On September 28, Gloria Naylor passed away from heart failure. She was 66 years old and one of the greatest literary voices in American history. She was best known for her book, Women of Brewster (adapted into a 1989 television miniseries starring Oprah Winfrey, Cicely Tyson, and Robin Givens), which earned her the 1983 National Book Award for First Fiction.
In Women of Brewster, Naylor not only made black women the protagonists but she placed their experiences at the center of the narrative. Unearthing diverse black female voices and experiences that spanned generations, Women of Brewster taught readers about black love, familial bonds, cultural aesthetic right alongside issues of poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
I read Naylor’s work before I learned of Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought, Darlene Clark Hine’s Shining Thread of Hope or Deborah Gray White’s Too Heavy A Load – all books that would help to shape my thinking and inform my decision to pursue a PhD in History and become a scholar-activist.
I was a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff when I introduced myself to Naylor. I had been inducted into the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society that year and our advisor encouraged us to submit a paper for the society’s annual conference. I went straight to the public library and I searched through the array of books in the fiction section. I stopped when I spotted Naylor’s Linden Hills. Though I don’t remember why, the book jumped out at me. When I proceeded to read the back cover and the first few pages, I knew I had found the perfect book for which I would base my first ever conference paper.
What I did not know at the time is that I had found my favorite author, whose words would shape my views on feminism and shatter my previously held views about gender roles. Through Linden Hills, Naylor provided me with the standards for my life mate and informed my thinking on what it meant to be in a committed relationship. In the book, Willa Prescott Nedeed married Luther Nedeed and literally lost her identity. Naylor showed how the pressure for educated and successful black women to marry—and the societal expectations about exactly the kind of person these women should marry—led Willa to give up her own needs, her sanity, and eventually her life.
In the book, Naylor makes it clear that Willa was in a long line of Nedeed women who were taken as brides only for procreation to produce a male heir. Yet when Willa gave birth to a boy and the legitimacy was in question, she was shunned and locked in the basement. After reading the diaries of all the Needed wives who had come before her, Willa realized that her experience was crafted by a legacy of male control. She then started a fire that led to her death.
After reading Linden Hills, I decided that I would keep my last name and not change it when I marry. Through Naylor’s words, I learned that women were taught to view their last name as a shameful symbol of unmarried status (hence the label “maiden name”). Naylor highlighted the danger in this thinking and framed the loss of a woman’s last name in marriage as a loss of identity. In Linden Hills, Naylor positioned Willa as a cautionary tale for female submission – a loss of independence and autonomy.
After reading Linden Hills, I read every book Gloria Naylor wrote and every book affirmed my love for her and her masterful storytelling. In Mama Day, I was struck by her creation of a black gynocentric world that criticized the medical industry and declared “black girl magic” long before this concept was in the popular imagination. In Women of Brewster Place, Naylor told the diverse and uncensored stories of black women. In 1996, she offered a fictionalized account of her being spied on by the NSA—raising critical questions for readers about the meaning of American civil liberties in an era of increased government surveillance.
Then in 2007, shortly after having my second son, my mother called me to inform me that Naylor was coming to speak at my alma mater. I could not believe it! With encouragement from my life mate, I flew to Arkansas to meet her. Amidst the small gathering in the fine arts auditorium, I listened to her speak and eagerly awaited the moment when I could finally meet her face-to-face.
Immediately after the talk ended, I approached Naylor and told her that she was my favorite author. I also shared with her that her writings had planted the seeds of black feminism in my thinking. When I told her these things, she smiled and at the following luncheon, she autographed each copy of my book and even the poster for the event–which now hangs proudly on my office wall.
Being in the same room with Naylor was a dream come true.
Rest well, Gloria Naylor. Now you are at peace.
Kami Fletcher is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Delaware State University. She received a Ph.D. in History from Morgan State University in 2013. Her research centers on African American burial grounds, Black towns, and early 20th century Black female undertakers. Follow her on Twitter @.permission.