Cleage (Just Wanna Testify, 2011, etc.) reprints journal entries chronicling her tumultuous life in the 1970s and ’80s.
“Do us all a favor,” said her now-grown daughter. “Burn them up and be done with it.” But the author wants to share the decades in which she discovered her vocation as a playwright, poet and novelist while remaining deeply engaged in political activism, as a speechwriter for the first black mayor of Atlanta, and as a feminist grappling with marriage, motherhood, divorce and subsequent sexual freedom. Entries from the early 1970s in particular plunge us back into a time when a substantial number of young Americans, including African-Americans such as Cleage, honestly believed either a revolution or a fascist takeover was imminent. The great virtue of this seemingly unedited journal is that it gives a vivid sense of a real life’s varied nature, with an entry about how women can serve the revolution followed by the author’s comments on the film Women in Love. (She’s an avid moviegoer, fond of French New Wave and Hollywood alike, and her musical enthusiasms run from Bruce Springsteen to Peabo Bryson.) The drawback is that there are absolutely no notes in the text to do anything as basic as identify “Daddy” (Cleage’s father, prominent civil rights activist Bishop Albert Cleage) or the last name of her first husband, Michael (Lomax). Cleage apparently thinks everybody knows all about her public life, and she comes across as self-involved, even within the context of a journal. (The solipsism is leavened by some poignant letters from her dying mother and a couple of tough professional memos to Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson.) She’s also ruthlessly candid: about her professional ambitions; her jealousy of more successful writers, especially if they’re also female and black; her unabashed indulgence in marijuana and alcohol; and her multiple love affairs, often with married men. Readers won’t always like her, but they should know her very well after 300 pages of unmediated effusions.
A warts-and-all self-portrait rendered in juicy, robust prose.