An American Treasure–Tayari Jones’ Tribute to Pearl Cleage


I met Pearl Cleage about thirty-five years ago.  I was a teenager, a sophomore in college, and she was an adjunct professor at our mutual alma mater, Spelman College.  It is one of the great gifts of my life that the first time I met a writer, she was my teacher, Pearl Cleage.

The year was 1988 or so.

Pearl entered class five minutes early, showing us through her behavior that writing was serious business, no persona of the flaky artist.  We were there to study, to apprentice, to learn.

She was no-nonsense, but not regimented.  Class assignments were open-ended.  How were we to learn to be free women if we were not free on the page?  We wrote; we revised.  I was so taken with this vibrant professor, that I monopolized her office hours, desperate to know more about art and the life of an artist.  She answered my questions with questions of her own, and finally one that doubled as an invitation.  Had I ever been to a cabaret?

Live At Club Zebra was a multi-media showcase of Atlanta’s finest underground and indie art.  Pearl, along with her now-husband Zaron Burnett, hosted the event.   Under-aged and out past curfew, I watched awestruck as saxophones wailed, poets cursed, and dancers gyrated.  And then, Pearl herself took the stage and read from her essay, “Mad at Miles.”  The piece is a lyrical exploration of feminist intersectionality.  It was #metoo before the hashtg.  On the microphone, Pearl took jazz icon, Miles Davis, to task for his misogyny. The room was quiet as the work questioned more than the behavior of one man.  She implicated everyone who has enabled gendered violence.  She challenged each person in the room to stand up for black women.

She didn’t receive a standing ovation, but the applause was strong and thundered with respect.  Someone addressed her as “Sister Pearl.”

I know that this is a Lifetime Achievement Award, so I should move on to speak of her many accomplishments, but my memories of that night at Club Zebra contextualizes her every achievement.

Pearl Cleage is an extraordinary novelist, performer, playwright, essayist, and poet.  Her debut novel, What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day was a New York Times Bestseller and an Oprah’s Book Club Selection. With her other eight novels, she claimed Atlanta’s West End has her canvas and muse alike.  She is Playwright in Residence at the Alliance Theatre, though her work is hardly bound to our city.  Flyin West and Blues for an Alabama Sky have been performed regularly for decades all over the US as well as abroad.  Her recent works have been met by rapturous reviews and amazing outpouring of enthusiasm on the ground, leading to dozens of commissions.

But what has this to do with smoky speakeasy, Live Club Zebra and bold manifesto Mad at Miles?

At Club Zebra, Pearl demonstrated her commitment to Free Womanhood.  She showed her audience that she respected them enough to give them the unvarnished truth.  All of her work celebrates our communities, but she never coddles.  She is critical, without rancor or self righteousness.

Her most recent book, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter is her most revealing work yet. In a memoir culled from her journals, she writes about the joys and challenges of motherhood, the pleasures of true love and the pain of domestic violence.  There is frank talk of abortion in all of its complexity.  And woven throughout is the struggle and triumphs of a major artistic voice that is determined to be heard.

There is no Georgia writer more deserving of this Lifetime Achievement award.  I tease her sometimes, reminding her that she a native of Detroit, not Atlanta.  But the truth is that we are honored to claim her as our own.  She is a treasure. A gem.  A brilliant gleaming Pearl.

Pearl Cleage is an Atlanta based writer, currently Distinguished Artist in Residence at the Tony Award winning Alliance Theatre. Her new play Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous, had its world premiere as a part of the theatre’s 50th anniversary season in 2019 and is scheduled for productions around the country when the theatres reopen next year. Her other plays premiered at the Alliance include Pointing at the Moon, What I Learned in Paris, Blues for an Alabama Sky, and Flyin’ West, the most produced new play in the country in 1994. Her play The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of Your Presence at a Celebration of Their First One Hundred Years was commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and co-produced with the Alliance in Montgomery and Atlanta in 2010. Her first play for young audiences, Tell Me My Dream, was commissioned and produced by the Alliance in 2015. Her book for children, In My Granny’s Garden, was co-authored with her husband, writer Zaron W. Burnett with illustrations by Radcliffe Bailey was a part of the Mayor’s Reading Club in 2018 and distributed free to 15,000 Atlanta children. It was presented at the Alliance as a play for the very young in March, 2020 and is currently streaming through the Alliance website. Cleage recently completed work on Sit-In, an animated film for young audiences about the sit-in movement in conjunction with Picture the Dream, a national exhibition sponsored by Scholastic Books. Blues for An Alabama Skywas included in the 1996 Olympic Arts Festival and has been produced in multiple American theatres every year since it premiered at the Alliance in 1995. The Alliance included a 20th anniversary production in their 2015 season, directed by Susan V. Booth. The play ran off Broadway at the Keen Company in New York in 2020 and is scheduled for a production at the National Theatre in London in 2021. Some of her other plays include Late Bus to Mecca, Bourbon at the Border and A Song for Coretta. She recently completed her first Radio play, Digging in the Dark, for the Keen Company’s 2021 season.

Her first of 8 novels, What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day, was an Oprah Book Club pick and spent nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Her other novels include Baby Brother’s Blues, which received an NAACP Image Award for Literature, I Wish I Had A Red Dress, Babylon Sisters, and Things I Never Thought I’d Do.  Her memoir, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons and Love Affairs, was published by Simon and Schuster/ATRIA Books in April, 2014. She is also the co-author with her husband, writer Zaron W. Burnett, Jr., of We Speak Your Names, a praise poem commissioned by Oprah Winfrey for her 2005 Legends Weekend, and A 21stCentury Freedom Song: For Selma at 50, commissioned by Winfrey for the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. Cleage and Burnett are frequent collaborators including their award-winning ten-year performance series, “Live at Club Zebra!” featuring their work as writers and performance artists. Cleage was awarded the Governor’s Award for the Arts in 2018. She received an Honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts from her alma mater, Spelman College, in 2010 and spent two years as a member of the Spelman faculty. She was the founding editor of CATALYST magazine, an Atlanta-based literary journal, for ten years and served as Artistic Director of Just Us Theater Company for five years. Her work has been given grant support through the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulton County Arts Council, the Georgia Council for the Arts, the City of Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs, and the Coca-Cola Foundation.