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In Gloria Naylor’s early writing, an author in search of herself

The ‘Brewster Place’ author died Sept. 28 at age 66

Gloria Naylor didn’t learn that black women wrote books until she was 27 years old.

In a 1988 interview, Naylor, who died of heart failure Sept. 28 in Christiansted, Virgin Islands, revealed that when she was in junior high school in Manhattan, her teachers were ecstatic to have a student who loved to read. They eagerly supplied her with books: the Brontës, Dickens, Thackeray, Emerson, Poe, Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner — the canon. But, The Women of Brewster Place author told Bonetti, “I would never see literature from these people that reflected my reality either as a creator of it or a subject within it. And that is because of [my teachers’] own ignorance. These books existed. I know that these people weren’t malicious people, but it was just not part of the standard school curriculum. So when I began writing, it was in response to this: my having been denied knowledge of the fact that I had foremothers and forefathers in the arts.”

Naylor, born to parents who grew up in the Mississippi town of Robinsonville, noted the irony of Gwendolyn Brooks winning the Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen in 1950, the year she was born. “I had never been taught of her existence. So as far as I was concerned, she did not exist.”

“I would never see literature from these people that reflected my reality either as a creator of it or a subject within it. And that is because of [my teachers’] own ignorance.”

Naylor, best known for Brewster Place, which was adapted into a four-part miniseries produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey, won the 1983 National Book Award for first novel and the American Book Award. Alongside the works of Toni Morrison — (The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tar Baby) and Alice Walker (The Color Purple won the National Book Award that same year for fiction) — Naylor’s book put a much-needed spotlight on the very real triumphs and travails of black women just trying to make their lives work. The book opened with the famous question posed by poet Langston Hughes: What happens to a dream deferred? In seven vignettes, Naylor answered that question in lyrical, aching prose, revealing the communal love that can form among women in squalid conditions. Its legacy is in showing that whatever is standing in one’s way can very well be torn down.

It’s no coincidence that Naylor was so often compared to Morrison. After having been deprived of the magic of black women writers for much of her life, something in her came alive when she read The Bluest Eye. “After that, it was like a whole floodgate of them,” Naylor said in 1988. She followed Brewster Place with Linden Hills (1985), Mama Day (1988), Bailey’s Cafe (1992), and The Men of Brewster Place (1998) and earned fellowships from the Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts.

Naylor also penned a fictionalized memoir, 1996, about a woman subjected to government surveillance and mind control. “… It’s about our loss of privacy in this country, that the government has moved well beyond just the simple following of people, and the tapping of their phones,” Naylor told NPR’s Ed Gordon in 2006. “But they now have technology that is able to decode the brain patterns, and to detect what people are actually thinking. And they have another technology called microwave hearing, where they can actually input words into your head, bypassing your ears.”

Naylor will live on through her work, part of a canon of extraordinary black women that includes not just Morrison and Walker, but Ntozake Shange and Audre Lorde, a canon she discovered as a student at Brooklyn College. But even at 38, she was still agog at what she’d missed for so long. “To this day when I think about that kind of ignorance and the pain in which I lived, and it wasn’t a conscious pain, but this disease of wondering why I was scribbling.”

Tierra R. Wilkins is an associate editor for The Undefeated. She likes to eat fries with her ketchup.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.