Picture a Gen Ed class, crowded to the point of discomfort because the professor allowed anyone to register. The course was limited to upperclasswomen, and I was a sophomore, enrolled after forging my advisor’s signature. Still, I was irritated by all the people. Many students seemed to be in search of an easy A. Others were only interested in an English class that started after lunchtime. I was there because of my secret dream to be a writer, although until that January afternoon, I had never seen one in real life.
On the first day, Pearl Cleage floated in, a small woman wearing all-black clothing festooned with flowing scarves. Her hair was so close-cropped that from a distance she seemed to be bald. Casually, she told us that we should call her “Pearl.” I blinked a couple of times. At Spelman, professors didn’t allow students to call them by their first names. Nor did they shave their heads. I had planned to stop by (during office hours, of course) and show her the stories I had been writing since high school. I was prepared to talk to “Professor Cleage.” Pearl made me shy.
Shortly after introductions, Pearl distributed a letter to the editor that had been published in Vanity Fair. I had not heard of the publication, but I was familiar with the subject of the document, the trumpet player Miles Davis. He was well regarded in the home I grew up in, both as a musical genius and, more importantly, a credit to the race. According to the letter-writer, Davis was a violent misogynist who had physically and emotionally brutalized her. The details were harsh and unambiguous. Pearl asked us simply, “So what do you think?”
We raised our hands to comment. “No,” she said. “Write it down.”
After our freewriting exercise, she shared with us her own work, called “Mad at Miles,” in which she challenged us to challenge the men in our lives to declare their position on “the woman question.” At this point in my life, I didn’t know there was a woman question. Like Pearl, I had been raised in a black nationalist household that was single-mindedly focused on the issue of racial justice. I do not think I had even heard the word “gender” outside of my Latin grammar course. Keep in mind that this was thirty years before the present #MeToo moment. Anita Hill had not yet forced a conversation about black women and gendered intimidation.
Whether you call it black feminism, womanism, or intersectional feminism, the idea of thinking about more than one vector of identity at the same time was a revolutionary paradigm shift for me. I feel silly and dated expressing this today, much the way that I might feel if I were explaining to you that I had just discovered the existence of gravity. But please allow me to provide a bit of context. In 1987, Spelman College inaugurated its first black female president. A century earlier, the college had been founded by two white women who worked as Baptist missionaries. In the 1960s, the reins were handed to black men, and this was understood as great progress. The day I arrived on campus as a first-year student was the day that our Sister President, Johnnetta B. Cole, stepped into her historic position. Before this, I don’t think I had ever seen a black woman in a significant leadership position. I had never considered that possibility.
In Pearl’s class, we shut the door and disregarded the boundaries of propriety for which Spelman was famous. We talked about sex, we talked about consent, we talked about possibly opting out of homecoming until our brothers at Morehouse addressed “the woman question.” We wondered aloud what we would do about our parents and their retro ideas about gender. The class got smaller as the conversation grew more radical and intense. By the end of the first month, we could all fit in the room comfortably.
Feminist consciousness raising is a delicate undertaking. I was born into a household in which racial resistance was understood to be our shared priority; if my father were more sentimental, he would have named it his, and our, “calling.” One of my earliest memories involves me refusing to ride in a car with an adult who broke the boycott of Gulf Gas, a company that supported apartheid. I knew all about the struggle against oppression brought by those outside of our community. Feminist consciousness, on the other hand, involves interrogating people you love. It requires you to take a hard look at your family. I remember the day that it occurred to me that both my brothers had been given heroes’ names, designed to connect them with a lineage of black masculinity—one brother was named for the freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba and the other named to honor my grandfather. My own name, Tayari, was selected by a family friend for its nice ring and practical translation: “ready.” This, of course, is just a tiny example of the way that gendered expectations shaped my childhood, but the realization knocked me flat. Perhaps it is because I never cared for my first name. Or maybe it was that, as a writer, I took naming very seriously. More likely is that for all my life I had been aware of a subtle hierarchy for which I had no name. Pearl guided me through this awakening, teaching me how to recognize the ways that I was treated unequally while still being able to live and love and grow within my family—and by “family” I mean my genetic kin, but also my tribe.
Pearl taught me to be a loving teller of the truth. This is the basis for my work as a writer and as a human being. If you are a person who loves the world, then you love your community, you love your family, and you love yourself. If you love them as they are, then you can write them as they are. Your humanity and theirs will rise to the top.
I took this advice to heart as I spent the rest of my college career compiling a portfolio that I intended to submit to an annual contest endowed by Alice Walker, Spelman’s most celebrated daughter. The award was inspired by a grant won by Walker herself when she was a student at Sarah Lawrence. The prize at Spelman awarded $10,000 to a graduating senior who was clearly destined to be a writer. The idea is that the money would allow the young woman to “look around calmly” and find her voice. When Walker won her prize, she used the award money to move to New York City. I wasn’t sure what I would do with mine. And I wasn’t certain I would win. A number of my classmates were downright gifted. As backup, I completed a half dozen applications to PhD programs in literature.
I didn’t receive the prize. No one did. A few weeks before graduation, the department chair announced that the award had been suspended for the year. Later, I discovered that I had earned the commendation but my well-meaning advisors were worried that I would forfeit my fellowship to the PhD program and do something silly like try to be a writer. At the time, I knew only that my dream had been deferred. I packed my things and moved to the Midwest, where I would begin the worst season of my life: a season of cold weather, racism, loneliness, and the misery that comes from not writing.
After two years of this, I wrote to Pearl. The letter on my formal stationery outlined everything I hated about my life. I told her how all the writers at my university were in “the Workshop” but none of them ever spoke to me. I told her how I wanted to write, but I didn’t want to be one of them. I told her how hard it was to take literature classes and write about novels when I wanted to be creating them. I told her how I was afraid that I was disappointing my parents. I told her that I feared that this university in the Midwest would never accept another student from a black college if I didn’t graduate with distinction.
Pearl wrote me back on a simple notecard. Her message was clear: “This is your life. Quit the program. Leave that place.”
Once again, she reminded me that my power was my own. She was right. My life is my own. I quit the program. I left that place.
I became a novelist. Fear can pervert love sometimes. I learned to forgive the people who let their fear thwart my dreams. These people say they are all very proud of me now, and I believe them. They say they always knew I would be a writer. This is a lie, but I do not contradict them in public. I understand that this is their way of apologizing. I do love them.
As I settled into my career, Pearl and I became friends in a different way. She is still my mentor; I will always be her protégée. However, we now have a series of shared experiences. We have both known what it is to work with editors. We both threaded the needle of maintaining cultural specificity while nurturing a wide audience. Finally, I moved to New York. This wasn’t my chance to “look around calmly” on Alice Walker’s dime. Instead I had taken a university job and I wanted to be closer to the action of publishing. Pearl, who still lives in Atlanta on the side of town where I grew up, wished me well. I packed my things and sought my fortune.
In New York, I found a world of writers in which so many were graduates of “the Workshop.” There was endless chatter about which writers enjoyed the national spotlight. I realized that my tutelage with Pearl had never included any discussion of what distinctions had been conferred upon the writers we loved. When we talked about books, we talked about the works themselves. When we spoke of Baldwin, the fact that he never won a national award for fiction was entirely irrelevant. When we spoke of Beloved, we never mentioned the Pulitzer.
This is not to say that we somehow operated completely above the fray. When Pearl’s novel What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, I sent her flowers and squealed like a teenager. When I won prizes or fellowships, she congratulated me on a job well done. But still, we smiled at the folly of it all. Often Pearl reminded me that “while we want to be paid for our writing, we don’t want to write for money.” This was true for prizes as well.
Whenever I am in Atlanta, we meet for lunch or dinner at our favorite restaurant. Before we eat, we raise a glass to our luck in finding each other. “Look at us,” Pearl says sometimes, “two authoresses!” Lately, she has switched it up. “We are two American writers,” she says. The first time she announced this new toast, I scrunched my face. “I know,” Pearl said. “Those of us raised in black nationalist homes have trouble with the whole American thing; but we are American authors, too!” When I titled my new work An American Marriage, it was with Pearl in mind.
Fifteen years after the publication of my first novel, I submitted the manuscript of An American Marriage, my fourth, to my editor. I was unsure if I could write another one. In the last few years, I have felt a shift in my consciousness. When I sit down to write, I find it more difficult to slip into the fictional world from which my stories grow.
I confessed this feeling to other friends, who reacted with disbelief or alarm. They either doubted my ability to gauge my own feelings, or they used guilt to try to guide me back to my writing table. The last time I sat down with Pearl, I was distracted. I wanted to tell her how I had been feeling, but I was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to hear me either. Halfway through my second glass of white wine, I whispered, “I think the well might be empty.”
She took a couple of considered sips then said, “Maybe you’re through with novels.” She didn’t propose this possibility with sadness or alarm. She looked at me with curiosity and concern, the same energy with which she approached me when we first met so many years ago. Back then she had said, “What do you think?” I will never forget the way I flourished under the warm light of her interest. Now she asked, “What else might you like to do?”
And with that, my mentor once again handed me control of my life. The question was hers, but the answer was mine.
Who knows if I am through with novels? Maybe the well will fill itself again. But with this gift, Pearl’s guidance brought me full circle. When I was a teenager looking for purpose, she allowed me to call myself a writer, and I wore that identity as both armor and ornament. But now, she reminded me that I am a person who wears that label, a person who embraces that identity. And there is more to me than my career or even my body of work. “You’re young,” she said. “There are so many things left for you to do.”
At forty-five, I wasn’t young, and she knew I wasn’t. But I took her point. Her idea was that writing wasn’t the only way that I could express myself. There is a wide world ahead of me, and although I am known as a writer, there are always things we don’t know—even about ourselves. As I write this now, I am about one hundred pages into my fifth novel. I have no idea if there will be a sixth.
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