Pearl Cleage tells all (and then some) in her new memoir

The playwright and novelist constructed Things I Should Have Told My Daughter from diary entries
Photograph courtesy of Pearl Cleage

Playwright and novelist Pearl Cleage titled her memoir Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs, but one suspects her child, now in her forties, is happy it took awhile for Mom’s breezily candid book, crafted from 1970s and 1980s diary entries, to be published. Cleage chronicles her marriage to and divorce from former Fulton County Commissioner Michael Lomax, an abortion, post-divorce affairs (“I’m tired of being a mistress to married men who are bored with their wives”), and all manner of indulgences (“Last night I sat up alone, got stoned, drank some Tia Maria, and read the Village Voice. It was great”). Amid the unfettered confessions both personal and professional (“Alice Walker on the cover of Ms. makes me so jealous I can’t stand it”), Cleage’s journals provide a unique perspective on the era’s political and cultural climate—in Atlanta and beyond. In addition to working on Maynard Jackson’s mayoral campaigns and in his administration, Cleage climbed her way from alt-weekly scribbler to acclaimed scribe, and along the way performed, wrote screenplays, and hobnobbed with the likes of Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka, Richard Pryor, and Avery Brooks.

As Cleage writes in her afterword, “Within these pages my personal history weaves its way through the history of my adopted hometown in a way that hopefully doesn’t just tell the story of what happened to one small woman yearning to be free, but how it felt to be there, right up close, as Atlanta proclaimed itself ‘the world’s next great city,’ and then, in typical Atlanta fashion, set out to make good on that promise.”

From Things I Should Have Told My Daughter 
October 17, 1973. I am still too exhausted to make much sense. Want to just get some impressions down. Thank God, the election is over! We won! Maynard Jackson has been elected the first African American mayor of Atlanta. Incredible! People everywhere last night. The returns coming in and Buddy Jordan screaming and Shirley Franklin got hit in her car by a truck, but she didn’t get hurt and came on down to the hotel. Maynard comes out of the inner sanctum of the suite when victory is obvious and kisses his family; shakes some hands; and a kiss for me. He has soft, fat little cheeks like a little fat baby. Nice. And the speech downstairs in the ballroom, and me and Shirley upstairs, listening to the reports and eating black olives. And the total insanity afterward with people trying to get in the suite and get to the new mayor and me sitting on the floor, working with the press, trying to reason with a hysterical brother from the Black Audio Network and him saying, “Let me speak to a man!” Good grief! Male chauvinism and the awful depressed feeling that sneaks over you when it rears its ugly head.

Strange how you seem to feel the city will change overnight.

This article originally appeared in our May 2014 issue.