Naylor urges communities to rely on memory

February 02, 1994|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

America's communities can best persist through memory, black feminist author Gloria Naylor told a crowd of almost 300 people yesterday at a luncheon at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel.

Enoch Pratt Free Library invited Ms. Naylor to speak at its annual Black History Luncheon.

The author of four novels including the popular and critically successful "Mama Day" and "Bailey's Cafe," Ms. Naylor recalled when she was first invited to the Pratt Library by a group of black female librarians moved by her first book, "The Women of Brewster Place."

Then an unknown writer, she spoke at the Pratt a decade ago, "in a room not quite this fancy, and [to] a crowd not quite this large." She sees her invitation from the Pratt as a model for how connection and community should work.

"We need to start thinking about doing it for ourselves as a nation of multi-ethnic people," she said, adding that community should reach across racial and gender lines.

Ms. Naylor said America must learn to celebrate its differences instead of encouraging their erosion. "We now have to face the truth in ourselves . . . that we are a patchwork quilt of people, and our strength will be in celebrating our differences."

She spoke about her second novel, "Linden Hills," which examined the assimilation of young blacks into the middle class. "What are they slowly giving up in exchange for the American dream?" she asked.

Ms. Naylor pointed out that while her book identified a larger crisis --in which a sense of community, family and spirituality was draining from American life -- the most displaced people lacked even an ethnic identity.

The way to avoid that disorientation and loss of identity was to remember, she said. All of her books are a message to herself that reads, "You've come a long way from your roots but you must . . . indeed, retain a long memory," she said.

She recalled her parents' roots in Mississippi by reading an essay written shortly before her father's death last September.

Ms. Naylor came alive as a writer in her late 20s, when she began reading the work of black women like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Paule Marshall, after having cut her teeth on the English classics as a child.

Ms. Naylor called herself "one of the staunchest feminists in this country," but insisted that she, like most other feminists, honored the male as well as the female, and acknowledged especially the contribution men had made in the civil rights movement.

She added that she has been well-received by some, if not all, male readers. "I gave voices to their mothers' stories, and their sisters' stories, and their wives' stories."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke introduced the writer and declared Feb. 1 Gloria Naylor Day in Baltimore. He said he is trying to read Naylor's latest novel, "Bailey's Cafe," and is finding it "haunting" and difficult to read at night.

But Ms. Naylor told him he would like the last chapter, he said. "She said it was written particularly with African-American men in mind and she thought I'd get it."

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