Rosa Cuthbert Guy (gee) immigrated from Trinidad with her parents and sister to Harlem at the age of seven. Her mother died when she was nine, and Guy, after living with an aunt for a time, was raised by her demanding father, who seems to have closely resembled Phylissia Cathy’s irascible father in The Friends. Guy’s father died when she was fifteen. Of her experiences growing up on the streets of New York, Guy later wrote: “Before my eyes many dramas unfolded, dramas which out-Dickensed Dickens, and equaled if not rivaled the Brontë sisters in passion.” In 1941, Rosa Cuthbert married Warner Guy, with whom she had one son, also named Warner. Rosa and Warner Guy were divorced in 1950, and he was killed in 1962.
Guy studied at New York University and with the American Negro Theater, where her frustration with the limitations on roles for black actors, along with a larger anger at what she calls “the obvious flaw woven into the fabric of this democratic society” led to her beginning to write. In 1951, together with John Killens, Guy founded the influential Harlem Writers Guild. In addition to her activities as an anthropologist and writer, she also participated in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, both in New York and in the South.
Guy has written for children and for adults, but her best-known works are her trilogy for young adults consisting of The Friends, Ruby, and Edith Jackson. The Friends is the story of Phylissia Cathy, a West Indian teenager who is transplanted to Harlem, where she is at first shunned by her African American classmates because of her accent and her interest in her schoolwork; eventually Edith Jackson, one of the poorest and least sophisticated girls in the school, defends her and stops the others from hurting her. Although Phylissia and Edith form a kind of friendship, Phylissia secretly agrees with her father, who condemns Edith for being dirty and from an unacceptably low social class. When Phylissia’s mother dies, the tension between Phylissia and her sometimes violent father increases. Finally Phylissia reaches out to Edith and finds that their friendship may survive despite the passage of time and disastrous changes in both their lives.
The second novel in the trilogy, Ruby, deals with Phylissia’s older sister, who was always considered prettier and more compliant than Phylissia, and with Ruby’s increasing alienation from her family after her mother’s death. The third novel of the trilogy, Edith Jackson, picks up Edith’s story after her father has abandoned the family, her brother has been killed by the police, and her baby sister, whom she had been caring for, has died. Edith hopes—unsuccessfully—to keep her remaining sisters together as a family. When she becomes pregnant, however, Edith decides to have an abortion, realizing that she cannot take responsibility for a baby.
The three novels of the trilogy present a bleak vision of the urban life of African Americans, which is attributed to flaws in family structures, the school system, and society. Guy is at her best when she explores character, as she does in her first young adult novels, and she has been praised for her depiction of real life and for her exploration of urban African American family life. In New Guys Around the Block, the second novel in a second trilogy that also includes The Disappearance and And I Heard a Bird Sing , the protagonist, a sixteen-year-old Harlem resident named Imamu Jones, tries to convince his alcoholic mother to stop drinking; at the same time, he gradually...
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realizes that a charming and articulate friend is responsible for a series of burglaries in a nearby white neighborhood—as well as for the beating suffered by a friend of Imamu, for which Imamu himself has been accused.
Guy is less successful in such novels as The Music of Summer, in which she explores the relationship between an upper-class, light-skinned African American teenager and her former best friend, whom she looks down on because of the friend’s much darker skin. Invited along with her former friend’s family on a vacation to Cape Cod, the darker-skinned protagonist is nearly drowned by her former friend and several other light-skinned teens when they tease her while she swims alone in the ocean for the first time. Although the suggestion of near-mob violence toward the protagonist is menacing and compelling, the characters remain one-dimensional, their motivations unexplained.
Guy’s best-known adult novel, My Love, My Love, draws on a Dutch fable about a mermaid and a sailor: A poor young girl rescues a prince from death, and he falls in love with her for a short time. In 1990, the novel was made into the Off-Broadway musical Once on This Island. In another adult novel, The Sun, the Sea, a Touch of the Wind, a black woman who has been a successful artist suffers a nervous breakdown and flees to Haiti in the 1970’s.