“I am writing to expose and explore the point where racism and sexism meet.” That’s Pearl Cleage speaking, a poet-novelist-playwright-journalist who is bringing the literary mojo to this year’s MOJA festival. She’s been called revolutionary and a black nationalist, but what really matters is what she calls herself: an activist artist.
Cleage writes with a purpose; there’s no “art for art’s sake” here. That’s fitting for MOJA, the stated mission of which is to celebrate harmony among all people — and that includes an acknowledgement of those obstacles to harmony that have been overcome, as well as those still standing. Cleage’s writing accomplishes both with immediate, emotional language, reason enough to come hear her read.
But there are many more reasons. One of them could be that she spent a great deal of her adult life in the political world (she was married to a politician, and worked as press secretary and speechwriter for Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson), so she knows of what she speaks — or writes. Another might be that she is as dedicated to practical education about race and gender issues as she is to artistic expression of them. Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou: these are Cleage’s artistic mothers and sisters. The gender and racial issues that concerned them concern her, too, and are always somewhere in the core of her writing.
Cleage is based in Atlanta and calls herself a product of the New South. While her grandparents were born in the South and migrated North, she was born in Detroit and came South as part of the generation of black Americans actively working to improve race relations in the region where they had suffered the most oppression. Cleage is doing this primarily through her art. In various genres, she has written about male abusive behavior, AIDS, sex, alcohol and drug abuse, Spike Lee, Clarence Thomas, and adopting crack babies.
Her contribution to the Atlanta community has been steady since she arrived to attend Spelman College, where she co-founded a literary journal, Catalyst, and wrote columns in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Atlanta Tribune. Cleage has won all kinds of awards and recognition; her first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, was selected for Oprah’s book club and her second, I Wish I Had a Red Dress, won a best work of fiction award from the Georgia Writers Association.
These accomplishments aside, Pearl Cleage is simply one of those authors whose conviction lights the page on fire. And that is the real reason to see her read.
Pearl Cleage reads excerpts from her critically acclaimed works on Tues. Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. Avery Research Center, 125 Bull St. (843) 953-7609. $8.50.