Gloria Naylor, "The Meanings of a Word"
Gloria Naylor (1950- ) was born in New York City and earned a B.A. from Brooklyn College, CUNY in 1981 and an M.A. from Yale University in 1983. She's been a missionary for the Jehovah's Witnesses, worked as a hotel switchboard operator, and has taught at various colleges and universities including Princeton, Brandeis, and Cornell. Her novels are often interconnected, and display strong spirituality as they examine urban African American experience. They include The Women of Brewster Place (1982), Mama Day (1988), and The Men of Brewster Place (1998). Naylor's work has also appeared in periodicals such as Southern Review, Callaloo, and the New York Times. Among her honors and awards, Naylor has won National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships and two American Book Awards. "The Meanings of a Word" turns a painful memory into a meditation on how a positive, like-minded group can overcome narrowness and hate. It was first published in the New York Times in 1986.
Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1950. Education: Brooklyn College, New York, B.A. in English 1981; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1981-83, M.A. in Afro-American Studies 1983. Career: Missionary for the Jehovah's Witnesses, New York, North Carolina, and Florida, 1968-75; telephone operator, New York City hotels, 1975-81. Writer-in-residence, Cummington Community of the Arts, Massachusetts, Summer 1983; visiting professor, George Washington University, Washington, D.C., 1983-84, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1986, New York University, 1986, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1986-87, and Boston University, 1987; Fannie Hurst Visiting Professor, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1988; United States Information Agency Cultural Exchange Lecturer, India, Fall 1985. Columnist, New York Times, 1986. Since 1988 judge, Book-of-the-Month Club. Awards: American Book award, 1983; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1985; Guggenheim fellowship, 1988.
I think of The Women of Brewster Place as a love letter to the black women of America—a celebration of their strength and endurance. Linden Hills is a cautionary tale—an example of the drastic results if a people forsake their ethnocentric identity under the pressure to assimilate into a mainstream society and seek its rewards.
* * *
Gloria Naylor has written several original and absorbing novels, among them The Women of Brewster Place: A Novel in Seven Stories (which won the American Book award for best first writing in 1983), Linden Hills, and Mama Day. Naylor's success lies, in part, in the intensity of her presentation of such social issues as poverty, racism, discrimination against homosexuals, the unequal treatment of women, the value of a sense of community among blacks, and the failure of some upper middle-class educated blacks to address racial problems and social injustice.
The Women of Brewster Place has a simple structure. Most of the scenes take place in the decaying apartment complex, Brewster Place. The dwellers expect to go nowhere else. The brick wall that closed their street several years earlier now separates them from the rest of the city and symbolizes their psychological and spiritual isolation. In the closing pages of the novel, one woman removes a brick that she thinks is stained with the blood of a resident recently gang-raped and left to die. Impulsively, the other women join her and collectively they tear down the wall, experiencing as they do so an inner regeneration, a sense of community and solidarity, and a rebirth of hope.
The novel includes seven narratives, each focusing on a woman and illuminating her present situation while abundant flashbacks recapitulate her earlier experience. The dominant woman in one chapter appears as a less important figure in several others, so that the entire book, consisting of related though not always consecutive episodes, emerges as a novel rather than as a collection of stories only. While each of the narratives has its own climax, the book builds toward the most threatening crises faced by the Brewster Place community: Ciel's starving herself almost to death in grief for her lost child, the antagonism that builds against two lesbian tenants, and the rape-murder of Lorraine, the lesbian elementary school teacher who has tried to help Kiswana (an idealistic radical) establish a closely organized community among the tenants. Through the suffering of Ciel and that of Lorraine, the other women achieve a new understanding of one another and deepened insight into the problems that confront them individually and collectively. The work considered as a novel gains unity through Naylor's use of a single setting, her concentration upon a small number of women in each narrative, her analysis of the major threats to the community in the tragedies of Ciel and Lorraine, and her resort to rituals of healing in which the characters join each other in expressing their human concern in acts rather than in words.
In Linden Hills Naylor again confines her scenes to one location, but her tone and outlook are more sardonic and pessimistic. In her castigation of middle-class black society, Naylor here finds little hope for renewal of spiritual values or for a development of communal responsibility or identity among the residents. Linden Hills blacks are ambitious and selfish; the richer ones live close to the bottom of the hillside; and richest of all is Luther Nedeed. For five generations Luther Nedeed has controlled Linden Hills real estate and also been the local mortician. Next to the Nedeed home and morgue lies the cemetery. The Nedeed wives in each generation have been so deprived of affection and companionship by their "frog-eyed" husbands that they looked forward finally only to death.
Linden Hills has a far more intricate narrative structure than Naylor's first novel. Two young poets, Willie and Lester, in the six days before Christmas earn gift money doing odd jobs. Most of the action is seen through their eyes, except for flashbacks related to the past experiences of the householders who employ them. As they journey further down the hillside each day, they encounter death, suicide, hypocrisy, exploitation, and treachery. The poets agonize and rage over the people who are living a meaningless, deathlike existence.
An additional narrative line appears in "inserts" in the text that interrupt the narration of the experiences of Willie and Lester during this week. The lines addressed directly to the reader reveal secret horrors unknown to Willie and Lester. Luther Nedeed, dissatisfied with the light skin of his infant son, has banished his wife, Willa, and their infant to his abandoned basement morgue, and he begins lowering food and water to her only after the infant has starved to death. In her desperate isolation, Willa searches for any sign of humanity. From day to day she discovers—and furtively reads—the secret notes recorded in diaries, letters, Bibles, and recipe books by the wives of Nedeed men since 1837. Sharing their tales of abuse, she feels their presence with her and gains strength to climb the stairs on Christmas Eve, carrying her dead son, and to confront her husband. At that moment the decorated tree bursts into flame and in the inferno that follows all traces of the Nedeeds disappear. No neighbor bothers to assist them or even to sound an alarm.
Naylor uses Dante's journey through the lower world in the symbolism that gives additional coherence and depth to the multiple plots. The powerful in Linden Hills resist spiritual illumination and prefer a life in Hell to a life in Paradise. They illustrate the principle underlying Dante's vision of those who inhabit the netherworld, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." Naylor's work demonstrates that in hell all malefactors are concerned only with their own suffering, rather than with their guilt. Blacks in Linden Hills have the wealth and resources to attain self-awareness, love, and grace, but they are actually far less receptive to the promptings of the spirit than the poor women in Brewster Place, who are capable of spiritual illumination and conversion to a regenerate existence.
Naylor's third novel, Mama Day, shows a continued progression in her boldly imagined fiction. It recounts a love story of a good marriage that was sometimes far from calm, and it presents for the first time in her novels a kind, responsible, and interesting husband. Ophelia and George Andrews work in a small Manhattan engineering office and hesitantly fall in love, frequently fight, and finally learn to listen to each other by taking turns expressing themselves in long monologues. This continues even after one is in a grave and the other is sitting next to the grave. The novel speaks of the death in the early pages and what one might hear in the cemetery. The courtship and marriage are thus recounted for the reader after the marriage has been broken by death. They recall memories of the details of arguments, happy events, and of their childhood. The alternate passages in the book develop a kind of antiphonal poetry, with long questions and long answers. The love story is told in first person by the two narrators in alternating sections. Only occasionally and when another person appears in the story does the third-person omniscient narrator speak. The connected monologues begin in New York City and end in Willow Springs, a sea island where Ophelia (also called Cocoa and Baby Girl) was raised by her grandmother, Abigail, and her great-aunt, Miranda (Mama Day). George, abandoned as an infant in New York, grew up in a shelter for boys. He has learned to stress intellectuality and insist upon reason and provable facts. Cocoa values not only what she has been taught in college but also the folk wisdom of Mama Day and Abigail, their intuition, but not their connection with magic, conjure, or hexes.
The island of Willow Springs is connected by a bridge to both Georgia and South Carolina but is not a part of either state. The latter three-fourths of the novel takes place at Willow Springs. Most of the action in Willow Springs is narrated in the first-person voice of Mama Day, as are the philosophical or spiritual messages that Naylor seeks to convey. During their summer visit to the island both Cocoa and George are forced to compromise and both develop greater understanding. Cocoa, after violent confrontation and deadly illness, finds less need to insist on her own way. George, with greater difficulty, begins to acknowledge some kind of faith in Mama Day's power to heal and to respect both nature and the supernatural.
The folkways, celebrations, and eccentricities of the populace on the island provide an intriguing sequence of events, but the novel ends chaotically with a hurricane and flood that confuses intricate lines of the plots and their intersection. While the extensive symbolism leads the reader to search for mythic and universal truth in the novel, Naylor raises as many questions as answers. Although the "Candle Walk," in which the villagers march to the bridge carrying lighted candles, is impressive, no one knows why they observe it. They know that something happened to free their ancestors in 1823, but are unsure how a slave named Sapphira Wade was able to marry the slave owner, get him to sign papers freeing all his slaves on the island, and then murder him. Mama Day and Abigail recognize that Baby Girl is a descendant of Sapphira and accept her aggressive and stubborn nature as inevitable, but they are concerned that she and George will never find peace.
In making a quilt for their wedding present, they consider protecting her by not including pieces of cloth that belonged to "contrary" women—only using remnants from women who were sheltered and timid. But they decide against this, because Mama Day thinks the broad experience of life is to be treasured rather than avoided. While they include scraps of cloth from women who broke men's hearts and who never found inner peace, they also choose a quilt pattern that is composed of interlocking rings, suggesting the support one woman needs from other women. Mama Day is supported by the community in the gift-giving that follows the Candle Walk. In recognition of the old woman's healing, midwifery, and sage advice throughout the past year, the people bring her provisions of every sort to be stored to last all through the next year.
But if the Candle Walk activities suggest an idyllic black community, Naylor negates this impression with her stories of vengeance, hexes, and curses and makes clear that the people consult not only Mama Day but also her rival in advising and healing—a man who is a fraud, a bootlegger, and a card shark. Mama Day's thoughts are shadowed by grief for her mother, who drowned herself, and Mama Day is responsible late in the story for the violent murder of a jealous woman who has poisoned Cocoa. George, though drawn to the family and community, values his urban life and job and seeks to swim through the flood to return "beyond the bridge." If less carefully structured than Naylor's earlier novels, Mama Day is a rich and powerful novel that shows the influence of both Toni Morrison and Alice Walker in venturing beyond the natural into suggestions of the power of the supernatural and the spirit.
Bailey's Café is a place where a variety of people, each incomplete or hurting in his or her own way, come to find completion. Like a speakeasy, to enter it requires use of a code, but here the code is the blues, and Naylor has structured the novel like a sort of blues symphony. This polyphonic quality returns in The Men of Brewster Place, a sequel to The Women of Brewster Place that brings back the character of Ben, a janitor from the earlier novel, as both narrator and chorus.