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Pearl Cleage

(b. 1948)


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(b. 1948), poet, playwright, prose writer, performance artist, editor, and educator.

Pearl Cleage was born in Detroit, Michigan, and was educated at Howard University, Spelman College, and Atlanta University. Early in her life her family encouraged an African American view of the world. Her father, Jaramogi Abebe Azaman (Albert Cleage), founded and developed Black Christian Nationalism. She also came under the direct influence of the political and intellectual ferment of the 1960s and 1970s.

Cleage's writing is highly political, often polemical, with a fierce commitment to the liberation of African Americans, particularly African American women. While she ultimately advocates the healthy solidarity of the African American community, she also broaches the taboo topics of sexism and violence against women in the African American community. She refuses to subordinate discussions of gender to race and sometimes makes the link between the two. Her writings, therefore, both invite political discussion and inspire literary analysis.

Her first books, We Don’t Need No Music (1971), The Brass Bed and Other Stories (1990), and Mad at Miles: The Blackwoman's Guide to Truth (1991), did not receive much critical attention when published. However, Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot (1993) garnered substantial interest and gained her a popular following. While Cleage's essays blend personal experience and observation with a celebration of the African American female perspective and experience, her dramas provide a greater confluence of Cleage's craft and vision. These works consistently advocate the necessity of African American women empowering themselves as individuals, surmounting the differences of class, personal experience, and philosophy, and forming supportive networks as models of survival for the African American community.

Cleage's plays are frequently performed and appear in print. Hospice (1983) earned five Audelco Recognition Awards for achievement Off Broadway. This one-act play portrays an exchange between Alice Anderson, a forty-seven-year-old cancer patient, and her thirty-year-old daughter, Jenny, who is about to give birth. In keeping with the theme of the need for strong relationships between women, the play explores the complicated mother-daughter relationship and mandates healing where ruptures exist. Chain (1992) and Late Bus to Mecca (1992) similarly explore the condition of African American women. In Chain Cleage depicts the impact of drugs on the African American community through the story of Rosa Jackson, a sixteen-year-old addict whose empowerment is sabotaged by her drug-addicted boyfriend and the desperation of her parents. Late Bus to Mecca dramatizes the value of African American sisterhood. The play depicts an encounter between Ava Gardner Johnson and a nameless African American woman who is too physically and psychologically battered to speak. Although a prostitute, the resourceful and self-assured Ava is able to offer love and support to another African American woman and affirm the viability of her own philosophy. Flyin’ West (1994) portrays black participation in frontier development resulting from the 1860 Homestead Act and dramatizes. In 1999, the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta produced, Blues for an Alabama Sky and Cleage published Flyin' West and Other Plays. Inspired by the huge number of mourners at Coretta Scott King's funeral, Cleage wrote A Song for Coretta which premiered at Spelman College in 2007.

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Subjects: Literature — United States History.


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