This is The Blacklist, a monthly column by Michael Gonzales exploring out-of-print books by African-American authors.
“Everything Guy did was founded on friendship . . . ” Margaret Busby, 2012
In the spring of 1978, not long before summer recess from Rice High School in Harlem, I was told by my mom that we’d be moving to Baltimore in a few months. In those medieval times, black parents rarely negotiated or explained the reasons why to their children; they just barked orders and we did as we were told. In my case, it was already decided that I’d work a summer job at a Harlem-based senior citizen building that was managed by my biological father and meet Mom in Baltimore in mid-August.
At fifteen, I was already a morose kid suffering from existential angst, and random thoughts of moving to a different city depressed me. Pulling weeds and garbage every day at my summer gig, I chatted with my aspiring filmmaker shift partner and suffered in silence until it was time to join Mom at our Monroe Street rowhouse in West Baltimore. Arriving by Greyhound to their then Howard Street station, she picked me up and we took a city bus to our new home.
After unpacking my suitcase, I strolled outside, sat on the white marble stairs and surveyed the unfamiliar landscape. There was a bar/liquor store on the corner that also served as a candy shop and state lottery center. Otherwise, all I could see were neat rowhouses and the sparkling white marble steps that the neighborhood folks pridefully kept clean, sending their kids out with buckets of soapy water and hard-bristled brushes on Saturday mornings.
As sweat raced down my face and toward my peach fuzz chin, I was startled by the sudden slamming of a door. A few houses down, a chubby brown-skinned boy emerged wearing a short-sleeved lime-green plaid button down shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers. Glancing at him quickly, I surmised that he was as much a black nerd as me, except, as I later learned, his bliss came in the form of comedy albums rather than comic books.
“Hey, man, I’m Walter Blackwell,” the kid said and extended his hand. I shook it, and instantly felt less lonely. After introductions and a handful of exchanged information, he volunteered to give me a guided tour through the hood, pointing out Cloverland Farms Dairy, where milk was processed, as well as the local record shop, laundromat, and barbershop. Walter introduced me to a few of the around-the-way kids and, at the end of our journey, we went to a greasy takeout eatery called KK’s, owned by a Korean family, where I had my first cheese steak sub covered in fried onions and mustard.
Taking the sandwiches back to Walter’s house, we chilled in the basement listening to Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart discs until dusk. Although I was still pissed that we were living in a city best known for being where Edgar Allen Poe took his last gasp, Walter and I forged a friendship that felt as though it would last forever. However, two years later when we both graduated from high school, Walter followed in his daddy’s footsteps and joined the Navy, while I returned to the Big Apple as an English major freshman at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University.
Regardless of the promises we made to call and write one another, it has been thirty-six years since we’ve seen each other, and, unless Walter pops up on Facebook, I’d more than likely go to my grave without seeing his face again. Still, having chosen a profession where reflection on the past is part of the process, I’ve often thought about how much Walter’s friendship meant when I was a fifteen-year-old lonely boy and how brave it was for him to approach me in the first place.
The late writer Rosa Guy (rhymes with “key”), a native of Trinidad who came to America in 1932, wrote stories about the complexities of black teenage friendships in her various young adult novels that began with the publication of The Friends in 1973. Told from the point of view of island girl immigrant Phyllisia Cathy who, along with her older sister Ruby, has traveled to America to rejoin their parents in Harlem where their father owns a restaurant. She is often dissed and bullied at school until she encounters the ragtag Edith Jackson.
A poor girl with uncombed hair and ragged clothes (“her clothes unpressed, her stockings bagging about her legs with big holes”), she enters Phyllisia’s life as both protector and pal, damn near forcing the friendship into action. Edith is a motherless child who doesn’t measure up to Phyllisia’s stern father’s ideal of a playmate for his youngest daughter. “You think I bring you to this man’s country and set you down in good surroundings so you can make friends of these little ragamuffins,” big poppa Calvin screams to Phyllisia one night after having seen the young women on the street during a Harlem riot earlier that day.
Of course, it’ll take more than an upset parent to separate the two as Edith teaches her immigrant friend how to navigate the uptown streets surrounding their new apartment, take the subway, and deal with those mean-spirited classmates who are often cruel because of Phyllisia’s accent, not-in-style wardrobe, and impeccable manners. Literally through breast cancer sickness and harsh deaths, the girls maintain their friendship although it is quite a bumpy ride. Alice Walker, in a positive New York Times review of the book , wrote: “The struggle that is the heart of this very important book (is) the fight to gain perception of one’s own real character; the grim struggle for self‐knowledge and the almost killing internal upheaval brings the necessary growth of compassion and humility and courage, so that friendship (of any kind, but especially between those of notable economic and social differences) can exist.”
The Friends is the first book in a trilogy that includes Ruby (1976), whose main characters become same-sex lovers, and Edith Jackson (1978), where the young orphan is befriended by an older married woman named Martha Bates who helps get her on the right path towards bettering her life. Personally, I loved Guy’s device of giving each book a separate voice as well as their own special problems. Although each book’s scenario gets crazily dramatic, these striving characters never give up hope, and neither does the reader. Of the three, Ruby is the weakest and most melodramatic, in the Douglas Sirk sense of tears and a suicide attempt, while also managing to be one of the bravest books in the YA canon.
“Besides Toni Morrison’s novel Sula, I hadn’t read any other books about black girl friendships until I discovered The Friends when I was a teenager in the ’90s,” Ebony Murphy-Root says. A seventh-grade school instructor at Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, CA, she has been considering teaching a class in YA literature next year as a way of helping to spread the word about Guy’s contributions to the genre. “I often wonder why that trilogy isn’t more widely known, because to me they’re so lovely. You have these young women living in the gritty city contrasted with the beauty and preciousness of this friendship. It’s beautiful.”
Guy first published in the states in 1966 when her debut (adult novel) Bird at My Window, dedicated to Malcolm X, was released, but more than fifty years later her name is hardly known outside of true devotees. Says Murphy-Root, “It’s a real shame, but I’ve never seen her books in any of the African-American studies classes or women’s studies classes; I was an English major, and still her name never came up. It wasn’t until the New York Times published her obituary in 2012 that I’d ever read anything about her.”
Having died on June 3, 2012, from cancer at the ripe age of eighty-nine, Guy’s obit included a quote from her “sister friend” Maya Angelou, who wrote extensively about their comradeship in her 1981 autobiography The Heart of a Woman. “She’s never afraid of the truth,” Angelou, who died two years later, told the Times in a telephone interview. “Some writers dress the truth in a kind of elegant language, so it doesn’t seem quite so blatant, so harsh, so raw. But Rosa was not afraid of that.” Those truths came across loud and clear in her YA novels, where Guy wrote about racism, colorism, class divisions, teen pregnancy, welfare, foster care, abortion, and sexuality with the smarts and sensitivity of the best teacher without being preachy.
“Rosa Guy’s characters are as real as any I’ve ever read,” says The Root writer Ericka Blount Danois, who first read Guy’s books when she was a teen coming of age in 1980s Washington, DC. Three decades later, she was the one who lent me The Friends (personally, my favorite editions of Guy’s books have Max Ginsburg-painted covers ) and still revisits Guy’s texts periodically. “The reason I can keep coming back to her books is because the characters and storytelling are so good, I still get something out of them. Guy’s novels are like Judy Blume books for black teenagers.”
While the market for black YA novels has opened up considerably with new-jack authors Angie Thomas and Jason Reynolds leading the pack, back in the seventies Guy’s main contemporary was the prolific Harlem son Walter Dean Myers ( Fallen Angels , Monster ), who would become the best-known writer of the genre. “Walter always said that he wrote those books because, growing up, he never saw himself in any of the teen fiction and I’m sure it was the same with Rosa Guy,” says Havelock Nelson, who was Myers’ publicist until his death on July 1, 2014. “Both Guy and Myers wrote books that are gritty, but they weren’t off-putting, because they have humanity in them and that humanity is universal. I think of them both as landscape artists, because they painted scenes in their books that people can relate too.”
However, though Myers never wrote a female protagonist, Guy penned a series of teenage boys books including The Disappearance (1979), which also serves as an introduction to amateur sleuth Imamu Jones, a young Harlem cat who just beat a murder rap, living with his West Indian foster family in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Just as Jones is getting used to the family and vice versa, his precocious foster sister Perk disappears and Imamu becomes suspect number one. In addition, Imamu is dealing with his own alcoholic biological mother living in Harlem, whose downward spiral began after her husband, his father, was killed in Vietnam.
Currently out-of-print, The Disappearance is one of Guy’s best books as well as an excellent mystery whose ending surprised me. Perhaps more surprising is that no one had dusted it off, and its sequel New Guys Around the Block, and turned it into the latest Netflix sensation. “Imamu reminded me of some of the guys I knew growing up who have these hard exteriors, but are really sweet underneath,” Erika Blount says.
Like Guy, former publicist Havelock Nelson also came to New York City from the Caribbean (Guyana) and had to deal with the grief of being teased and taunted at school, in addition to the general misery of being away from home for the first time. In The Friends, as well as Edith Jackson, Guy writes lovingly of the native Trinidadian food being prepared, and the only one in the family who can’t cook very well is Phyllisia, who’d rather be somewhere reading a book. “For us (West Indians), coming to New York City can be strange,” says Nelson, who came by plane in 1973 when he was ten. “We’ve been told the streets are paved with gold, but instead we see big holes in the ground (subway stations) that we are told we have to walk down to get from one part of the city to another. Meanwhile, I’m still thinking about the bread my Granny made from scratch that I may never eat again.”
While Nelson flew into the city on a semi-glam passenger jet with uniformed stewardesses, seven-year-old Guy, whose maiden name was Cuthbert, and her older sister Ameze, came to New York by boat in the winter of 1932 wearing summer dresses while freezing on the deck as the ship pulled into the harbor. In “A Conversation between Rosa Guy and Maya Angelou,” published in 1988, Rosa talked openly about those harsh early years in the US. “Coming to a new country, losing one mother (1934), and living with an intolerant father, made the first years of my life even more precious. Then I got into my rebellious teens. When my father died (1937), I was fourteen and alone—my sister and I were alone.”
A few years before, Rosa had stayed with her Garveyite relatives in Brooklyn, and absorbed those politics into her own being, as well as developing a passion for reading. Years later, her political smarts would come in handy when she and Maya stormed the United Nations after the death of Patrice Lumumba and breaking bread with former Detroit Red aka Malcolm X. “That rage became a part of us,” Guy said, “a rage that went on to become part of the black revolution of the ’60s and the ’70s and the Black Power Movement.”
Rosa and Ameze lived in various foster homes, and their life was rough. “My sister had such a terrible time taking care of me. In later years, she was really bitter against me. I had robbed her of her youth . . . my sister gave her youth to protect me and the rest of her life she was vulnerable.” As I read the “girl’s trilogy,” it was obvious there was a little bit of Guy’s life in each of the book’s voices, with Edith Jackson concentrating on the plight of a foster care system that sometimes includes sexual predator foster fathers as well as being forced to make adult decisions while still a child.
At fourteen, Guy dropped out of school and got a factory job that led to becoming an organizer in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Five years later, she married Warner Guy and in 1942 bore him a son, Warner Jr., who died in 1995. According to her friend and UK publisher Margaret Busby (of Allison & Busby), who wrote a wonderful memorial piece on Guy for The Guardian in 2012 , “While her husband served in the army during the second world war, she began to express herself creatively after being introduced by a coworker to the American Negro Theatre, where she studied acting (among fellow members were Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Ruby Dee).”
Guy’s marriage ended in divorce in 1946 and shortly afterwards she enrolled into New York University while also joining the Committee for the Negro in the Arts. There, she met John Oliver Killens with whom, in 1950, she co-founded the Harlem Writers Guild, dedicated to the publication of work by black writers. Early members included John Henrik Clarke, Paule Marshall, Louise Meriwether, and Maya Angelou . “Rosa was tall, beautiful, dark-brown and fiery,” said Angelou. “She danced, argued, shouted, laughed with an exciting singleness of mind. We were alike in boldness and fell quickly into a close friendship.”
Drawn to the naturalism of Richard Wright and Theodore Dreiser, she wrote in 1988, “I was able to understand so much of the country through them. Certainly, I understood Black America because of Richard Wright. But then, I had come up in the slums of Harlem and had seen so much of what he wrote about. My writing evolved like that, pulling into me everything in terms of what is happening, particularly to young people in the United States . . . When we formed the Harlem Writers Guild together, John Killians used to say something I thought very important. ‘You must write as though you are a God.’ I was! Pooling my experiences, my understanding, I was creating my world. My creation which I projected, to give more understanding to the world.”
The Harlem Writers Guild member was known for being brutal when it came to critiquing each others’ work, and while I’m sure Guy’s workshopping of Bird at My Window put the book through many rewrites, to me the final product was the kind of depressing “protest novel” that Baldwin complained about. While Guy’s writing style was urbane gothic, the story of the former brilliant black boy Wade Williams, who becomes a mentally-ill drunk, was too much of a dark cloud nightmare that just got more bleak and depressing. In 2001, the book was reprinted by Coffee House Books who also released My Love, My Love: or The Peasant Girl (1985), Guy’s fantasy novel that borrows from Hans Christian Andersen's classic The Little Mermaid and relocates it to a Caribbean island.
A few years after publication, theater writer and lyricist Lynn Ahrens bought the book at a Barnes and Noble in Manhattan. “I was browsing around for different ideas for a show when I saw this book with a very colorful cover,” Ahrens said in a recent telephone interview. “I read the first page and the language was just so poetic. From that first page, I could hear the music flowing through it. I took the book home and read it in an hour and thought, ‘Oh God, this is going to be our next musical.’” Taxiing to her musical partner Stephen Flaherty’s apartment, she excitingly declared that book would be their next show.
The duo changed the name to Once on This Island and had a successful run in 1990. The production ran on Broadway for more than a year and was nominated for eight Tony Awards. More recently, the musical revival won a 2018 Tony Award, beating out My Fair Lady and Carousel. However, back in the mid-80s when their reps were negotiating the rights to the book, Ms. Guy decided she wasn’t signing anything until she heard the songs.
“We had finished our first draft in six months, but Stephen and I were still nervous,” Ahrens recalls. “For that day, we hired several actors and we played and sang. She was a very queenly woman, and throughout the entire performance, she said nothing. She didn’t smile, her arms were folded and we were completely terrified. When we finished the presentation, she sat still for a few minutes and finally said, ‘That was wonderful.’ She was quite extraordinary. I didn’t know her well, but I was always grateful to her, because she allowed us to do the show we love so much.”
Ahrens, who also writes essays for Narrative magazine and formerly wrote songs for Schoolhouse Rock (“Interjections,” “The Preamble”) before moving up to Broadway productions, has also read more of Guy’s novels and considers herself a fan. “We briefly thought about turning the Harlem jazz book A Measure of Time into a musical,” she says, “but we never did. I think she was a wonderful writer. She had a point of view and a lot of stuff to say—I admired that a lot.”
Rosa Guy’s work has received the Coretta Scott King Award, The New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year citation, and the American Library Association’s Best Book Award. In a 1990 interview that was part of the Second International Conference of Caribbean Women Writers, Guy said, “The full responsibility of writers I believe should be trying to make the world a better place for us all to live in.” In her lifetime, through powerful prose and inspiring characters, Rosa Guy did just that. As Ericka Blount Danois says, “Rosa Guy is one of those writers who, after you’ve read her books, you think, I wish I knew this woman. I wish we could be friends.”