Rosa Guy, the Trinidad-born, Harlem-raised author of 17 books, is one of our greatest unsung treasures.
It’s the texture of her authentic language, combining her poetic, lyrical prose with street savvy black English and the sing-song cadences and patois of her native Trinidad that draws the reader in. It’s her stories of mystery, murder, ordinary life, flawed characters, perceptions, misperceptions, loneliness, family and outsiders that keeps you.
As a kid I was a Judy Blume fan. If I didnt relate directly, I easily empathized with her characters very real struggles of loss, grief, teenage rituals, and the challenges of fitting in. Rosa Guy’s characters in her young adult novels – the ones she was most lauded for, particularly the trilogy which was internationally acclaimed and translated into several languages: The Friends, Ruby and Edith Jackson, along with the character Imamus story in The Disappearance- went one step further.
These were characters I knew personally, folks that were straddling different worlds.
Phyllisia Cathy, in the book The Friends, was proud, smart and had recently emigrated from Trinidad to Harlem. Her classroom, helmed by a racist white teacher who pitted students against each other, was a stomping ground for stolen dreams.
She had only one friend, Edith Jackson, that she reluctantly accepted, only because big-breasted Beulah – who called her “monkey chaser, criticized her accent and considered Phyllisia a showoff – would rally the other kids to fight her after school.
Edith, a poor, shabbily dressed Black American with a heart of gold, was the only one that stood up for her. Phyllisia both loved her and was ashamed of Edith–“a ragamuffin” is what she imagined her family would say about her. And she wasnt far off, her father railed about the shortcomings of black Americans regularly.
And when he finally met Edith, his gruff greeting illustrated the tensions between blacks and West Indians: Thats why Im running in bad luck, he fumed. Because of these picky-headed ragamuffins you got breathing down me tail. Get she out! He continued: You think I bring you to this mans country and set you down in good surroundings so you can make friends of these little ragamuffins?
Guy explored intra-racial and class tensions without rose-colored glasses. There was no blurring between good and evilall of the characters, from self-sacrificing mothers to beautiful women, oppressive fathers and street dudes had a little of both.
As much as the stories are about these characters and their interior lives, it’s also about the perceptions, or really the misperceptions, people have of one another, most notably people that are the closest to one another; siblings, parents and best friends.
In the trilogy, you are able to see the viewpoints from three different characters thoughts in each book and come to understand that as much as they love each other, you can never really know a person.
Her prose is rich and as beautiful as she makes settings that on the surface would seem unattractive. The characters carry emotional depth and contradictory personalities.
The island of Trinidad is another character always wistfully in the distance, a respite from cold, impersonal city life.
Guy came by her insight honestly. Her parents migrated to the United States and left her and her sister with relatives in Trinidad. By the time she turned 8, her parents sent for her and her sister to come to live in Harlem. When her mother became ill, they were sent to live with cousins in the Bronx who were followers of Marcus Garvey. These Garveyites had a profound effect on her politics.
When her father died a few years later, she and her sister spent years in orphanages and foster homesa period of time she found too painful to talk about, but seeps into her stories of the character Edith Jackson, an orphan who takes care of her siblings in hopes that they wont be separated. In Guys real life, at 14 when her sister became ill, she had to drop out of school to work at a brassiere factory in New York Citys garment district.
She always felt the need to find a vehicle to express herself. After she married, she joined the American Negro Theater, which had graduated Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.
Many black actors had been protesting stereotypical roles of butlers, maids, janitors and criminals and the white backlash was to not include those characters or any black characters in plays at all. So Guy wrote plays where black actors were sure to get a role exploring the colorful worlds of all black communities like Brooklyn and Harlem and their tensions and triumphs.
She eventually divorced and continued to work in the bra factory, write, and raise her son. She formed the Harlem Writers Guild, where she worked with Audre Lorde, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and fostered a close friendship with Maya Angelou. She met with Malcolm X on several occasions and even counseled him against an upcoming speaking engagement at the Audubon Ballroom where he would meet his death.
After the assassinations of many leaders in the 1960s, she traveled as an anthropologist and journalist of sorts, capturing the viewpoints of children and young people which culminated in a book of essays, Children of Longing, in 1971.
Guys life as the consummate outsider who created a life amidst overwhelming odds benefitted her writing of characters like Ruby, a bisexual longing to be adored, her sister Phyllisia who was critical of her father, but mimicked some of his shallow ways, Imamu, always with a toothpick in his mouth, who was an insightful and kind-hearted street dude who escaped a murder charge to become a suspect again, and the sinfully vain, voluptuous murderer Dora Belle, whose main path to survival was her physical beauty.
It was a world I lived in growing up in Washington, D.C., when it was dubbed the Chocolate City, where light skin and long hair got you attention, where the El Salvadoreans were referred to as “amigos”, where I didn’t know that guys I dated were West Indian until I went to their houses and they spoke patois, and where I took the metro bus to school in a wealthy black area, but they never took the bus to mine.
The stories most often take place in exclusively black neighborhoods, but theres none of the sense of nihilism that is often depicted of poor black people. Most of the stories revolve around when class and culture collide, in the same neighborhood.
The characters, usually a fish out of water, eventually come to respect, if not understand each other. There are louder laughs and louder sorrows in the worlds she creates. Through her stories you come to see that the same issues that affect people living in regal brownstones in Brooklyn happen in shabby apartments in Harlem, where the gray morning hulked outside the windows as though dreading to enter the room.
Guy once said that the survival of one of us depends upon all of us. Throughout her brilliant work, she reinforces that with bountiful beauty.