Gloria Naylor: Life From a Black Legacy
Author Gloria Naylor (1950-2016) in 2007 (Photo by David Shankbone)
(This piece was originally published in the Los Angeles Times in 1985.)
Gloria Naylor, the 35-year-old author of two acclaimed novels, was 27 when she discovered that black women like herself write books.
Then a sophomore at Brooklyn College in New York City, Naylor studied Toni Morrison’s classic, “The Bluest Eye,” as required reading in a creative writing class.
“I didn’t know that black women wrote books, to be quite honest, because, up until that time, I had not been taught that,” she said, “And if a person is not taught something, as far as they are concerned, it doesn’t exist.”
Naylor calls her 28th year a “watershed year.” It was then that she drew “a conscious connection between books I was reading and books I hoped someday to write.” She began exploring the centuries-old legacy of black American literature, a journey that led her to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where she earned a master’s degree in Afro-American Studies two years ago.
“Looking at “The Bluest Eye” and knowing that it was produced by someone who reflected my existence gave me the impetus to think that there might be some authority for me to pick up the pen as well,” she said.
Her novel, “Linden Hills,” about a black bourgeois neighbourhood where economically upscale residents endure varying degrees of “loosening of ties with family, personal relationships, community, and religious and spiritual values” was published this year (Ticknor & Fields: $16.95).
Four years ago, during the month Naylor received her bachelor’s degree in English from Brooklyn College, she completed her first book, “The Women of Brewster Place.” The stories of eight black women, survivors who live on a run-down, dead-end street, Brewster Place, won the 1983 American Bok Award for First Fiction. Naylor is polishing her adaptation of the book for the 1985-86 season of public television’s “American Playhouse.” Her first screenwriting effort she said, has inspired her to try her hand at writing a play someday.
“I found it very challenging to make that transition and also to take seven chapters, which are complete in and of themselves, and try to weave those lives into two hours of viewing time,” Naylor said. “You let the pictures do what, perhaps, two or three pages of description in a novel would do.”
Naylor, a stately woman, dressed in a caftan, sat on a brown plaid couch bed in her sister’s earth-toned basement apartment in Queens. A native of the city, back in New York since January, she lived with her two sisters in their two-family home until recently when she found her own place.
The storyteller daydreams her books into being. “The first things that will come to me are very strong, visual images of people and places,” she said. “And then, slowly, snatches of dialogue might come. When that happens, I know that the book is going to be written.”
Before Naylor finished “Brewster Place,” she said she envisioned three more books that would “feed into one another.” A character in her first book, Kiswana Browne, moved from upper-middle-class Linden Hills to Brewster Place in a surge of black nationalism and search for a cultural identity. And the memories of “Linden Hills” character, Willa Nedeed, of her great aunt, a folk herbalist, led to the central character of Naylor’s third book, “Mama Day.” The author projects mid.1986 as the deadline for its completion. She is also shaping the story of a woman folk healer into a 27-minute screenplay for the public television series, “In Our Own Words,” hosted by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. “Grist for my novel,” she said, expecting it to be done by the end of April.
The oldest of three children, Naylor is the only writer in the family. She was conceived in the small, sharecropping town of Robinsville, Mississippi, shortly before her parents, Alberta and Roosevelt Naylor, moved north to New York where they now work as a telephone operator and subway motorman.
After high school, Naylor chose not to enter City College of New York, where she had been accepted. In the height of the turbulent ‘60s, she sought an activist role as a full-time Jehovah’s Witness pioneer (missionary). Raised in the Baptist church until she was 13, Naylor proselytized for her adopted Christian religion in New York, North Carolina and Florida for seven years.
The rigidity of the Witnesses’ lifestyle, however, prompted Naylor to leave at age 25.
Briefly, Naylor studied nursing at Medgar Evans College in New York City before she answered her calling while at Brooklyn College.
After receiving her master’s degree from Yale, Naylor taught American literature and creative writing as a writer-in-residence at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. in 1983 and 1984.
“I like teaching because it will connect me into people,” she said. “The very nature of my work forces me to isolate myself from the world, ironically, in order to recreate a world.
“Teaching helps me, once again, to interact with people, to exchange ideas. I think it’s because of the way I lead a seminar. I don’t go in with the approach that, ‘Here is the guru, and you are the disciples.’ I don’t believe that writing grows that way.
“Whether or not we’ve ever published a line or published millions of lines, we all start from square one. I never know, from day to day, if that next line will come. My struggles are exactly the same as my students.”
Writing “Brewster Place,” she said, “made me whole. It became a unifying force for me in a strange kind of way. It served as a personal catharsis. I said that if I only have one book, I want to write about something I have my breath on, which was me. And I knew that I couldn’t do that with just one female character because black women are so diverse. How can one character do justice to the black woman in America? That would be as racist an assumption as the outside society has that we are all the same. So, the structure of the book (seven stories about eight women) came from that. It helped me to celebrate something that I don’t think has been given enough attention, and that is the everyday endurance of women like this.”
In contrast to the strength of spirit of the women of “Brewster Place,” the cast of characters in “Linden Hills” possess money but not themselves. The novel is patterned after “Inferno,” which is the first part of Dante’s 14th-century epic poem, “Divine Comedy”. Real estate tycoon Luther Nedeed, the Lucifer of the mythical community, lives at the foot of the hill on a frozen lake like the one in which Dante’s Satan was submerged. The other lost souls of Linden Hills reside on a series of crescent-shaped drives that represent the Inferno’s nine circles of hell. “That’s the hyphenated American society, a society that’s in flux in its drive to succeed,” Naylor said. “But then, for the Afro-American, it truly does become suicidal. After you have gotten “up there” and if you have given up those tenets (of family, community and religion), you’re still facing the all-pervasive attitude of racism.
“You are alienated. Truly, you never become one with society. You’re always that second cousin twice removed. You’ve alienated yourself from what could have nurtured you. And then, where are you? In hell. You’re in Linden Hills.”
In her first two novels, Naylor has not written a materially successful character connected with his past. But she points to Willie K. Mason in “Linden Hills” – a young, streetwise poet from the “wrong side” of town – as embodying a hopeful future.
“The answer is going to lie in a young man like him,” she said. “One who’s bright and ambitious, but, yet, will not relinquish everything to succeed. Because we don’t have to. We don’t.”