The Paula Gordon Show Logo The Paula Gordon Show
3 R's
Carl Safina's photo

Pearl Cleage

     . . . writer & political activist. Novelist, playwright and essayist, Pearl Cleage’s candid truth-telling and mastery of language put her at the forefront of writers telling stories of people struggling to be free. Her best-selling novels include Some Things I Thought I’d Never Do, What Looks Like Crazy on a Rainy Day and Wish I Had a Red Dress.  Her essay Mad at Miles:  A Black Woman’s Guide to Truth was an early, pace-setting look at domestic violence. An accomplished dramatist, Ms. Cleage’s “Flyin’ West” was produced for the Centennial Olympics’ Cultural Olympiad in 1996.

Excerpts3:28 secs

Tell the truth, do what you can and expand beyond your own self-imposed boundaries, says Pearl Cleage. How? Put her “3R’s” to work building community -- Reality, Reason and Revolution.

Be grounded in Reality, Ms. Cleage begins. The culture encourages us to lie, from pseudo-reality shows to pretending love includes men hitting women, to political hype that America is a great country when it allows children to die for lack of health insurance. Each of us, in whatever field we have chosen, must commit to telling the truth, she says.

Use Reason, she urges. While Ms. Cleage says reason is not her number one characteristic -- she tends to be more passionate than reasonable -- she calls us to stop thinking about what we want to be and start talking about what we are. Then we can solve even the biggest of America’s many challenges.

Revolutionize the way we think about ourselves, each other, what love is and can be, what community is, she says, rounding out the 3R’s.

In her drive to build community, Ms. Cleage has given a great deal of thought to black women’s double oppression -- sexism as well as racism. They are the same process, she has concluded. Both are wrong and both offer the promise of moving beyond artificial racist/sexist divisions so that enlightened individuals can work with men and women who have yet to understand either “ism”.

Everything she writes, Ms. Cleage says, comes out of questions she has for herself.  What would I do?  How would I feel?  What would I do to fix this?  What does it really look like? Then she works to create characters she can use to look at the questions that bother her. As a writer, teacher and editor, she says her challenge always is to find a way to tell the truth to as many people as she can, show people what might be.

She wants us all to argue about what the truth is. Think about it. Seek out sources of information that give us facts, not just opinion. Television programs and news -- where people are not real and stories are intended only to make you buy things -- is destroying us, she’s convinced.  Get to know your grandparents instead. Go back to the babies as she does. Keep it simple. When we say, “We can protect women and children,” we can do it. And must.

In her best-selling novels, Pearl Cleage shows the world that she wants us to create together. She practices what she preaches by starting from where we are, taking on real emergencies -- HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, America’s drug-drenched homes, streets and lives. She calls these poisons by their proper names and describes them. If we don’t know what love is -- if he’s hitting you, it is not love -- she describes a real love affair. What does a strong woman in a love affair with a strong man look like, talk like, sound like?  She brings it to life. What does a peaceful home feel like? Good parenting? It’s in the stories, which start where we are and end up some place better .

And remember -- tell the truth. It’s always subversive.

[This Program was recorded August 23, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Pearl Cleage tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell why she thinks it’s time to add “reality, reason and revolution” to “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.” Telling the truth is revolutionary, Ms. Cleage says, and explains.

Conversation 2

The vital role of stories and story-telling is explored, focusing on truth, honor, beauty and community. Ms. Cleage describes her novels as “revolutionary romances.” Challenging us to bridge generational divides, she declares grandmothers more interesting than television, expresses concern that we are not getting what we need to sustain life from TV. Search out what is worth watching on TV, she urges, and offers examples. All-black environments are completely natural to her, Ms. Cleage says, and shows how her fiction reflects that life experience.

Conversation 3

Ms. Cleage says she is always conscious of community, tracing her social activism from her earliest days to the present.  To address America’s huge problems, she goes back to babies and simple things like the need to protect women and children, Ms. Cleage says, because we can do that. She describes how she puts that philosophy to work in her novels, allowing people to see possibilities, start where they are, see something better by the end.  She remembers how her mother taught her this lesson.

Conversation 4

We need to understand honest differences between people and cultures, Ms. Cleage says, saddened when government officials denounce other cultures, impose American ways on others.  She objects to the arrogance of telling instead of asking. Everything she writes, Ms. Cleage says, comes out of questions she has for herself. Using one of her plays, she describes the importance of empathy, then examines racism, sexism and how the two are inseparable.  The more we talk about hard subjects, she insists, the less frightening they are, which is why she addresses violence against women in her novels. “If he hits you, it’s not love,” she declares.

Conversation 5

The double oppression of being black and female puts black women in a unique position in America, Ms. Cleage says. Many black women who live feminism resist the word, Ms. Cleage says, choosing it for herself because “feminism” connects her with a worldwide movement. America never had a myth for a black woman, she says, dismissing it as by and for wealthy white men. It’s time to stop thinking about what we want to be and start talking about what we are, she says, or we’ll never fix glaring problems. With a broad look at the media, she says her challenge as a writer always is to find a way to tell the truth to as many people as she can.

Conversation 6

We must call things what they are or we can’t understand them, Ms. Cleage believes, describing how her novels demonstrate real love affairs, good parenting, peaceful homes. The way the world is, she says, she is now “anti” all kinds of nationalist, she says, enriching her earlier “black nationalism” to expand beyond boundaries because, she concludes, we are all the same.


Ms. Cleage kindly entrusted us with hard-to-find copies of her work, for which we particularly thank her.

Publicists -- the unsung heroes of the publishing world -- from three different publishing companies also contributed to our ability to come to this Conversation with a broader appreciation of Ms. Cleage’s wonderful body of work.

We enjoyed the warm hospitality of Atlanta’s 191 Club where this Conversation was recorded. We also are glad that a large group of Ms. Cleage’s many admirers chose to join us for this special event.

Related Links:
Some Things I Thought I’d Never Do is published by Ballantine Books.
Wish I Had a Red Dress is available from HarperCollins. Reading Group Guides are also available.
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day is published by Avon Books.

Quick buttons

© 2002 The Paula Gordon Show.
All materials contained on this website are
copyrighted by The Paula Gordon Show and may
not be used in any way without the express,
written consent of Paula Gordon.