Playwright and Novelist Pearl Cleage

Farai Chideya visits the campus of Atlanta's Spelman College with playwright and novelist Pearl Cleage.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

It's one of the most famous colleges in America, nestled in a working-class Atlanta neighborhood. The institution is Spelman, and the neighborhood is home to one of its many illustrious graduates: the author Pearl Cleage. A few weeks before the campus filled up with new and returning students, I got a chance to visit Pearl on the campus in the latest in our series of neighborhood walks with authors.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. PEARL CLEAGE (Author): Oh, thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: So tell me where we are and describe a little bit about it.

Ms. CLEAGE: We are actually standing in the lobby of the Fine Arts building at Spelman College, and I graduated from Spelman, so this is the building where I took most of my classes as a playwright. So I always have great feelings when I come in this space.

CHIDEYA: Well, why don't you give me a little tour of the campus?

Ms. CLEAGE: OK.

CHIDEYA: I just want to remark on where we are. We're standing in front of a beautiful brand-new building that says `Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center.' Tell me a little bit about, obviously, the woman whose name is on here and her relationship to the school and the investment that people like her have made in Spelman.

Ms. CLEAGE: This building was a gift of Camille and Bill Cosby, who have been great supporters of Spelman College and of many historically black colleges. And this beautiful building, which also houses the Women's Center and several other things, is really part of what they gave to this campus in order to say, `We not only are going to give scholarships, but we're also going to give some money for bricks and mortar.'

CHIDEYA: Now you mention a Women's Center. I would expect that they probably have a copy of "Mad at Miles," which was the first book of yours that I ever read. What was going on in your life that made you just kind of pour that out of your soul?

Ms. CLEAGE: I was--I consider myself to be a feminist. What I'm always conscious of is trying to live my life as a free woman. And I was a big Miles Davis fan. I thought his music was wonderful. I mean, I was not a person who knew anything about jazz, and I went to a friend of mine and said, `OK, help me understand something about jazz, and he gave me "Kind of Blue." And it really made me just love Miles Davis because that music was so wonderful. And then I read Miles' autobiography, and I was horrified at the way he talked about women, at the way he was very up-front about his violence against women. He didn't feel badly about it. And none of the men that I knew--the progressive black men that I knew who loved his music--really were open to a discussion about `What about his life?' At the same time, my daughter was about 16 years old, and she was getting ready to start dating. I was an old-fashioned mother, so my daughter couldn't date till she was 16--so that I was very considered that she know how to handle herself in settings that might be problematic.

CHIDEYA: Let me just ask you a question. You're here on the campus of Spelman often. Nothing but amazing, talented young women here living through the hip-hop era. What kind of dialogue do you have with them about that?

Ms. CLEAGE: Oh, we talk about that a lot. Actually, earlier when we were standing in the lobby, the young woman who was sitting outside the theater is a campus activist and was very active in the protests against Nelly coming to the campus here at Spelman, which was a very important moment to raise questions and to say, `We're not saying don't come to our campus, but we're saying as a major artist who was putting out images that really affect people, we feel that Nelly should be prepared to come and talk about what a video like "Tip Drill" means about black women, what that means about him as a black artist.'

I heard about that protest on the news and I ran over to the campus. We object to these kinds of videos as black women. But what about the women who were dancing in those videos? What about the confessions of the video vixen and all of the things that she puts forward about what it's really like to live that kind of life? How do we begin to look at those questions and expand our definitions so that we don't end up on this campus being a tiny enclave of very sophisticated, very conscious women who can't talk to our neighbors across the street in the housing projects.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned that you just finished your fifth book. I want to hear about that. But it strikes me that your work deals in ways that I rarely, if ever, see with sexuality. How has the discussion of sexuality in the black female community failed?

Ms. CLEAGE: I think that we have a real problem talking honestly about our sexuality: about what we do, about what we wish were doing, about what we like, about what we don't like. And it's--you know, when you look at our history as black women in this country, you certainly can understand our reticence to talk openly about our sexuality because we were used as sexual objects and as breeders for such a long time during slavery that it's still, I think, that moment where we say to ourselves, `Can we acknowledge that we are sexual beings and that this is OK?' So that I'm very conscious of that when I write my books, of creating characters who do have relationships with other people that are sexual--that allow them to express affection, that allow them to express emotion.

CHIDEYA: What started your love with writing? How many books and plays have you written?

Ms. CLEAGE: I've written about a dozen plays. I've just finished my fifth novel. And I've been writing all my life, so it's really been something that I don't remember not doing. As a little kid, I remember standing in my crib telling stories to my big sister, who was two years older, and actually did my a great service by stopping in her four-year-old life to listen to me tell my two-year-old stories.

CHIDEYA: I was struck by one of the phrases--well, many of the phrases in your novels--but this one: `Discomfort is always a necessary of the part of the process of enlightenment.' Tell us a little bit about who said that, in what context, and how it applies to life in general

Ms. CLEAGE: That's Ava Johnson, my--I love this girl. This is a main character of my first novel, "What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day." And Ava is kind of a very outspoken woman, and she gets on an airplane next to a very well-dressed, business-looking white man who is not pleased to have a black woman with a little short Afro get on the plane and sit next to him in first class. And she says when she looks at him that it used to make her feel bad when people were uncomfortable, but now she understands that discomfort is always a necessary part of the process of enlightenment. And I actually think that's very true, that if you're really going to pursue being an enlightened human being, you have to question things. So I love that statement, and it's funny to hear it because it's been such a long time since I wrote it and it kind of makes me miss those characters in that book.

CHIDEYA: So you miss the people you write about?

Ms. CLEAGE: I do, I do, because I spend so much time with them. When you call their names or say something that they said, it's like hearing from an old friend for me.

CHIDEYA: You know, I could keep talking to you all day, but I know we have to let you go, so let me end on the novel you just finished. Can you give us a sneak preview, a little bit about what you've written about?

Ms. CLEAGE: Oh, sure. This is actually the fifth one, and the interesting thing to me has been that the people in these books keep kind of showing up in the next one and showing up in the next one. But the one I just finished is called "Baby Brother's Blues." And it really takes a look at some characters that were in the novel before this one, which is called "Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do." And a husband and wife who just marry at the end of that book are at the beginning of "Baby Brother's Blues," pregnant with their first child, and they're really looking at what kind of changes that will make in their life. And it's actually set in the West End area of Atlanta, which is this neighborhood that we're standing in, so that it really has been wonderful for me to have a chance to write books that put my neighborhood forward as it really is, but a little bit better. Because I always try to change it so that we can take a look at it if it was the way we wanted it to be and say, `Maybe we could make it like this if we all can work together.'

CHIDEYA: I'm sure we'll figure out a way. Pearl Cleage, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. CLEAGE: Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: Award-winning writer Pearl Cleage. Her books and plays include "Flyin' West" and "What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day."

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