Terry McMillan Additional Biography


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Terry McMillan was born on October 18, 1951, in Port Huron, Michigan, to Madeline Washington Tillman, a domestic and auto factory worker, and Edward Lewis McMillan, a blue-collar worker. Her father suffered from tuberculosis and was in a sanitarium during his daughter’s early years. The family included four other children, three girls and a boy. When McMillan was thirteen years old, her parents divorced, so she was essentially raised by her mother, a single parent.

McMillan’s interest in writing began when, at age sixteen, she worked at a library and became an avid reader of such authors as Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, and Thomas Mann. When she discovered works by African American writer James Baldwin, she realized that black people could be authors, too. At age seventeen, she moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in an African American literature class at Los Angeles City College. There she studied the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Jean Toomer, and, most significant, Ann Petry; Petry’s novel The Street (1946), which depicts a black heroine’s existence in a harsh urban environment, had an impact on McMillan’s earliest writing.

McMillan’s first efforts at writing were in poetry, and when she was in college, some of her poems were published in campus newspapers. Her formal education included courses in journalism taken at the University of California at Berkeley. Then,...

(The entire section is 575 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Terry McMillan, who became known for her insightful inquiry into urban African American life, was born into a working-class family about sixty miles northeast of Detroit, Michigan. Her father, Edward McMillan, suffered from tuberculosis and was often absent from the family because he needed prolonged institutional care. When McMillan was thirteen, her parents divorced; two years later, her father died. Her mother, Madeline Washington Tilman, worked in a variety of odd jobs to support her five children.

As the eldest sibling, much of the familial responsibility fell to McMillan, and as a teenager, she accepted a job in a local library, shelving books. It was an experience that determined her future path, for in the library she discovered not only the pleasures of reading but also the rich heritage of African American literature.

At the age of seventeen Terry McMillan enrolled at Los Angeles City College; she subsequently transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. During her years at Berkeley, McMillan participated in a workshop with the poet Ishmael Reed, who encouraged her to pursue a career in writing. McMillan joined the staff of Black Thoughts, an African American campus newspaper, and published her first short story, “The End.” In 1979 she received a B.S. degree in journalism.

After college McMillan moved to New York and enrolled in a graduate program at Columbia University. She continued to write and became a member of the Harlem Writers’ Guild. During one meeting of the guild, she read a short story that she eventually expanded into her autobiographical first novel, Mama.

Mama, whose protagonist, Mildred Peacock, is a thinly veiled portrait of McMillan’s own mother, depicts a black family’s experiences during the turbulent era of the l960’s and 1970’s. At its core it concerns the irrepressible strength of the main character. The novel could be characterized as twentieth century picaresque, for Mildred Peacock is something of a rogue, doing what she must do to survive and being unrepentant in the end.

McMillan undertook her own promotional campaign for Mama to supplement that of the publishers. She mailed more than three thousand personal letters to book sellers and universities, suggesting that they purchase the volume and...

(The entire section is 964 words.)