Black History Month: Gloria Naylor

Gloria Naylor is perhaps best known for her novels. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature says:

One of the first African American women writers who has studied both her African ancestors and the European tradition, Naylor consciously draws on Western sources even as her writings reflect the complexity of the African American female experience.

Some of her novels are mentioned in this excerpt from the Voices from the Gap Web site:

Naylor’s first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, is a celebration of the riches and diversities of the black female experience. She focuses on seven women who commit a victory by simply managing to survive in an impoverished and threatening neighborhood by bonding with each other and finding refuge. The novel received strong reviews, won many awards and was made into a television movie.

Linden Hills, Naylor’s second novel, is a story of resistance and rebirth. It portrays a world in which black Americans have achieved status and some measure of power, but in the process they have forfeited their hearts and souls. It follows Dante Alighieri’s Inferno by employing Dante’s moral geography, adapting his narrative strategy as the journey through hell as her main organizing principle and offering an allegory intended to warn and instruct her intended audience–black Americans.

Naylor’s third novel, Mama Day, marks a signal change in her development. She uses alternating narrators which both reflects and reinforces the novel’s thematic concerns with reality and truth. The novel is concerned with examining, deconstructing and redefining the past. Its strongest elements are the bonds shared within the female community and between the generations of women. It is “about the fact that the real basic magic is the unfolding of the human potential and that if we reach inside ourselves we can create miracles,” according to Naylor.

Bailey’s Cafe, Naylor’s fourth novel, explores female sexuality, female sexual identity and male sexual identity. “The core of the work is indeed the way in which the word ‘whore’ has been used against women or to manipulate female sexual identity,” says Naylor. She also intends to employ the blues and jazz into the novel’s structure by using lyrical language. The characters tell their own stories and sing their own songs which empower them to generate the hope for necessary living.

What I find fascinating is an essay she wrote about the meanings of the word “nigger.” Click “more” to read it:

This essay by Gloria Naylor was taken from this Web site.

“The Meanings of a Word”
by Gloria Naylor

Language is the subject. It is the written form with which I’ve managed to keep the wolf away from the door and, in diaries, to keep my sanity. In spite of this, I consider the written word inferior to the spoken, and much of the frustration experienced by novelists is the awareness that whatever we manage to capture in even the most transcendent passages falls far short of the richness of life. Dialogue achieves its power in the dynamics of a fleeting moment of sight, sound, smell, and touch.

I’m not going to enter the debate here about whether it is language that shapes reality or vice versa. That battle is doomed to be waged whenever we seek intermittent reprieve from the chicken and egg dispute. I will simply take the position that the spoken word, like the written word, amounts to a nonsensical arrangement of sounds or letters without a consensus that assigns “meaning.” And building from the meanings of what we hear, we order reality. Words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus that gives them true power.

I remember the first time I heard the word nigger. In my third-grade class, our math tests were being passed down the rows, and as I handed the papers to a little boy in back of me, I remarked that once again he had received a much lower mark than I did. He snatched his test from me and spit out that word. Had he called me a nymphomaniac or a necrophiliac, I couldn’t have been more puzzled. I didn’t know what a nigger was, but I knew that whatever it meant, it was something he shouldn’t have called me. This was verified when I raised my hand, and in a loud voice repeated what he had said and watched the teacher scold him for using a “bad” word. I was later to go home and ask the inevitable question that every black parent must face—

“Mommy, what does nigger mean?”

And what exactly did it mean? Thinking back, I realize that this could not have been the first time the word was used in my presence. I was part of a large extended family that had migrated from the rural South after World War II and formed a close-knit network that gravitated around my maternal grandparents. Their ground-floor apartment in one of the buildings they owned in Harlem was a weekend mecca for my immediate family, along with countless aunts, uncles, and cousins who brought along assorted friends. It was a bustling and open house with assorted neighbors and tenants popping in and out to exchange bits of gossip, pick up an old quarrel, or referee the ongoing checkers game in which my grandmother cheated shamelessly. They were all there to let down their hair and put up their feet after a week of labor in the factories, laundries, and shipyards of New York.

Amid the clamor, which could reach deafening proportions–two or three conversations going on simultaneously, punctuated by the sound of a baby’s crying somewhere in the back rooms or out on the street–there was still a rigid set of rules about what was said and how. Older children were sent out of the living room when it was time to get into the juicy details about “you-know-who” up on the third floor who had gone and gotten herself “p-r-e-g-n-a-n-t!” But my parents, knowing that I could spell well beyond my years, always demanded that I follow the others out to play. Beyond sexual misconduct and death, everything else was considered harmless for our young ears. And so among the anecdotes of the triumphs and disappointments in the various workings of their lives, the word nigger was used in my presence, but it was set within contexts and inflections that caused it to register in my mind as something else.

In the singular, the word was always applied to a man who had distinguished himself in some situation that brought their approval for his strength, intelligence, or drive:

“Did Johnny really do that?”

“I’m telling you, that nigger pulled in $6,000 of overtime last year. Said he got enough for a down payment on a house.”

When used with a possessive adjective by a woman–”my nigger”–it became a term of endearment for her husband or boyfriend. But it could be more than just a term applied to a man. In their mouths it became the pure essence of manhood–a disembodied force that channeled their past history of struggle and present survival against the odds into a victorious statement of being: “Yeah, that old foreman found out quick enough–you don’t mess with a nigger.”

In the plural, it became a description of some group within the community that had overstepped the bounds of decency as my family defined it. Parents who neglected their children, a drunken couple who fought in public, people who simply refused to look for work, those with excessively dirty mouths or unkempt households were all “trifling niggers.” This particular circle could forgive hard times, unemployment, the occasional bout of depression–they had gone through all of that themselves–but the unforgivable sin was a lack of self-respect.

A woman could never be a “nigger” in the singular, with its connotations of confirming worth. The noun girl was its closest equivalent in that sense, but only when used in direct address and regardless of the gender doing the addressing. Girl was a token of respect for a woman. The one-syllable word was drawn out to sound like three in recognition of the extra ounce of wit, nerve, or daring that the woman had shown in the situation under discussion.

“G-i-r-l, stop. You mean you said that to his face?”

But if the word was used in a third-person reference or shortened so that it almost snapped out of the mouth, it always involved some element of communal disapproval. And age became an important factor in these exchanges. It was only between individuals of the same generation, or from any older person to a younger (but never the other way around), that girl would be considered a compliment.

I don’t agree with the argument that use of the word nigger at this social stratum of the black community was an internalization of racism. The dynamics were the exact opposite: the people in my grandmother’s living room took a word that whites used to signify worthlessness or degradation and rendered it impotent. Gathering there together, they transformed nigger to signify the varied and complex human beings they knew themselves to be. If the word was to disappear totally from the mouths of even the most liberal of white society, no one in that room was naive enough to believe it would disappear from white minds. Meeting the word head-on, they proved it had absolutely nothing to do with the way they were determined to live their lives.

So there must have been dozens of times that nigger was spoken in front of me before I reached the third grade. But I didn’t “hear” it until it was said by a small pair of lips that had already learned it could be a way to humiliate me. That was the word I went home and asked my mother about. And since she knew that I had to grow up in America, she took me in her lap and explained.

Naylor, Gloria. “Mommy, What Does ‘Nigger’ Mean?” New Worlds of Literature.

Eds. Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter. New York: Norton, 1994. 344-47.

The Short Synthesis Project.Sebastian Mahfood’s Webpage. 5 January


The previous authors and writings featured on this blog for Black History Month:
“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”
Gwendolyn Brooks
August Wilson
“Our Nig” by Harriet Wilson
“Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
“The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du Bois
Langston Hughes
“Cane” by Jean Toomer
“The Great Negro Plot” by Mat Johnson
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
“I Have a Dream” speech”
“Sula” by Toni Morrison
“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
“The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead
“Up From Slavery” by Booker T. Washington
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
Sonia Sanchez
“Black Girl in the Ring” by Nola Hopkinson
June Jordan
“Flight to Canada” by Ishmael Reed


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