Gloria Naylor 1950-
American novelist, editor, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Naylor's career through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 28 and 52.
Naylor is recognized for her moving stories of African-American women, particularly in her novel The Women of Brewster Place (1982). Known for her lyrical prose and her skillful infusion of the mythical and magical in her novels, Naylor realistically portrays the varied lives of African Americans, particularly her examinations of the dual pressures of being a minority and a woman in a Caucasian, male-oriented society. Naylor also is adept at using classics of European literature and transforming them to fit the African-American experience. For example, she has used Dante's Inferno in Linden Hills (1985), Shakespeare's The Tempest in Mama Day (1988), and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in Bailey's Cafe (1992). Naylor also draws on African-American literary and creative traditions in her novels.
Naylor's parents, Roosevelt and Alberta, were sharecroppers in Robinson, Mississippi. They moved to New York City one month before Naylor was born on January 25, 1950. Naylor's mother insisted that none of her children would be born in the South because she wanted them to have access to libraries and an education. Naylor attended Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, New York. Upon graduation she became a Jehovah's Witness missionary for seven years, and later returned to New York in 1975 to pursue a degree in nursing at Medgar Evers College. When Naylor recognized her strong interest in literature, she transferred to Brooklyn College to study English. While studying at Brooklyn College, Naylor published her first short story, “A Life on Beekman Place,” in Essence. She later expanded the story into her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, which won the American Book Award for best new novel in 1983. She received her B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1981 and her M.A. in African-American studies from Yale in 1983. In 1983 she also received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. In addition to her writing, Naylor has taught literature and lectured at several American universities, including New York University, George Washington University, the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, Cornell University, and the University of Kent in Canterbury, England.
One of the recurring themes explored in Naylor's work is the special bond that can exist between women, whether out of common experience or of shared history. In The Women of Brewster Place, Naylor chronicles the aspirations and disappointments of seven female residents of Brewster Place, a dilapidated ghetto housing project located in an unidentified northern city. Naylor devotes individual chapters to the lives of each of her characters, detailing the circumstances that brought the women to the neighborhood, their relationships with each other, and the devastating events that heighten the difficulty of leaving Brewster Place. As the women cope with living in a racially polarized and sexist society, they also encounter abuse and indifference from their fathers, husbands, lovers, and children. To alleviate these conditions, Naylor advocates female solidarity and nurturing. In Linden Hills Naylor abandons the gritty realism of her first novel for an allegorical commentary on the fallacies of upward mobility and material success. Linden Hills, an exclusive suburb located near Brewster Place, is run by the malevolent Luther Nedeed. A real estate tycoon and mortician, Nedeed is a descendant of a man who founded the community during the 1830s by selling his wife and six children into slavery. While his ancestors developed Linden Hills into an affluent suburb, intending to showcase the economic and educational achievements of African Americans, Nedeed has turned his forefather's aspirations into a perverse legacy in which prospective residents must forfeit their heritage and sell their humanity to obtain a home. The novel is an indictment of the African-American middle class that sacrifices their racial identity for material success. One of the things lost in the Linden Hills neighborhood is a feeling of community, especially of sisterhood among the women. The only bond felt between women is the suffering that Luther's wife, Willa, discovers she shares with the Nedeed women who preceded her. Mama Day is set in Willow Springs, an all-black island community located off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, which is legally independent from both states. Willow Springs was founded by Sapphira Wade, an African slave and sorceress who married and later murdered her owner after forcing him to bequeath his land to his slaves and their offspring. The novel centers on two of Sapphira's descendents—Mama Day, the elderly leader of Willow Springs, who possesses mystical healing powers, and Cocoa, Mama Day's strong-willed grandniece, who lives in New York City but returns to Willow Springs every summer. The novel's chapters alternate between a summation by Cocoa and her husband, George, of their stormy courtship and marriage and the narration of an unnamed island resident who relates the story of Willow Springs and its two legendary matriarchs. The elements of sisterhood in this novel rely on shared history, family, and a connection to folk tradition. Bailey's Cafe centers on a magical diner that people are drawn to when they are in trouble and nearly hopeless. Next to Bailey's Cafe is Eve's Place, a boardinghouse of women run by the mother-figure Eve, who helps to heal the residents of their wounds, typically inflicted by the men in their lives. Naylor combines first- and third-person narration to depict the desperate patrons of the Brooklyn diner in the years following World War II. Through their stories of loss and survival, Naylor movingly captures African American life in New York City during the late 1940s. The novel owes much of its structure and style to the influence of blues music. With The Men of Brewster Place Naylor returned to the setting of her first novel, but focuses instead on the men in the Brewster community. Their stories include a sharecropper who allowed his wife to sell his daughter for more land, a gang member who is pressured into murder, an adoptive father disenchanted when his hopes fail to materialize, and a minister who betrays his spiritual beliefs for political office and power.
Many critics have compared Naylor's work to that of other African-American female writers, including Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Critics have viewed Naylor's work as a part of a female African-American writing movement of the 1980s. Reviewers have praised Naylor's ability to portray the lives of African-American women without reducing them to stereotypes or claiming to have represented “the” African-American experience. Roz Kaveney stated, “In her first three novels, Gloria Naylor described urban African-American life with a graceful vigor that transcended, but did not discard polemic; she found ways of portraying the lives of individuals, and in particular of women, who were damaged and scarred, but not overwhelmed, by racial and sexual oppression.” Many reviewers have discussed Naylor's work in terms of her reliance on and subversion of traditional literary works. For example, critics have noted the similarities between the nine rings of the neighborhood in Linden Hills and the nine circles of hell in Dante's Inferno. Reviewers have also found a rich influence of African-American fiction and other creative forms, including jazz and blues music in Naylor's work. Several reviewers, however, were not as impressed with Bailey's Cafe as they had been with Naylor's previous three novels, arguing that the work's episodic structure lacked a unifying element and that the magical elements were too improbable. In her review of Bailey's Cafe Donna Rifkind explained, “Naylor's is a commanding fictional voice: sonorous, graceful, sometimes piercing, often spellbinding. At its best, it's the kind of voice that moves you along as if you were dreaming. But it runs the risk, at its worst, of overpowering the voices of her own carefully imagined characters.” Critics have pointed out that Naylor has carefully created a canon of related novels with elements and characters that reoccur from book to book. Paula Barnes noted the common elements found in Naylor's first four novels: “a scathing yet quiet criticism of American racism, allegorical commentary, fusion of the epic and natural, and suspension of reality.” Many critics have commented that Naylor has created an important place for herself in the canon of American literature by demonstrating her ability to bring to life a segment of the population which has often been ignored in literature.