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'We Are Being Beaten' : Turning Up the Volume on Painful Issues, Pearl Cleage Pushes Women to Stop Racism, Sexism

August 30, 1993|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pearl Cleage thrives on those messy moments when honesty's rough edges ignite emotionally frank discus sions. "Weird race moments," she pegs them, such as one working itself to a rapid, almost scalding boil during her visit to Westwood's Sisterhood Bookstore.

A woman, standing at the fringes of the crowd, her blond hair pinned in a loose chignon, raises her hand at the close of Cleage's reading. She's most touched, she says, by Cleage's essay "Mad at Miles," which takes an ax to the ornate pedestal that jazzophiles have so lovingly erected for the late trumpet legend--Miles Davis.

Cleage, an Atlanta Tribune columnist and performance artist, scorns his violence against women: "The question is: How can they hit us and still be our heroes? . . . Our leaders? Our husbands?"

Cleage, fine-boned, with close-cropped brown hair, her slight frame draped in flowing sea-foam green tunic and matching roomy trousers, nods vigorously as the woman underscores her point by offering examples culled from her own experience.

The genial drift, however, blows off course when the woman says the "certain twang" of Cleage's speaking voice doesn't square with her fair-skinned features. "You sound black . . ." the woman's voice wavers, her hands fluttering nervously as if picking adjectives from air.

Eyeing the other women seated ringside--ears cocked, arms crossed and now sitting straighter in their pink folding chairs--Cleage offers a warning: "I'm looking at the sisters up here," she says, her voice still light, but her eyes sharp, sober. "You're skating on thin ice."

The woman pauses, collects her thoughts: "But you don't . . . well. . . look black," she struggles out. Cleage lifts only an eyebrow and proceeds in a softer voice, only a half-shade above a whisper. "Now," she nods, concealing the edges of a smile, "you've just fallen through."

The women in the pink chairs exchange knowing, loaded looks, and their stares bore into the blond woman standing only a few feet away. "Here we go . . . " says one under her breath.

The blond woman continues: "But you know what I mean? I'm just your generic, all-American girl and . . . "

Cleage interrupts, pushing for clarification, moving the vague to the concrete: "No, see I don't know what that means. It only proves that race in America is really (fouled) up and complicated."

Instantly, the civilized setting among books and literate folk becomes a treacherous minefield; the assembly, in a feat as painful as it is exhilarating, struggles toward fresh language and more effective ways to embark on gainful discussions of race.

With racism and sexism, Cleage has found it the only way to plumb for real truth. Politeness is dangerous. Silence is deadly. Closed mouths and minds have unraveled relationships, communities and will, ultimately, she believes, undo this precariously attached country.

Pushing people to challenge what they feel too timid or clumsy to explore, Cleage avows, is the best first step to combat ignorance.

In her new book, "Deals With the Devil (And Other Reasons to Riot)," published by Ballantine Books, Cleage raises the volume on these uncomfortable issues.

*

Born in Detroit, Cleage lives in Atlanta and works as a playwright, columnist and liberal arts professor at Spelman College. The daughter of a charismatic minister whose activist spirit imbues the vivid survival messages she passes down, Cleage knows a little about the magic powers of persuasion.

"We have a legitimate discussion about drugs in African-American communities. We are conscious of every nuance of race," Cleage tells her Sisterhood audience. "But as African-American women, we have to be conscious of sexism. We have to be conscious of the fact we are being beaten."

Sexism and violence against women are often forbidden topics in many African-American social circles, she says, considered dirty laundry never to be aired publicly. And though invariably the climate will be charged, the outcome uncertain, Cleage forces such uncomfortable confrontations--face-to-face and on the page.

She writes for women consumed in the madness of domestic violence, for those teetering around it, and those just rising above it. She hopes her words will provide direction, when movements or platforms haven't--or can't.

Although some black men have echoed not-so-quiet murmurings of "male bashing" in her direction, Cleage's collection could be looked at as a bible, not only for black women, but men and women of all races struggling out of their chaos. "I'm always trying to change the way people think so that they will change the way that they are living," she says.

Though her lyric style is raw, often provocative, Cleage attempts to find an internal balance: "I think I'm very passionate, but not in the sense of trying to make people respond in anger. I don't think it gets me any place."

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