B. Cleage, Jr.]. So it took me from one environment which was very rich in terms of movement activity, and put me right down in another one, which was here, which was still full of movement activity, so that my writing continued to be very grounded in movement toward social change, and you know gave me a chance to say my poems and meet other poets, and all of that. So I was still writing all the time.