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 American studies in 1983. While at Yale, she completed her second novel, Linden Hills,...
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