“… I fell in love with the way (Gloria) Naylor wrote Black joy, pain, happiness, sadness, anxiety, depression, dancing, singing, fighting, love-making, and praying. I loved the way she wrote Black women’s voices. Their spirits. Their souls. Their hearts.”
~ Heidi R. Lewis, professor and author
On January 25, 1950, Roosevelt and Alberta Naylor welcomed their first child, Gloria into the world. She was born in Harlem, a community in the Manhattan borough of New York City. Her parents, sharecroppers who had recently left Robinsonville, Mississippi, moved north in search of better opportunities. Harlem was a highly significant destination for many Blacks who underwent The Great Migration because it was known for its opportunities for advancement. Attaining employment, Roosevelt labored as a motorman for the New York Transit Authority and Alberta worked as a telephone operator.
Learning and education were highly important to the Naylor family, especially for Alberta. She sacrificed the poor wages she was given to purchase books from segregated libraries. As soon as she could write her name, Gloria began frequenting the library with her mother. From a very young age, Gloria became a voracious reader. She also loved to journal, compose poetry and create stories, all activities encouraged by her mother.
When Gloria was thirteen, the Naylor family, which included her two younger sisters, moved to Queens, another borough in New York City. An outstanding student, she took honors and advanced courses for the gifted. During her senior year in high school, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. His murder profoundly impacted her, prompting her to delay entering college for missionary work as a Jehovah’s Witness. She, believing her work could influence positive change, proselytized in Florida, New York and North Carolina for seven years.
In 1975, she returned to New York City and enrolled to study at the Medgar Evers campus of Brooklyn College. Her decision to leave missionary work was motivated by her feeling restricted by religion and also desiring to develop her personal interests and skills. Naylor selected nursing as her field of interest; she also worked as a telephone operator in various hotels in the city. Acknowledging her love for literature, she changed her major to English. Though she found pleasure in reading celebrated authors such as Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner and William Shakespeare, the dearth of Black women writers was disturbing to her.
An epiphanous moment soon occurred in her creative writing class when she was introduced to The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. She soon began to read all the works of Morrison, expanding to other Black women authors, including Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker.
In 1980, Gloria Naylor was briefly married but ended the marriage after ten days. Also that year, her first story was published by Essence, a magazine geared towards progressive African-American women. The following year, a friend of a friend who was the secretary to the president of Viking Publishing Company disseminated stories of Naylor’s to the company’s editors. Two weeks later, she had a book contract for what would be her groundbreaking, best-selling work, The Women of Brewster Place: A Novel in Seven Stories (1982).
The novel is centered upon the different lives of seven Black women who live in despairing conditions on Brewster Place, a dead-end street that is barricaded by a wall. Despite their backgrounds and lifestyles and the challenges of classism, racism and sexism, the commonality of Black womanhood is what binds them together. Garnering critical acclaim, The Women of Brewster Place: A Novel in Seven Stories won the 1983 “Best First Novel” National Book Award.
In “Gloria Naylor, who wrote ‘The Women of Brewster Place’, dies at 66” of the Chicago Tribune, insight into the novel is shared by the author. In giving her acceptance speech for her National Book Award, she enlightened the audience that the novel was lovingly dedicated to her mother, Alberta. Naylor shared, “Realizing that I was a painfully shy child, she gave me my first diary and told me to write my feelings down in there … Over the years, that diary was followed by reams and reams of paper that eventually culminated into ‘The Women of Brewster Place’. And I wrote that book as a tribute to her and other Black women who, in spite of the very limited personal circumstances, somehow manage to hold a fierce belief in the limitless possibilities of the human spirit.”
Gloria Naylor converted it to a screenplay that Oprah Winfrey adapted and produced. Premiering in 1989, The Women of Brewster Place mini-series starred Winfrey, Jackée Harry, Paula Kelly, Lonette McKee, Lynn Whitfield, Moses Gunn, Robin Givens, Phillis Yvonne Stickney, Larenz Tate, Olivia Cole, Leon, Mary Alice, Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson. Its accolades include the 1990 GLAAD Media Award for “Outstanding TV Mini-Series” and the 1991 NAACP Image Award for “Outstanding Drama Series, Mini-Series or Television Movie”.
Graduating with her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Brooklyn College in 1981, she used a portion of her book advance from The Women of Brewster Place: A Novel of Seven Stories and visited Spain. Though she enjoyed her sojourn, similar to those undertaken by Ernest Hemingway and James Baldwin, she was more than annoyed at her lack of freedom to travel as an independent African-American woman. Electing to stay to herself, she remained secluded in a home in Cadiz and began writing what would be her thesis and second novel, Linden Hills (1985).
In 1981, Gloria Naylor entered Yale University to earn a graduate degree in African-American Studies. This decision was motivated by her desire to learn more about what represented her and her cultural experiences. Graduating with her Master of Arts degree in 1983, she applied themes of Dante’s Inferno to compose Linden Hills. In this novel, she weaves a haunting tale of how materialism impacts an affluent, exclusive African-American community.
Naylor wrote four more novels centered in the Black experience: Mama Day (1988), which is influenced by Shakespeare’s The Tempest; Bailey’s Café (1992); The Men of Brewster Place (1999), a follow-up to her first novel and inspired by The Million Man March; and 1996 (2005). She served as editor on Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, 1967 to the Present (1995). Her work is also featured in several anthologies, including Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction (ed. Terry McMillan,1990) and Daughters of Africa (ed. Margret Busby, 1992).
The esteemed author also taught literature and writing courses at several universities, including Boston University and New York University. She was the Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and Senior Fellow, The Society for the Humanities at Cornell University. Naylor also served as a Visiting Professor at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England.
On September 28, 2016, Gloria Naylor suffered a heart attack and passed away during a visit to St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. She was sixty-six years old.
The recipient of numerous honors and awards, Naylor was awarded the President’s Medal of Brooklyn College and the Lillian Smith Award. An honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., an African-American sorority, she was awarded a Candace Award in 1986 by the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.
Gloria Naylor received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1985) for Linden Hills and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1988) for Mama Day. She also was awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for her screenwriting.
In 2006, Gloria Naylor donated her archives to Sacred Heart University and they are in the process of digitization.
“Not only is your story worth telling, but it can be told in words so painstakingly eloquent that it becomes a song.”
~ Gloria Naylor