Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Gloria Naylor was born on January 25, 1950, in New York City, the daughter of Roosevelt Naylor, a transit worker, and Alberta McAlpin Naylor, a telephone operator. Her parents had moved from Mississippi only a few months before. The oldest of three sisters, Naylor grew up and attended schools in New York. As a young person she was shy but was an avid reader. In high school, she immersed herself in such classic British authors as Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens, whose influences can be seen in Naylor’s writing.
The young Naylor also felt a strong sense of religious dedication. In 1968, after graduation from high school, she began working as a missionary for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose headquarters is in Brooklyn. She spent the next seven years as a missionary in New York, North Carolina, and Florida—travels that obviously provided materials for and influenced the settings of her novels. The strongest evidence of her early religious background might be the lingering fundamentalist outlook of her novels, wherein—for other reasons besides religion—characters are often divided into the redeemed or the damned.
In 1975, Naylor left the Jehovah’s Witnesses and returned to New York City, where she worked as a hotel telephone operator while attending Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. At Brooklyn College, Naylor...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In her novels, Naylor surveys contemporary black American life, ranging from an urban ghetto to an affluent suburb to a pristine southern island. While few white characters appear in her work, racism is a constant background factor, affecting the circumstances of black existence and the sense of black identity. Naylor also writes as a dedicated feminist who celebrates the lives and special powers of black women.
The male characters in Naylor’s work tend either to be demonized or emasculated. Whether Naylor’s doctrinaire feminism and her related tendency to write in grand, sweeping strokes will ultimately limit her development remains to be seen. Yet these same features help to account for a powerful, mythic quality in Naylor’s writing.
Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
The oldest child of parents who had migrated from Mississippi, Gloria Naylor was born and reared in New York City, her parents having left the South the year before her birth. An avid reader as a child, Naylor seemed to have inherited her passion for reading from her mother, a woman who would go to great lengths to purchase books to which she was denied access in Mississippi libraries because blacks were not allowed inside. The year Naylor graduated from high school, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, and the shock of this event caused Naylor to delay her college education. She chose instead to become a missionary for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York, North Carolina, and Florida. She eventually found missionary life too strict, but her zeal apparently carried over into her later feminism. Although her writings are not religious, a fundamentalist pattern of thinking pervades them. She tends to separate her characters into the sheep and the goats (the latter mostly men), the saved and the damned, with one whole book, Linden Hills, being modeled on Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320).
In high school Naylor read widely in the nineteenth century British novelists, but later in a creative writing course at Brooklyn College she came across the book that influenced her most—The Bluest Eye (1970), by the black American novelist Toni Morrison. The example of Morrison inspired Naylor to write fiction and to focus on the lives of black women, who Naylor felt were underrepresented (if not ignored) in American literature. Naylor began work on The Women of Brewster Place, which was published the year after her graduation from Brooklyn College with a bachelor of arts degree in English. By that time, Naylor was studying on a fellowship at Yale University, from which she received a master of arts degree in African American studies in 1983.
Naylor’s background and literary achievements won for her numerous invitations for lectureships or other appointments in academia. She held visiting posts at George Washington University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, New York University, Boston University, Brandeis, and Cornell. Diverse in her pursuits, Naylor wrote a stage adaptation of Bailey’s Café. She founded One Way Productions, an independent film company, and became involved in a literacy program in the Bronx. She settled in Brooklyn, New York.
When she gave her introverted daughter a journal from Woolworth’s, Gloria Naylor’s mother opened the door to writing. In high school, two experiences shaped Naylor’s emerging identity: nineteenth century English literature taught her that language can be a powerful tool, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 assassination turned her to missionary work. Instead of going to college, for the next seven years she traveled as a Jehovah’s Witness, abandoning the work in 1975, when she began to feel constrained by the lifestyle.
At Brooklyn College, her introduction to black history and the discovery of such literary foremothers as Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison gave her the inspiration to try writing herself. Completing her first novel, the best-seller The Women of Brewster Place, signified, she has indicated, her taking hold of herself and attempting to take her destiny into her own hands. After winning a scholarship to Yale University, Naylor discovered that, for her, graduate training was incompatible with writing fiction. She nevertheless completed a master’s degree in 1983, when the Afro-American Studies department allowed her second novel, Linden Hills, to fulfill the thesis requirement. Linden Hills illustrates the effects of materialism on an elite all-black community that lacks a spiritual center.
The central feature of all of Naylor’s novels is an enclosed black community where characters learn to embrace their identities in the context of place. Naylor’s powerful settings combine elements of the ordinary with the otherworldly, allowing for magical events and mythic resolutions. For example, Mama Day takes place on the imaginary island of Willow Springs and weaves the history of the Day family from the point of view of the powerful matriarch Mama Day, a conjure woman. Naylor’s own family history provides her with a rich sense of community, but she paradoxically treasures solitude. Married briefly, she refuses to remarry or have children and teaches writing to keep from being too much of a recluse. Naylor’s strength is portraying convincing multigenerational characters in specific settings.
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
In the 1980’s, Gloria Naylor became the newest voice in a tradition of black American woman writers that had begun with Zora Neale Hurston and later included Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Naylor was one of three daughters of Roosevelt Naylor, a subway conductor, and Alberta McAlpin Naylor, a telephone operator. Her parents, always hardworking, had been cotton sharecroppers in Robinson, Mississippi, before coming north to New York. After living for many years in Harlem, they eventually acquired a modest home in Queens. In 1968, when she was eighteen, Naylor turned down a college scholarship and left New York to travel throughout the rural South as a missionary for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For the next seven years, she went door-to-door preaching and distributing Bibles, as well as beginning to write.
Returning to New York City in 1975, Naylor took an assortment of odd jobs, mostly on hotel switchboards, to pay for her tuition at Brooklyn College. She married in 1980 and earned a B.A. in English in 1981. At one point she held down three switchboard jobs while taking classes and writing. Her stories began to appear in such magazines as Essence and Ms. As a result of friends having shown Naylor’s work to a secretary who worked for Cork Smith, then an editor for Viking Press, The Women of Brewster Place was published in 1982. The book, which was awarded the American Book Award for best first novel, was translated into at least five languages and adapted for television.
The Women of Brewster Place tells the story of several black women who live on a dead-end street in a housing project in an unnamed northern American city. The women include young and old, liberal and conservative, mothers and daughters, straight and gay. All, however, are poor, all suffer (many through the violence or neglect by the men in their lives), and all, through their strength, survive. Like other fiction by black women writers of the period, The Women of Brewster Place was criticized for presenting no positive male characters, but the criticism in this case was mild; clearly Naylor’s purpose in this work was to show the oppression and strength of women, and any male characters were secondary to that purpose.
Shortly before the book came out, Naylor began graduate studies at Yale University and completed a master’s degree in African...
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Born in 1950 Gloria Naylor was raised in New York by working-class parents. Her mother encouraged her to write when she began to exhibit creative ability at the age of seven. But when she graduated from high school, instead of attending college as her parents wished, she became a Jehovah's Witness, traveling through New York and the South from 1968 to 1975. After she returned to New York, she earned her degree in English from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York in 1981.
It was in college that she first learned about the rich tradition of African-American literature. She told Allison Gloch in 1993, "I was 27 years old before I knew Black women even wrote books." Her reading of Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker and others inspired her to begin writing herself. Her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, chronicled the lives of seven very different women living in an African-American community. The success of the novel immediately made her a prominent figure in the renaissance of African-American women writers. The following year, the novel won an American Book Award, and she received her M.A. in African-American Studies from Yale University. Her master's thesis became her second novel, Linden Hills (1985), which used Dante's Inferno as a thematic and structural guide for her explication of the moral downfall of well-to-do blacks who lose touch with their racial heritage.
Naylor's third novel, Mama Day, was her first to explore the experiences of African-Americans in the South. To write the novel, she drew on her parents' stories about living there and her own experiences as a Jehovah's Witness traveling the region. This novel was a culmination of her concern with the loss of identity and heritage suffered by contemporary urban African-Americans. The novel emanated, she told Michelle C. Loris in 1996, from her "belief in love and magic … I know that love can heal."
Naylor connects her writings by having the same characters appear in more than one novel. Mama Day first appeared in Linden Hills, and George's mother became a central character in Bailey's Cafe (1992). The Day family will reappear in a future novel, Sapphira Wade, she told Loris. In this book, "Cocoa comes back as an old woman. It's 2023." Naylor will also tell the stories of Bascombe and Sapphira Wade from 1817 to 1823. "Always in my head Sapphira Wade would be the cornerstone because she has been the guiding spirit for now close to twenty years, and now it's time to grapple with her," Naylor said. For Naylor, writing about the present and future African-American community means grappling with its past as well as the rich folklore, language, and tradition that have sustained it.
IntroductionGloria Naylor embraces being a black female writer, but she also laments that the label often results in a kind of literary segregation. For Naylor, literature is at its best when it recognizes all people, yet she astutely recognizes that her own identity is often used to keep her work (and the work of other African-American writers) in a niche separate from mainstream American (and predominantly white) fiction. Her novel The Women of Brewster Place uses pastiche as a means toward exploring the lives of a group of African-American women. The novel is a series of rich, interconnected stories. And while they are by no means intended to represent all African-American women, Naylor’s stories add their voices to the American canon.
- Education has played an important role in Gloria Naylor’s life. In addition to being a graduate of Yale, she has taught at New York University, Boston University, and Cornell.
- Faith and spirituality are also key influences in Naylor’s life and work. She joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses when she was eighteen.
- Naylor’s breakout success, the novel The Women of Brewster Place, was completed while she was still studying at Yale.
- The Women of Brewster Place has had many lives. The novel was released in the early 1980s, and Oprah Winfrey turned it into a miniseries at the end of that decade. In 2007, the novel was adapted as stage musical.
- The popularity of The Women of Brewster Place spurred Naylor to write a follow-up, appropriately titled The Men of Brewster Place.