January 25: Novelist Gloria Naylor Was Born on This Day in 1950

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By Victor Trammell

Photo credits: The Gloria Naylor Archive

Gloria Naylor’s life began on January 25, 1950, in New York City. Naylor was the eldest child of Roosevelt and Alberta McAlpin Naylor.

Naylor graduated from a New York City high school in 1968. (the Bronx, Harlem, and Queens). That same year, she joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses and started missionary work —- initially in New York City and later in North Carolina and Florida. Naylor supported herself by finding employment as a switchboard operator. She left the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1975 and moved to New York City, where she got an English degree from the City University of New York-Brooklyn College in 1981. Around this time, Naylor’s short tale “A Life on Beekman Place” gained national attention after being published in Essence Magazine.

She finished “The Women of Brewster Place” in 1981 and used the check her publishing company advanced to go to Cadiz and Tangier to begin writing on her second novel, “Linden Hills.”  “In 1981, she enrolled at Yale University to obtain a Master’s degree in African American Studies and continued working on “Linden Hills” as a thesis project under the leadership of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Naylor graduated in 1983. “The Women of Brewster Place,” published in 1982, follows the interwoven lives of black women living in a tenement in New York City. Naylor’s novel earned the National Book Award for Best First Novel in 1983. She has been honored with numerous honors, awards, and appointments, including writer-in-residence at Cummington Community of the Arts (1983), a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship (1985), a membership with the United States Information Agency as a delegate to India (1985), and visiting academic appointments at George Washington University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, New York University, and Boston University.

From her townhouse in Brooklyn, Naylor published her second novel, “Linden Hills,” in 1985 and her third novel, “Mama Day,” in 1988. Naylor received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1988 and was named a Senior Fellow of Cornell University’s Society for the Humanities in 1989. Naylor published her fourth novel, “Bailey’s Cafe,” in 1992 and then worked as a visiting writer at the University of Kent Following the publication of “Bailey’s Cafe,” Naylor began working on her fifth novel, which was a historical fiction about Sapphira Wade, the mythical ancestor of the “Mama Day” characters. She conducted research in the western Sahel and Scandinavia in 1993. During this same period, Naylor also worked as an editor, contributing to and editing “Children of the Night: The Best Short Short Stories by African American Writers, 1967 to the Present (1996),” a sequel to Langston Hughes’ 1967 “Best Short Stories by African American Writers.”

Naylor worked as a writer and producer on theatrical, film, and television projects in addition to her novels. Oprah Winfrey adapted Naylor’s “The Women of Brewster Place” into a two-part television miniseries in 1989, and the book’s characters sparked a brief weekly television series in 1990. In 1990, Naylor established her own film production company so she could have more creative control over adaptations of her work. Naylor wanted to turn “Mama Day” into a feature picture via this company, One Way Productions, by going through many screenplay changes and reaching out to directors and actors. Despite Naylor’s efforts, “Mama Day” was never converted into a film. This was also the case with a number of other screenplays she wrote, including an episode of a children’s television show and a drama on the plight of women held at the infamous Parchman jail. However, In 1994, Novella Nelson directed a production of Naylor’s Bailey’s Cafe at Connecticut’s Hartford Stage. In 2000, Naylor discontinued the operation of One Way Productions.

Gloria Naylor sold her Brooklyn, New York home and moved to a New York City suburb in 2009. She died of heart failure on September 28, 2016, at her residence in Christiansted, St. Croix.

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