The author Gloria Naylor (born 1950) wrote novels that emphasized the strengths of women, especially African American women, and the effects on the lives of people of racism, sexism, and the drive for material gain at any expense.
Gloria Naylor was born in Harlem on January 25, 1950, a month after her parents, Alberta and Roosevelt Naylor, arrived in New York City. Her parents were sharecroppers from Robinsonville, Mississippi, and her mother was especially determined that her children, Gloria and two younger sisters, receive the best education that could be provided for them. Even as a farm worker Alberta Naylor had used some of her meager wages to buy books that the segregated libraries of Mississippi denied her. When Gloria was old enough to sign her name, her mother began to take her to the library. Naylor became a fervent reader and began to write poems and stories as a child.
Alberta Naylor worked as a telephone operator, and Roosevelt Naylor was a motorman for the New York Transit. The family eventually moved to Queens. A good student, Naylor attended classes for the gifted and talented. After graduating from high school, she decided to postpone college in order to serve as a Jehovah Witness missionary. This decision was greatly influenced by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Naylor felt that she needed to work to change the world, and the Witnesses' notion of a theocratic government seemed a viable solution to her. From 1968 to 1975 she proselytized in New York, North Carolina, and Florida.
Troubled by the restrictions of the religion and spurred by the need to develop her talents, she matriculated at the Medgar Evers campus of Brooklyn College. Working as a telephone operator in New York City hotels, she pursued a degree in nursing. However, when it became clear that she preferred her literature classes, she transferred to a major in English. As an avid reader from childhood, she already admired such writers as Austen, Dickens, the Brontes, Faulkner, Ellison, and Baldwin. She soon recognized that all of these writers were either "male or white."
Fortunately, a creative writing class introduced her to Toni Morrison. It was an inspirational discovery. Although Naylor considered herself a poet then, Morrison became a model for rendering one's own reality and for crafting beautiful language. Naylor began to attend readings by Morrison and to hone her own skills as a fiction writer.
In 1980 Naylor entered into a marriage that lasted for ten days. That same year she published her first story in Essence magazine. The secretary to the president of Viking publishing company, who was a friend of a friend, circulated four of Naylor's stories among the editors in January 1981. Two weeks later Naylor had a contract for the book that eventually became The Women of Brewster Place: A Novel in Seven Stories (1982). The novel is actually a cycle of interconnected stories about seven women of different backgrounds who live in a decrepit building on Brewster Place, a dreary street cut off from the rest of the city by a wall. Despite their differences, all of them are united by their inability to fulfill dreams deferred by racism and sexism. The Women of Brewster Place won the American Book Award for the best first novel in 1983.
In 1981 Naylor received her B.A. from Brooklyn College and, using an advance from The Women of Brewster Place, set off for Spain in a brief sojourn patterned after the expatriate adventures of Hemingway and Baldwin. As a single woman traveling alone, she found herself approached often by men and began to resent the fact that she did not have the freedom to explore enjoyed by male writers, white and black. She shut herself up in a boarding house in Cadiz and began to write Linden Hills (1985).
The initial idea for this novel was influenced by her reading of The Inferno in a Great Literature course at Brooklyn. Linden Hills is an African American middle-class neighborhood patterned after the circular geography of Dante's hell. Two younger poets, outsiders in Linden Hills who are looking for work the week before Christmas, discover the neuroses and crimes of the bourgeois inhabitants, who have relinquished culture and values for material gain.
In 1981 Naylor had enrolled in the graduate program in African American studies at Yale. She thought it important to study works that "were reflections of me and my existence and experience" (Goldstein). She received her M.A. in 1983.
Naylor's third novel, Mama Day, was published in 1988. Its settings are New York City and Willow Springs, a sea island off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina whose most powerful inhabitant is Miranda (Mama) Day, healer and magician. When Mama Day's beloved niece, Cocoa, brings her husband George to visit, they all become involved in a plot to save Cocoa from a deadly curse. Naylor examined the conflicts between men and women, portraying the woman as the repository of the sensual and emotional and the male as the essence of rationality. Like Naylor's other novels, this one reverberates with the influences of traditional literature, this time Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Naylor has penned two other works Bailey's Cafe (1992) and a dramatic version of the story for the stage in 1994. In Bailey's Cafe published in 1992, Naylor focused on the interesting lives of the proprietors of a diner and it's various patrons. In this novel, Naylor demonstrates her ability to find heroism in the lives of everyday people, while at the same time showing their frustration at not being able to escape their position in life. Naylor is also the sole founder of One Way Productions, an independent film company.
Gloria Naylor was the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts (1985) and a Guggenheim fellowship (1988), Naylor was one of only a few African American women ever to receive this honor. She was a cultural exchange lecturer for the United States Information Agency in India in 1985. She served as the writer-in-residence of the Cummington Community of Arts (Summer 1983); and as a visiting professor at George Washington University (1983-1984), University of Pennsylvania (1986), New York University (Spring 1986), Princeton (1986-1987), Boston University (1987), Brandeis University (1988), and Cornell (1988).
Further Reading on Gloria Naylor
For more biographical information on Gloria Naylor see Naylor and Toni Morrison's, "A Conversation," in The Southern Review (Summer 1985) and W. Goldstein's, "Talk with Gloria Naylor," in Publishers Weekly (September 9, 1983). For critical information, see Michael Awkward's Inspiriting Influences (1989) and Catherine Ward's, "Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills A Modern Inferno," in Contemporary Literature (Spring 1987).