Pearl Cleage

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Pearl Cleage Biography

Pearl Cleage is an outspoken writer whose work deals mainly with African American issues from a feminist perspective. In one of her nonfiction collections, Deals With the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot, she included an essay called “Mad at Miles,” which blasts musician Miles Davis for his mistreatment of women. Cleage rose to fame after her 1997 book What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day was featured as an Oprah's Book Club selection. Cleage also worked as a speechwriter for the first black mayor of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson. She has written for many Atlanta newspapers and for Catalyst, a literary journal that she edits. Cleage’s degree is in drama, and she has written several plays in addition to her books, articles, and essays.

Facts and Trivia

  • Cleage has been the recipient of many awards, including the Bronze Jubilee Award for Literature in 1983.
  • Cleage’s 1995 play Blues for an Alabama Sky was presented during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.
  • She is an activist for AIDS and women's rights, and she gives talks at universities about domestic violence and writing.
  • Cleage’s husband, Zaron W. Burnett, Jr., is also an author, and he often collaborates with her. They cowrote the poem “We Speak Your Names.”
  • Cleage doesn’t like to give advice about writing. “If I change my mind later,” she says, “there is hard evidence to remind me of whatever I said back then that turned out to be the worst advice ever.”

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Pearl Michelle Cleage (pronounced ‘‘cleg’’) was born December 7, 1948, in Springfield, Massachusetts. She grew up in Detroit, where her father, a minister, founded his own denomination and became widely known for the fifteen-foot-high painting of the Black Madonna and Child, called the ‘‘Shrine of the Black Madonna,’’ which adorned his church. Cleage’s mother was a schoolteacher who, along with Cleage’s father, instilled in her a sense of responsibility to the African-American community. Cleage now describes her political orientation as that of an African-American Urban Nationalist Feminist Warrior.

Cleage studied drama and playwriting at a number of colleges and universities. She attended Howard University from 1966 until 1969, when she married Michael Lucius Lomax, an elected county official in Georgia (they were divorced ten years later). She attended Yale University in 1969 and the University of the West Indies in 1971. In 1971, she received a bachelor’s degree from Spelman College and enrolled in graduate courses at Atlanta University. During the 1970s, Cleage worked as a writer, producer, and talk show host for a number of radio and television stations in Atlanta, Georgia. She served as the director of communications for the city of Atlanta and as press secretary to Mayor Maynard Jackson, the city’s first African-American mayor.

From 1983 to 1987, Cleage was playwright-inresidence at the Just Us Theater Company in Atlanta, serving as artistic director from 1987 to 1994. In 1986, she founded the magazine Catalyst, of which she remained the editor for ten years. From 1986 to 1991, Cleage taught as an instructor in creative writing at Spelman College, where in 1991 she was made playwright-in-residence. During the 1990s, she also served as playwright-in-residence at Smith College and Agnes Scott College. In 1994, Cleage married her longtime companion, Zaron Burnett Jr.

Cleage saw several of her one-act plays produced on the stage at Howard University in the late 1960s and at Spelman College in the early 1970s. During the 1980s, the Just Us Theater Company produced her plays puppetplay (1983), Good News (1984), and Essentials (1985). The year 1992 saw the production of two of her plays, Chain and Late Bus to Mecca, by the Women’s Project and Productions and the New Federal Theater, and Flyin’ West by the Alliance Theater Company in Atlanta. Blues for an Alabama Sky was first produced in 1995. In 1996, it was performed by the Alliance Theatre Company at the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

Cleage’s nonfiction writings include Mad at Miles: A Blackwoman’s Guide to the Truth (1990), which criticizes the celebrated jazz musician Miles Davis for his treatment of women, and Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot (1993), a collection of essays on American popular culture and mass media. What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day— (1997), her first novel, was selected for the Oprah Winfrey Book Club. I Wish I Had a Red Dress was published in 2001.

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