Gloria Naylor (1950-2016) is best known for her beloved novels—The Women of Brewster Place, Linden Hills, Mama Day, Bailey’s Café, The Men of Brewster Place, and 1996—but her aesthetic and intellectual projects encompassed a range of forms. She was also an essayist, a teacher, a film producer, a screenwriter and playwright, an active correspondent, and a teacher, scholar, and archivist of twentieth-century Black life.
Naylor was born on January 25th, 1950 in New York City, the eldest of Roosevelt and Alberta McAlpin Naylor’s three daughters. Raised in New York City (the Bronx, Harlem, and Queens), Naylor graduated from high school in 1968. She was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness that same year and did missionary work first in New York City and later in North Carolina and Florida, supporting herself as a switchboard operator. She left the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1975 and returned to New York City, where she graduated from CUNY-Brooklyn College in 1981, with a degree in English. While she was still a student at Brooklyn College, Naylor’s short story, “A Life on Beekman Place,” was accepted for publication in Essence magazine.
Building on her first publishing success, Gloria Naylor finished writing her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, in 1981 and used her advance to travel to Cadiz and Tangier, where she began work on her second novel, Linden Hills. She started a Master’s Degree in African American Studies at Yale University in 1981 and continued to work on Linden Hills as a thesis project, under the supervision of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; she graduated in 1983. The Women of Brewster Place, which recounts the interconnected lives of Black women living in a New York City apartment building, was published in 1982. It received the National Book Award for best first novel in 1983. Numerous honors, awards, and appointments followed for Gloria Naylor, including writer-in-residence at Cummington Community of the Arts (1983), fellow with National Endowment for the Arts (1985), delegation member on a United States Information Agency trip to India (1985), and visiting academic appointments at George Washington University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, New York University, and Boston University.
Working from her brownstone in Brooklyn, Naylor published her second novel, Linden Hills, in 1985, and her third novel, Mama Day, in 1988. With three acclaimed novels in print, Naylor was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and appointed as a Senior Fellow in the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University in 1988. Naylor published her fourth novel, Bailey’s Cafe, in 1992, and subsequently served as a visiting writer at the University of Kent. Following the publication of Bailey’s Cafe, Gloria Naylor began work on what she originally planned to be her fifth book, a historical novel about Sapphira Wade, the legendary ancestor of the main characters in Mama Day; she took two research trips in 1993—to the western Sahel and to Scandinavia. During this period, Naylor did editorial work as well, as a contributing editor at and as editor of Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by African American Writers, 1967 to the Present (1996), an update to Langston Hughes’s 1967 Best Short Stories by Negro Writers.
In 1995, Naylor went to her home on St. Helena Island, off the coast of South Carolina, intending to spend a year focused on writing her novel, Sapphira Wade. Changing her plans, she returned to her home in Brooklyn and wrote The Men of Brewster Place, which was published in 1998. In 2005, Naylor published a “fictionalized memoir,” entitled 1996, which describes the racism and experiences of surveillance that drove her from St. Helena Island. Between 2004 and 2006, Naylor returned to Sapphira Wade and completed a draft of the novel’s first section.
In addition to her novels, Gloria Naylor pursued theatrical, filmmaking, and television projects, as both a writer and producer. In 1989, Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place was adapted as a two-part television miniseries with Oprah Winfrey, and characters from the novel inspired a short-lived weekly television series in 1990. Seeking to maintain more creative control over adaptations of her work, Naylor founded her own film production company in 1990. Through this company, One Way Productions, Naylor sought to produce Mama Day as a film, working through numerous drafts of a screenplay and reaching out to filmmakers and actors. Despite her efforts, Mama Day was never realized on the screen, and neither were several other screenplays that Naylor wrote, including an episode of a children’s show and a drama about the experiences of incarcerated women at Parchman prison. Naylor also wrote for the theatre; in 1994, Naylor’s adaptation of Bailey’s Cafe was performed at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut, directed by Novella Nelson. Naylor shut down One Way Productions in 2000.
Gloria Naylor sold her Brooklyn brownstone and moved away from New York City in 2009. She died of heart failure near her home in Christiansted, St. Croix on September 28, 2016.
Fowler, Virginia. Gloria Naylor: In Search of Sanctuary. Twayne Publishers, 1996.
Montgomery, Maxine Lavon, Ed. Conversations with Gloria Naylor. University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
Slotnick, Daniel E. “Gloria Naylor, Whose Honored Novel Was Set in a Housing Project, Dies at 66.” The New York Times, 3 October 2016. www.nytimes.com/2016/10/04/books/gloria-naylor-national-book-award-winner-dies-at-66.html. Accessed 12 May 2020.
Wilson, Charles E., Jr. Gloria Naylor: A Critical Companion. Greenwood, 2001.