Processing Fun: Pearl Cleage Audiovisual Collection

MARBLandNHPRClogos“Revealing Her Story: Documenting African American Women Intellectuals” is a two-year project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to arrange and describe the personal papers of nine African American women writers, artists and musicians. Collections included in the project are the Pearl Cleage papers; additions to the Delilah Jackson papers; the Samella S. Lewis papers; the Almena Lomax papers; the May Miller papers; the Undine Smith Moore papers; the Geneva Southall papers; the Mildred Thompson papers; and the Sarah E. Wright papers. To read the press release announcing the project, click here.

Sometimes, processing a collection gives us, MARBL workers, more than just fun. Pearl Cleage’s audiovisual collection proved to be one of those occasions. Going through several boxes of material, sorting it in sub-categories and watching and listening to hours of recordings to make sure I processed it correctly, offered me – besides entertainment – an education.

Boxes of audiovisual material from the Pearl Cleage papers

Boxes of audiovisual material from the Pearl Cleage papers

I am an Argentine studying Latin American history, so my knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement, although certainly not negligible, is not particularly deep. Browsing through this collection, however, my interest multiplied and my understanding grew; particularly when I ran into Cleage’s collection of her father’s sermons. Reverend Albert Cleage, also known as Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, was a political and civil rights activist, as well as religious leader. He founded the “Shrine of the Black Madonna” and became the leading figure of the “Black Christian Nationalism” movement. Several of his speeches and sermons are now in Pearl Cleage’s AV collection.

Other gems in this audiovisual selection include the readings of Pearl Cleage’s works, a pleasure to listen to for those familiar with her oeuvre and neophytes alike, and interviews with the author for TV and radio shows. Cleage combines a soft tone with strong opinions and clear, sharp reasoning that leave the listener eager for more. Luckily, hours of video at Club Zebra resulted from her decades-long creative partnership with writer and actor-director (also, her husband) Zaron Burnett Jr. and the Just Us Theater Co. Many of these tapes include Cleage reading and performing her own material on stage.

Cleage’s interest in politics, particularly the intersection of politics and African-American issues, also shines through this collection. She recorded news coverage of the hurricane Katrina catastrophe in New Orleans (an interest also noticeable in her e-mail correspondence), as well as the full Senate confirmation hearings following Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Other recordings include documentaries on poverty in the US, or on the life and political legacy of Kwame Touré (Stokely Carmichael).

I confess I was at first a bit puzzled that we titled these blog entries “processing fun.” Now I understand, but I should add it was also “processing education.”