Pearl Cleage

Celebrated for her nonfiction, novels, poetry, and plays, Pearl Cleage is a women’s rights and AIDS activist turned writer who has produced a wide range of written works.  

Though Cleage is not a Georgia native, her move to Atlanta in 1969 inspired much of her work, including speechwriting for Georgia politicians and using Atlanta neighborhoods as the central location for some of her most notable fiction works. 

Cleage was born in 1948 in Massachusetts, but backlash for her father’s strong religious views and practices prompted her family to relocate to Detroit. She spent her youth there, growing up during the Civil Rights Movement. After high school, Cleage moved to Washington, D.C., and studied playwriting at Howard University, where she produced two student plays.   

In 1969, Cleage moved to Atlanta and married politician Michael Lomax, with whom she had one daughter. In Atlanta, she continued her education, graduating with her bachelor's in drama in 1971 from Spelman college. After receiving her degree, Cleage worked as the Cosby Endowed Chair professor and creative director and Playwright in Residence at Spelman.  

Cleage’s nonfiction work explores issues that are important to her, often centering the experiences of Black women. She states that her writing is intended for Black women in America, but other audiences are still welcome. Cleage never shied away from heavy topics such as racism, sexism, domestic abuse, and controversial figures such as jazz musician Miles Davis, Supreme Court member Clarence Thomas, and film director Spike Lee. Cleage contributed to Georgia politics in the 1970s by working as a speechwriter for the first Black Atlanta mayor, Maynard Jackson. Despite these successes, the speech writing and public relations work of politics frustrated Cleage. She saw it mainly as a means to support her true passions, which laid elsewhere.  

Cleage produced her most impactful plays with Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, of which she became the playwright in residence in 2013. Three of the most popular of these plays, Flyin’ West, Blues for an Alabama Sky, and Bourbon at the Border were all produced in the 1990s alongside Alliance Theatre's artistic director, Kenny Leon.  

Cleage’s best-known works are her novels. Her first novel What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day received attention when television talk-show star Oprah Winfrey added it to her TV book club in September 1998. This novel addresses issues such as sex, drugs, and pregnancy from the perspective of Black youth. Cleage’s novels often explore Georgia, specifically Atlanta neighborhoods, with recurring and overlapping characters. Black experiences and power struggles are central themes in her novels. Her readable style explores family, friendship, and community while addressing complex, mature topics without drifting into darkness.