Deals With the Devil, and Other Reasons to Riot is a collection of essays that attempts to educate, empower, and motivate the reader; at the same time, this collection appears to have been written as a sort of catharsis for author Pearl Cleage. Cleage's writing is intimate, personal, and oftentimes justifiably angry. Cleage is a third-generation black feminist whose voice is as strong and as understanding as it is intelligent and articulate. The issues covered in Deals With the Devil are broad, and they vary from one essay to the next in their sense of urgency and emotion. Cleage is uncompromising when stating her opinions on such issues as violence against women, racism, sexual independence, politics, education; she is also uncompromising in focusing on how these issues affect black Americans. She is convincing in the presentation of her arguments and has a tone that is authoritative and engaging at the same time. Cleage has written three novels: What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, I Wish I Had a Red Dress, and, Some Things I Thought I'd Never Do. She is a contributing writer for Essence Magazine and has also written a dozen plays.
As much as I would like to discuss each of the essays in Deals With the Devil, I will instead concentrate on a few essays that either stood out as particularly important or which are fine examples of what Cleage's work is ultimately about. The first essay that I would like to touch on is entitled, “Why I Write,” and it tells us just that. In this essay, Cleage lets the reader know what motivates her to write and for whom she is writing. In the opening paragraphs, she tells horror stories about male violence against both wives and girlfriends. The reader learns of a man who threatens to douse his wife, “with gasoline and light it in a murder/suicide if she did not stop the divorce proceedings,” of a woman who leapt from her husband's moving car after he placed a gun to her temple, of a student who approached Cleage to ask what to do about an abusive boyfriend, and of Cleage's own nightmares as an undergraduate at Howard University. The women these things happened to were all women Cleage knew. These are the people about whom, and for whom, Cleage is writing. And Cleage makes it mercilessly clear just what kind of atmosphere she has found herself in : racist, sexist, and violent. Cleage says in this essay,” I am writing to expose and explore the point where racism and sexism meet.” She is also writing to educate and motivate. She says that she writes with “the hope that it will help the people who read it to see more and feel more and know more.” By educating and letting her readers know why they are not alone, Cleage is attempting to both empower and comfort her readers.
In the essay, “Out Here on Our Own,” Cleage goes on to speak directly about the ways in which black women are treated by society. Here, she speaks about how their voices are not heard and how they are ignored by those running things in America (i.e. , rich white males). The only place that Cleage is able to find anything about the experience of black women in the media is in the newspapers when “the crimes against us and our children are so heinous they make the front page.” Cleage wants to see her black sisters reacting to their silenced voice until something is done: “I want everyone to see a bunch of extremely disagreeable, screaming, hollering, protesting, angry black women everywhere they look until some changes are made.” According to Cleage, no one wants to see this. Instead, society prefers that black women are shown only in connection to violence and that their voices are not heard. In short, Cleage calls for an uprising of her oppressed sisters, writing that “we can't allow our fear and insecurity and anger to be things that we only talk about behind closed doors, because we don't want to embarrass our black officials in front of the white folk. As a tactic, being well-behaved just isn't working, so let's try another approach.” Cleage has had enough of passivity; she wants to stir things up, and make changes for the better. She wants her people to be heard. Cleage is not deluding herself as to how she and her sisters are being oppressed, for she says,” only black women have the dubious distinction of being oppressed by both of the dread ‘isms. '” Those “isms,” are “racism,” and “sexism.” Because of this, Cleage believes there to be all the more reason to fight for rights and not passively accept oppression.
In the essay, “The Other Facts of Life,” Cleage tells of “facts of life,” that are true for women, but these are facts “your mother didn't tell you, because she probably didn't want to scare you.” The threats of violence and rape are defined clearly in this essay. an essay which includes warning signs to look for as well as ways for women to protect themselves. And make no mistake, Cleage will not allow her readers to believe that these threats are not real or that they will only happen to someone else. Cleage lets us know that “the main reason women are ever hospitalized is because they've been beaten and tortured by men.” Cleage also gives her definitions of the sexual experience, including a review of both positive and negative aspects. She believes sex to be a wonderful thing, if done for the right reasons and if the circumstances are positive. Cleage urges the reader to “remember when you think about sex that men often use it to express power, control, woman hating, and violence.” She lists phrases like, “I knocked the bottom out of it,” and “I f'ed her brains out,” as the norm, and not the exception. She urges women not to let themselves be taken advantage of and to be informed.
Deals With the Devil, and Other Reasons to Riot presents many issues that affect black women and black society directly. It attempts to answer questions raised by these issues and offers new and fresh ideas in response to them. Even though this collection of essays is written about black women and black society, that fact should not deter others from reading this book. It does not matter what race or sex you are. This book was written for you, and the issues raised in it do affect you, whether you like it or not. It is true, however, that these issues will not affect others as directly as some, but they are important and need to be noticed. These essays provided me with new insight and a perspective on a world I knew embarrassingly little about, a perspective on black women and black society that is not portrayed by a national media dominated by white males.
Deals With the Devil has not made me anything close to an expert on the issues it presents, but it has opened my eyes to them and educated me about them. In the final essay of her collection, Cleage writes of an overheard argument from next door. She tells the reader that she steps into the shower to try and drown out what she has heard. She says, “the rushing water doesn't drown out the woman's question: ‘why you always gotta hurt me?' It is January 1, 1993, and I still don't know the answer. But I'm working on it.” Cleage admits she doesn't know all the answers (I don't believe she thinks anyone does), but it is important that we try and find them.