Pearl Cleage is one of the most captivating fiction writers I have ever read. I have fallen head over heels in love with so many of her novels. I had never read her nonfiction work until I came across Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs. This book was about a mother, Pearl Cleage, looking back at her full life and thinking of all the things she wanted her daughter to know about her. It was remarkable because often times it’s hard for adult daughters and mothers to really see each other as full women. I found witnessing Cleage’s attempt to build this bridge intriguing. She takes us on this journey by reading her old journals and revisiting the layers of herself. There are many things that stuck with me about this book but, here are my top five:
1.Throughout her life, Cleage kept mulling over these ideas of feminism and independence. She was a woman who wanted her marriage but also saw the trappings of it. Even with a willing partner, there are parts of marriage that are never quite equal. She gave an example of moving cities. If her husband wanted to move cities, she would be expected to be the supportive, trailing spouse. But if she wanted to move cities, he had to be in the mood and she would be expected to understand if he did not. The duty of it would be on her but it’s not the same for him. This is something many modern women have thought about. No matter how “equal”, there are duties for women that do not seem to loom over men in the same way.
2. In the book, she talked a lot about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1970’s and we gloss over so much of these movements. We know about boycotts, Bloody Sunday, and jail but in her reflection, I heard a much more gruesome story. In one section she talked about a man being jailed, starved and told to act like a monkey in order to be fed. I risk sounding naive here, but these little nuggets felt like a gut punch. I wanted to hear more and this stuck out in my mind long after I left the page.
3. Cleage talks about a rape and her outrage at the act made me ashamed of my lack of outrage at the act. I was immediately interested in how much we have accepted this as a thing and in many ways have given up collectively asking the men around us to “control their own”. As she says, more attention is given to if the woman pregnant from rape has the right to an abortion than the brutal act itself.
4. Pearl Cleage spent a lot of time as a mistress. At times she loved it and at other times she felt used in the process. I found this interesting because a woman this strong, self-aware and pro-woman is not the picture we have in our heads as the “side piece”. This definitely stretched my ideas of full womanhood.
5. After determining she is better off free and unattached for some time, Cleage finds herself in love again and has to decide if she is open to it. She finds it hard at first, to love men, high heels and her brand of feminism all at the same time. The ideas are contradictory. As she comes into herself and starts to understand the patriarchal society around her it’s harder for her to be her “woke” self in the confines of her relationship.
Overall Pearl Cleage’s book was great and left me with a lot of reflections of my own as well as a slight jealously at her ability to journal so much of her life consistently. As much as we intellectually know that people are people, reading so much about a person you admire is always eye-opening and empowering. I recommend this book and look forward to hearing about the reflections it leaves you with. You can find it here.