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Gloria Naylor | Biography

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Early Life and Influences

Gloria Naylor was born in New York City on January 25, 1950, to Roosevelt Naylor, a worker for the city's transit system, and his wife, Alberta, a telephone operator. Her birth came just a month after her parents' arrival from Mississippi, where they labored as sharecroppers, or farmers who give part of their crop as rent for the land.. The young parents had promised each other their children would not be raised in the racially segregated South.

Naylor was very shy as a child and rarely spoke. To encourage her daughter in expressing her feelings, Naylor's mother gave her a diary. As Naylor graduated from the original diary to a succession of notebooks, her observations and short stories eventually formed the basis of her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place. However, her path to authorship was one of detours and hard work.

Education and Writing Career

When she completed high school in 1968, Naylor became a Jehovah's Witness missionary and served in New York, North Carolina, and Florida for seven years. Deciding to further her education, she returned to New York in 1975 and made her living as a hotel telephone operator while she earned her bachelor of arts degree in English from Brooklyn College. In 1981 she entered Yale University in Connecticut and two years later was granted a master of arts degree in African American studies.

During her studies at Brooklyn College, Naylor read The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison, a Pulitzer Prize–winning African American author, whose works focus on the black American experience. Naylor soon realized how few books were written by and for black women. Inspired by Morrison, Alice Walker (born 1944), and other female African American authors, Naylor decided, "with all of these foremothers ... maybe I can tell my story, too." She began formulating ideas for a novel inspired by her own life experience and heritage. When her creative writing professor urged students to submit their work to publishers, Naylor sent an essay to Essence Magazine—a monthly publication for African American women. The piece was accepted, and "A Life on Beekman Place" appeared in the March 1980 issue. This essay evolved into the chapter "Lucielia Louise Turner" in The Women of Brewster Place—published as Naylor worked toward her master's degree at Yale. This debut novel was a best seller and won Naylor literary recognition. The following year (1983), The Women of Brewster Place received the National Book Award for Best First Novel. Naylor developed her next novel, Linden Hills, from her master's thesis; it was published in 1985, just two years after she submitted it to her professors at Yale.

Over the next two decades, Naylor continued to write professionally, producing four additional novels: Mama Day (1988), Bailey's Café (1992), The Men of Brewster Place (1999), and 1996 (2005). She also taught as a guest professor at New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, George Washington University, Princeton University, Boston University, and Brandeis University. Naylor died of a heart attack on September 28, 2016, at her home in the U.S. Virgin Islands. During her college years, Naylor had "vowed to write at least four novels, and at least one that would outlast her." She succeeded in that goal, as the strength, diversity, trials, and tribulations of her African American characters still connect powerfully with readers.

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