Tayari Jones, Love Letter To A Mentor

21 May

What follows are remarks I delivered at Spelman College to Pearl Cleage on the occasion of Founders Day, 2009. Ms. Cleage received an honorary degree.

It is an honor and a pleasure to return to Spelman College today, almost twenty years after I graduated. In 1987, I arrived on this campus as a sixteen year old girl with the secret dream to be a writer. Why did I keep this dream a secret? Because I was serious about it and never in my life had I been taken seriously. Furthermore, didn’t have the first idea how to be serious in public. I credit Spelman with turning my life around, for convincing me that I was important, that there was more to life than being a nice girl. But as you know, Spelman College, in it’s most basic sense, is just a campus, a collection of buildings. So when I say Spelman I mean the people, the women of Spelman College who treated me, a sixteen year old kid, like a writer in training. There were many women– including my classmates, who nurtured the writer inside of me. There was Gloria Gayles who taught me read between the lines of Richard Wright to find the hidden life and death of a black woman. Akiba Harper showed me the genius and Langston Hughes. When it came time to edit the literary magazine, Anne Warner let me find my own way. On my first day on the campus, I encountered Ethel Waddell Githii. She’s passed away now, but I will never forget her greeting. “Tayari,” she said. “I have been waiting for you.” All these women helped me be a writer in public, but in my junior year, I enrolled in a creative writing class, taught by someone named Pearl Cleage.

Keep in mind that this was 1989. This was before Oprah came a’calling and Pearl Cleage became a household name. This was before world renowned director Kenny Leon produced her plays to great critical acclaim.

There were forty of us students in a classroom designed to seat maybe twenty-five. I don’t know what kind of renovations they have done on Giles Hall in the last twenty years, but back then, it was hot in those classrooms. Still, we all sat quietly and didn’t complain as we waited for our teacher to arrive.

Pearl arrived looking different than any professor we had seen before. It wasn’t exactly that she was younger, although there was something about her that struck us as kind of hip. She wore her hair cut close to her head and on her arms clanked a tangle of bracelets. She asked us to go around the room and introduce ourselves, but instead of saying our names, classifications, and majors, she asked us to tell the class what we wanted to write about. Spelman is a small school, and everyone pretty much knew everyone else, especially in our major, but when we had to tell what we wanted to write about, it was like we were meeting each other for the first time. That’s how Pearl’s magic works. It’s like she gives you a new set of eyes, one you can really see with.

All 40 people didn’t stick with the class; a lot of people didn’t realised that a creative writing class could involve real work. (Of course, there was a part of me that was grateful for the extra space in the room, but now, I am sorry for my sisters who dropped.) By midterm we were down to thirty. Still big, but no one had to sit on anyone’s lap.

One day, Pearl came into class and passed out a photocopied page from Vanity Fair magazine, a letter to the editor from a woman names Aida Chapman. I still remember her name all these years later. Aida Chapman was responding to a profile of Miles Davis, the great trumpteer. She complained that the editors of Vanity Fair had let go, without comment, Davis’s matter-of-fact admission to brutalizng Cicely Tyson. And she shared her own experiences with him, how he had burned her hands on the electric eye of a stove.

As a class, we were, of course, horrified by this story, but Pearl asked us what did we now think of Miles Davis. We sat quiet, almost afraid to have an opinion. Miles Davis was a big time major famous role-model type person. Would it be okay to hold him accountable, to say that we didn’t give a damn if he was supposed to be some sort of genius? Was committing crimes against black women enough to earn our anger, our scorn? I suspected that it was, but I didn’t know what to say about it. But the part of my brain that loves to write, thought about it long and hard.

A few weeks later, when the class had thinned to a comfortable 25, Pearl invited us to attend something called “Live at Club Zebra”. At this time, I didn’t have a car and I didn’t know anybody with a car. My friend, Andrea borrowed an old Ford Escort from a relative and we set off not knowing what to expect. Club Zebra turned out to be a multi-media arts presentation put on by Pearl and her (now) husband Zaron Burnett. People went up to the mike and read poetry, delivered monologues, and I think someone even sang. But the highlight of the performance was when Pearl took the stage and read a piece called “Mad At Miles”.

To this day, no piece of writing has affected me more– and I have read a lot since then. Not even the lyrical stylings of Toni Morrison has moved me more than Pearl’s brave words. Here she was taking on a major icon. I have friends named Miles, after the great genius. But Pearl stood there and told the world that crimes against black women were major crimes. There was no excuse. She was standing with Aida, with Cicely, and with everyone else who ever feared a man she was sleeping with, who feared she wouldn’t be believed, or that she would be blamed.

Mad at Miles” became part of a collection of essays called “Deals With The Devil” which included straight talk aimed at young women about protecting themselves against violence. She called this essay “Basic Training” and it was all the advice you could never get from your mother because you couldn’t talk to her about desire, about power.

The year I graduated from Spelman, I received a letter in the mail. Pearl was going to publish my first story in a magazine she edited, Catalyst. Along with letter of congratulation was a check for $100, which, to this day, remains the best money I ever made. Shortly thereafter, I went to the University of Iowa to get a PhD in English, following in my parents’ footsteps. I even imagined that I would meet someone and be married before the first year was out. After all, that was what my mother had done. At the University of Iowa, I was miserable. I didn’t want to study writers, I wanted to be one. I wrote Pearl a long letter but she sent back only a postcard–I did leave Iowa. I had to get a job and with the money I earned, I bought a laptop computer. At the time, this was extravagant. But in later letters Pearl had urged me to spend my money on what would make me a better person. “Wear cheap shoes,” she urged. “Use your money for what you care about.”

It seems like a long time ago. As she says, she and I are now are two authoresses. Of course, she is way more prominent than I am. One of my favorite stories is of doing a joint performance with Pearl right after my first book came out. I was sitting there with maybe three people in front of me and Pearl’s line was all the way around the corner. One of the women had brought Pearl a box of earrings she had made herself. Upon seeing me there with my pen in hand, with nothing to sign, the woman said, “Oh you Poor thing! You don’t have any fans!” Then to Pearl she said, “Do you mind.” Then she gave me the least ornate pair of earrings. “Here,” she said. “Take these.”

I put the earrings on, quite happily. Sometimes I tell my friends this story and they say, “weren’t you mad?” But I wasn’t. That woman and her earrings are just another way that Pearl has showed me how to be a writer. Pearl writes the books that make people want to make jewelry by hand and it makes that same person want to share with me, a young writer she had never heard of.

There is this false dichotomy in the world of letters– you are either a reader’s writer, or a writers’ writer. Pearl Cleage shows that us that this concept is ridiculous at i’s core. Pearl Cleage is a people’s writer. She writes novels and essays that teach you how to live, that show you who you are. And if who you are is a writer, she shows you how to do it.

Tayari Jones was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia where she spent most of her childhood with the exception of the one year she and her family spent in Nigeria, West Africa. Although she has not lived in her hometown for over a decade, much of her writing centers on the urban south. “Although I now live in the northeast,” she explains, “my imagination lives in Atlanta.” Jones is a graduate of Spelman College, The University of Iowa, and Arizona State University. She has taught at Prairie View A&M University, East Tennessee State University, The University of Illinois and George Washington University. Currently, she is an Associate Professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University. She was named as the 2008 Collins Fellow by the United States Artists Foundation.  She will spend the 2011-12 academic year at Harvard University as a Radcliffe Institute Fellow, researching her fourth novel.

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