Excerpted from Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do by Pearl Cleage. Copyright © 2004 by Ballantine. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Pearl Cleage
Q: Atlanta is known as “The Black Mecca,” especially for young, educated Black professionals. Yet I read a recent article saying that it’s one of the most dangerous cities in the nation. In this novel, you have the intriguing premise of Atlanta’s West End in particular becoming transformed into a safe haven for women. What made you want to explore that in ﬁction?
Pearl Cleage: I have lived in southwest Atlanta for almost thirty years. I love my neighborhood and I love my neighbors, but we have had to deal with all the problems of any African American urban neighborhood. Crack, street crime, car jacking, and burglaries all create an atmosphere that is less than peaceful. One day as I was sitting on my front porch on a beautiful spring day, I thought to myself how perfect it would be if southwest Atlanta was a safe zone for women. If we could walk around without fear and leave our doors unlocked. It was a wonderful fantasy and from that initial thought came the germ of the novel.
Q: I heard you say at a book signing that you write love stories. This is a love story that pulses with an underlying sense of urgency about the state of our communities. Would you say that you’re mixing romance and politics, and if so, why?
PC: I can’t help mixing romance and politics! I’m always trying to write about real women like the women I know. In a place like Atlanta, where women are in charge of so many things, including the mayor’s ofﬁce, I am constantly shown images of strong black women, many of whom are my friends! I know that these women do their jobs as elected leaders and community leaders, but I also know they do those jobs while dealing with relationships, children, family issues, and all the other things that challenge the rest of us. Their lives–our lives!–are not divided into separate, discreet entities. It is all one piece. I think romance and love are important elements in our lives but they don’t take place in a vacuum. Our challenge as modern women is to ﬁgure out how to change the world, run the world, and be passionately in love, all at the same time!
Q: You’re very upfront about Regina’s ﬂaws, including her past drug addiction. I’m curious about why you didn’t make her more of the super-dynamic, high-achieving sister so common to Atlanta, you know–the kind of woman most people might expect an author to pick for a role model.
PC: I’m not trying to put forward role models. I’m always looking for interesting characters that we can recognize as “real.” That is, people like us, with good points, bad points, strengths and weaknesses. As as writer, ﬁnding a character with a ﬂaw allows me to take the reader on the journey the character must travel to get stronger. I wanted people to be able to see that Regina wasn’t perfect, but she was working hard to put her life in order. If she had been without problems at the start of the story, we wouldn’t have cared about her as much, or rooted for her as hard.
Q: Cocaine is one of the many things devastating Black communities. Yet you never veered into criticizing Regina for her drug abuse or preach against it in the book. Were you ever tempted to do that, and if so, how did you overcome that temptation?
PC: I was never tempted to be judgmental of Regina’s problems with cocaine because I have known many people who struggle with drug addictions and the last thing they need is someone casting a judgmental eye when they are struggling to “get right.” I like Regina and I know that she never intended to do the things she did when she was addicted. Addicts never do. What I respect about her is that she was able to recognize that she needed help and ﬁnd it. It took a traumatic event to shake her up enough to go into rehab, but she did it and that made me like her. I don’t think it’s a writer’s job to preach to the reader. I think my job is to create believable characters who allow us to see ourselves more clearly.
Q: It’s interesting the way you complemented Regina’s straight-shooting, down-to-earthiness with Aunt Abby’s new-age-spiritual vision vibe. Now that you, like Aunt Abby, have reached the life-stage of being a visionary advisor, what do you see for our young Black men and women, especially in their relationships with each other?
PC: I wish I could see a vision that would give me a clue about our young people! I watch them outside my window, waiting for the school bus every morning in their baggy jeans or skin-tight T-shirts and I wonder what they see ahead for themselves. One of the things that is so important in my book is that the women be able to communicate across generations. The older women in the gardening association, the young women just starting their periods, the middle-aged women coming into their own–all of them had to ﬁnd a way to talk honestly about what was going on in their lives. If I have any vision, it is of a time when women can communicate more honestly about the stories of their lives. I think what we ﬁnd when we are able to do that is that our stories are a lot more similar than they are different.
Q: Blue is intriguing. How did you come to create an ebony-skinned brother with blue eyes? And do you know any men like Blue in real life?
PC: I wanted to give Blue a startling characteristic that would immediately get Regina’s attention. There aren’t a lot of blue-eyed, darkskinned black men around so I thought that might be an interesting combination. The contrast made him seem otherworldly in a way and since he was speaking to her across several lifetimes, I thought the eyes were a nice touch. A lot of Blue is based on my husband, Zaron Burnett, especially his dedication to the safety of black women and children and his complete understanding of what it means to be a good man. I also borrowed his style for Blue’s hats and overcoats, as well as the past life connection. The truth is, all the good guys in my novels have characteristics that I borrowed from my husband. Eddie’s dreadlocks and romantic sweetness in What Looks Like Crazy . . . , Nate’s weightlifting and quest to really understand women’s issues in I Wish I Had A Red Dress, and Blue’s unequivocal acceptance of his role within the group in Some Things . . . are all things I’ve culled from Zaron.
Q: Regina and Blue knew each other in a previous lifetime. Do you believe in reincarnation? And how have readers responded to this theme, which is sometimes frowned upon in our more traditional religious belief systems?
PC: I would like to believe in reincarnation, but I’m still not sure that I do. Several years ago, my husband, Zaron, started talking about knowing he was an emperor in his last life. Since he’s not a New Age kind of guy, I was intrigued by what made him think that this was true. He described whole scenes to me and after awhile, he seemed so convinced, I started thinking about what it might be like if this were true. He wisely answered yes when I asked him if he remembered me from that past life and that gave my imagination what it needed to work with with Regina and Blue. Some people have been skeptical about the past lives, but I think since Regina is initially skeptical, too, it gives readers a chance to get used to the idea at the same time the character comes to terms with it. I wasn’t trying to convince anybody that they should believe in reincarnation. I just thought it was an interesting plot device if I could make it real enough to get folks to at least consider the possibilities. After that, they can come to their own conclusions, but it wouldn’t it be romantic if it was true?
Q: Let’s talk about Beth. There are plenty of sisters like her–tough, sharp, driven, no-nonsense divas–in Atlanta and other chocolate cities. Do you think that sisters like this have traded in their softness for a coat of armor? And what are the romantic prospects for women like Beth?
PC: I think Beth has made her choices based on what she could control. It is easier to control your work than it is to control your heart. For Beth, her son was all the emotional outlet she needed, apart from her audiences. When he was gone, she had no way to replace him. I don’t think she is a bad person, but her life demanded that she look out for herself. After years of that, she became harder and harder, although it wasn’t always obvious. I think at this point, she’s not going to be looking for romance. She’s going to try to get back to her best self and get to know that grandbaby!
Q: You have waved a kind of literary magic wand and created a near-utopian vision of a safe, loving Black community. Though it is threatened by violent forces, it seems to have a solid core of conscious men who are dedicated to keeping it righteous. You live in the real-life version of this same community–Atlanta’s West End. How did you conjure up such an ideal vision and how did you sustain it in the contrasting world outside your door?
PC: I’m a dreamer. I am always trying to see the best in us as a community of people and to ask myself what my role might be in making that community become a reality. When I see problems outside my window, I don’t despair of things ever getting better. I try to imagine what “better” might look like. I try to remember what a neighborhood of intact families might look like. I recreate the best of what a love affair can be. I think that is part of what I do as a writer. I hold up a mirror and say, “this is how we look to me,” but I also hold up an image of what we look like in my mind’s eye. I always remember in Ossie Davis’s wonderful play Purlie Victorious that the title character comes to church, looks around at the congregation and says, “Tonight my friends, I ﬁnd in being black a thing of beauty.” I feel that way, too. I want my books to show us, us . . . but better.
Q: You raised a daughter and for years you taught at your alma mater, Spelman College. During that process, what did you teach your own daughter, Deignan, and your students? What did they teach you?
PC: I think that what I always try to convey to young women is an awareness of their own possibilities. I wanted my daughter and my students to see that they are living in a wonderful time for black women in a place where we have a voice in how we live and how our community operates. I remember asking my students if they didn’t want to run the world one day and they were startled by the question. They didn’t want to think of “running” things, taking charge, being the one sitting in the big chair. This surprised me and I reminded them that someone was going to be in charge and if they wanted things to work in a fair and just way, they had to get in there and make it happen. I also tried to impress upon them that looking for love based on material things and outside criteria was not the best way to ﬁnd it. Instead, I urged them to look for a man who was capable of loving and protecting them and their children. I urged them to tell the truth, laugh as much as they cried, and trust their instincts. My students always taught me as much as I taught them. About patience and honesty and telling what you know. My daughter continues to teach me how to reach deep into my own heart and mind to give her what I’ve learned and tell her what I know in a way that gives her the beneﬁt of all that without assuming my way is the only way.
Q: A theme that I’ve noticed in all three of your novels is a sense of the leading men as kind of nobly scarred heroes. They’re street-wise, tough yet tender, and very much about cherishing and protecting women. Do your readers ever ask you where to ﬁnd these brothers in real life?
PC: My readers often ask me if they can clone my leading men! I understand why. I think it’s the combination of tender and tough, gentle and strong that appeals to my readers. It is also the combination that appeals to me! I think part of what I am always trying to do is to encourage us to look at the men around us differently. We have to ﬁnd a way to make a space for reconciliation and honesty. We have to begin to value what the men we love can bring us aside from material things. We have to value the beauty of their songs and their souls as much as we value their status in the outside world. I am a believer in the possibility of love and I always want my characters to ﬁnd a way to love each other in the midst of all the challenges life can throw at them. When they can ﬁnd that space, I know they’ll want to stay there and my readers will, too!
Q: What song or songs were you playing or hearing in your head when you wrote this book?
PC: I was playing a lot of Cassandra Wilson when I wrote this book. She has such a mystical sound that she was what brought Aunt Abbie forward, I think. I also listen to a lot of Bob Marley and some Etta James. If you can’t write a love story listening to sister Etta sing “At Last”, you ought to quit trying!
Q: What is the one thing you want your readers to know without a doubt, when they have ﬁnished reading Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do? And what do you want them to do?
PC: I want them to know that we can have peace where we live if we decide we really want it. I want them to believe that they can change the places where they ﬁnd themselves and that love may appear when you least expect it, in a form you never had in mind, and if you can open yourself to it, it may be pretty amazing.
1. For years, Atlanta has been hailed as “the Black Mecca.” In Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do, author Pearl Cleage has created a new vision of an existing community, Atlanta’s West End, that is truly Mecca-like in that crime has been eradicated and the black men are playing some very positive roles in making it a safer place to live. Do you think visions such as Pearl’s can help build hope and possibility in our communities?
2. Regina is a smart, conﬁdent woman who was driven to cocaine abuse by a broken heart. Could you identify with Regina, or did you feel that she should have been able to cope with her problems without becoming an addict?
3. Regina’s late lover (and Beth Davis’s late son) Son not only helped his mother’s movement to empower single moms, but “wanted to start his own program for the brothers because he said it didn’t make sense to have a whole lot of enlightened women looking for love in the arms of a whole lot of unenlightened men.” Do you think that is a problem for black women today–not being able to ﬁnd men with their level of education, achievement, or consciousness?
4. The theme of “movements” for community empowerment runs through this book. Regina, who is thirty-two, reﬂects on her parents’ generation of movement friends who “were still waiting for a leader to arise who would pick up where Martin and Malcolm and Medgar and all those unnamed martyrs left off.” Do you think that Black people today are looking for a leader or a movement? And is that the solution to the many challenges facing the African American community?
5. This is a love story that encourages us to keep hope alive. Hope in community. Hope in redemption. Hope in Black men coming into their own as positive, constructive warriors and protectors of women, children, and community. Hope of Black women ﬁnding the balance between achievement and softness. Did Regina and Blue’s love story give you hope? Did the vision of a healthy, whole, harmonious Black community give you hope? Why is it so important for Black people today to have a sense of love, hope, and possibility?
6. Regina and Blue knew each other in a previous lifetime. Did the theme of reincarnation affect the credibility of the story for you? Do you think a reader has to believe in reincarnation to enjoy this book?
7. Aunt Abbie has a vision of Regina marrying Blue, and she shares this vision with Regina early on. When they’re getting to know each other, Blue tells Regina of his three past wives and says that “I guess I’m a better friend than I am a husband.” Yet this doesn’t seem to deter Regina from moving into a relationship with Blue, and the book ends with her saying that it’s time for Blue to meet Aunt Abbie. Do you think Regina and Blue are headed for a happy ending? Or does such a thing exist?
8. How did you feel about Beth Davis as a leader of, and role model for, Black single mothers? How did you feel about her rejection of her only grandchild, Sonny Jr., and harsh judgment of the child’s mother, Madonna, the ex-stripper?
9. Beth had trouble letting go of her grown son and allowing him to live his own life, make his own choices. How common do you think this is for mothers in general and single mothers of sons in particular? Do you think this is one reason there seems to be a shortage of the kind of men portrayed in this book?
10. When Blue and Regina visit his beach house on the island, he kisses her and she says, “He didn’t touch me in any other way. He just kissed me smack on the mouth, and I kissed him back, and it felt so good and so right that I decided to stop worrying about past lives or next lives or anything except his mouth on mine . . .” Can a love story be romantic without the heroine being a little impulsive, and maybe impractical? Is it possible to be romantic and pragmatic at the same time, for either women or men?
11. Pearl’s descriptions of the characters and community were very vivid. Can you look at a community like today’s West End (and so many other African American neighborhoods), which she describes as “plagued by crime, drugs, homelessness, and unemployment” and envision the world in this novel? Did this story make you feel optimistic about the potential for positive change in the relationships between Black men and women and in our communities? Do you think it is wise, dangerous, or a waste of time to envision and hope for something better?
12. Is it the responsibility of today’s African American writers, musicians and artists to portray the world as it is, or as they hope it can be? Does a single novel, a love story, have the power to provoke positive change? What might it inspire you to do?
13. There are no explicit sex scenes in this novel. Why do you think the author made this choice? Which approach do you prefer in a love story–detailed lovemaking scenes or a more subtle approach?
14. Regina’s Aunt Abbie is described as a “visionary advisor” and seems almost kind of psychic, at least when it comes to Regina’s life. Do you have an Aunt Abbie-like person in your life? If so, what role do they play? And what would you think if they told you that you would be meeting a love from past lifetimes?
15. What do you know about Regina from her relationship with Son and her growing relationship with Blue? Could you identify with her and the romantic choices she makes?
16. When Regina “looked at the TV in time to see the second plane hit the World Trade Center,” she gave up cocaine, started praying and checked herself into a rehabilitation facility.” This was before she knew that the love of her life, Son Davis, had died in the attack. Why do you think the events of 9-11 provoked such a dramatic reaction in Regina? Did you or anyone you know make a similarly life-changing decision as a result of 9-11?
17. What role does forgiveness play in this story? Why was it important for Regina and Beth to forgive each other? For Beth to forgive the mother of her grandchild?
18. At Beth’s request, Regina takes a job helping Morehouse College put Son’s papers together into the Legacy Project. Would Regina have taken the job, working for the woman who destroyed her life once before, if she hadn’t been absolutely desperate to save her family home?
19. Pearl writes that “One of the problems Black folks have is we’re usually so busy making history that we don’t take the time to record it. We keep forgetting that the one who shapes the story deﬁnes the hero, and the hero deﬁnes the best of what a people can be.” Why is it important for Black people to write and record their histories? Who are today’s heroes for Black people, and will history record them as such?
20. If someone, even a trusted relative or friend, predicted that you would meet someone from a past lifetime and hook up with that person, how would you react? Would you be skeptical? Eager to meet the person? And if the prediction came true, would you be happy? Frightened? How would you handle it?
21. When Aunt Abbie ﬁrst tells Regina that her past-life love has blue eyes, Regina expresses some alarm, assuming he’s a White man. How would you react if someone told you that your soulmate was someone of another race? A White man?
22. Do you think that the fate and the future of Black people depends upon Black men and women staying together? Do interracial dating and marriage threaten the future of Black people? With so many Black men dating interracially, do you think that Black women should do the same? What might the consequences be?