Awards earned by Thylias Moss, who became an English professor at the University of Michigan in 1992, include a Guggenheim, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, and a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1996. Born Thylias Rebecca Brasier, Moss was the daughter of Calvin Brasier, a tire recapper, and Florida Brasier, a housekeeper. With their adored only child, the Brasiers lived in an attic apartment owned by the Feldmans, a Jewish couple who treated Thylias as though she was their own grandchild.
After the Feldmans sold the house, the thirteen-year-old daughter of the new owners, Lytta, baby-sat for the young Thylias and treated her with extreme cruelty, a fact the youngster never told her parents. Lytta victimized her physically, verbally, and sexually, forcing darkness into an otherwise idyllic childhood. It is this relationship that forms the focus of Moss’s memoir, Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress.
Moss started school at Louis Pasteur Elementary School, a friendly, racially mixed school where her intelligence and gifted violin playing were encouraged. She sometimes led the class, contributed to discussions, wrote plays and poems, and eagerly played the violin. When she was nine, her family moved to a primarily white neighborhood. At the Benjamin Franklin School in her new neighborhood, she was treated indifferently and denied a school-issued violin as well as attendance in the accelerated classes she had been in previously. She grew resentful, withdrawn, and sullen but found solace in writing.
Moss attributes her remarkable ear for poetry to regular church attendance, where she first became aware of the power of the spoken word. Apparently what she learned stayed with her; her poetry readings, which encourage audience participation and use many voices, are popular and widely known. (In 1991 she won the annual Dewar’s Profiles Performance Artist Award in poetry.)
It was also in church that she met her husband, John Moss, who was in military service and later became a University of Michigan administrator. They married when she was nineteen and eventually...
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