Gloria Naylor: Telling Her Tale
A black female writer who was once a JW tells her story.
Sunday, October 29, 2000
“I am a black female writer and I have no qualms whatsoever with people saying that I’m a black female writer. What I take umbrage with is the fact that some might try to use that identity–that which is me–as a way to ghettoize my material and my output. I am female and black and American. No buts are in that identity. Now you go off and do the work to somehow broaden yourself so you understand what America is really about. Because it’s about me.”
So said Gloria Naylor in the PBS series on African-American culture “I’ll Make Me a World,” and it fairly sums up her dismay at the marginalization of black literature by America’s mainstream. Yet few have done more than this writer to make the culture of black America live on a page. With five published novels to her name, Naylor has taken firm ground in African-American letters, and, as her piece above suggests, she is eager to stake out new ways to give life to her craft.
She was born in New York City in 1950, but she claims her writer’s heart “was conceived” in Robinsonville, Miss., where her parents once worked as sharecroppers. Her mother had little education but loved to read. In a brief speech that Book World printed earlier this year (Feb. 27), Naylor characterized her mother’s love of books as so intense that she worked extra hours in the fields to earn enough to join a mail-order book club. (Libraries in the South would not admit blacks at the time.) When her mother encouraged her to read, Naylor listened. And when her mother handed her a journal and urged her to write down her 12-year-old’s thoughts, she took the advice.
The family moved to Queens in 1963, and shortly thereafter Naylor’s mother became a Jehovah’s Witness. Five years later, Naylor followed. The missionary work nudged her out of a natural shyness and forced her to travel and meet people, but it also sealed her into a hermetic world, where she remained unaware of the boom of black literature that was exploding around her. When, in time, she left the Witnesses disillusioned and anxious about the world she felt was passing her by, she began full-time work as a switchboard operator. In off hours, she studied writing at Medgar Evers and Brooklyn colleges. She will say that it was in 1977, when she read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the first book she’d ever read by an African-American woman, that she was suddenly suffused with hope. She began to see the possibility of spinning tales about what she knew, to conceive of herself as a real writer. When she submitted a short story to Essence magazine, the editor convinced her she had a career.
Naylor finished her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, a heart-wrenching story of seven women in a seedy urban neighborhood, just as she began graduate work at Yale. When it was published in 1983, it won rapid fame. Five years later it was made into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey. Naylor has followed that success with more novels about love and survival in America: Linden Hills (1985), Mama Day (1988), Bailey’s Cafe (1992) and, most recently, The Men of Brewster Place (1998). Apocalypse, morality, transcendence, redemption–echoes, perhaps, of her days as a Witness–are what take center stage in her novels. But it is racism and politics that lurk in the wings.
She has reason for this. To be black in America, according to her, is a political construct. Just as it took time to feel she had a voice, she says, “we have yet to feel within this country that we are home.”
© 2000 The Washington Post Company