Gayle, Addison Jr. 1932–1991
Addison Gayle, Jr. 1932–1991
Critic, writer, educator
A pioneering critic and literary commentator, Addison Gayle Jr. helped define black literature in the United States through literary biographies of authors like Richard Wright and a number of critical works, including his provocative exploration of The Black Aesthetic. He also was a pioneer in teaching black literature, pushing for books such as Herbert Hill’s Soon One Morning, to be taught in composition classes. A long time professor at the City University of New York, Gayle was known for his passion toward black literature and his need to spread that passion to others.
Gayle was born into a poor family in Newport News, Virginia, on June 2, 1932. His parents, Addison Gayle, Sr. and Carrie Holloman Gayle, had a violent and unhappy marriage, and separated when Gayle was very young. In his memoir, Wayward Child, he recalled the rat-infested house of his childhood, and how his mother “worked two jobs in order to feed my sister and me.” Yet Gayle’s childhood was marked by an intense intellectual curiosity and academic precocity, characteristics not always appreciated by some of his teachers. He was also acutely conscious of the darkness of his skin, envying his pale-skinned friends and made to feel ashamed, as he said in Wayward Child, for being “Black and ugly.”
During World War II, Gayle’s mother found regular employment on an army base, and the family’s fortunes improved. But after the war, with his mother back on welfare, Gayle felt like a second-class citizen within the local black community once again. “My father was not a teacher, doctor, or lawyer; he was a Communist, and worse, he was a poor one,” Gayle recalled in Wayward Child.
In high school, Gayle’s thirst for information caused problems. “I knew things that one of my complexion and family situation should not have known: I knew of Tolstoy and Dickens, of Claude McKay and James Weldon Johnson, of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels I was considered a troublemaker and a smart aleck.” Threatened with not being allowed to graduate, Gayle transferred from Huntington to Phénix High School, thirty miles away, for his senior year. His mother’s welfare visitor told Gayle that he was expected to find work in the shipyard as soon as he graduated high school.
His father, who made a failed run for Congress, encouraged both Gayle’s reading and his religious skepticism. Inspired by Richard Wright and Dostoevski, Gayle decided at a young age that he wanted to be a famous writer. He began writing fiction at high school, partly to express what he described in his memoir as his “rage and resentment” with his mother’s promiscuity, the growing estrangement from his father, and his feelings of intellectual and social frustration. Gayle’s
At a Glance…
Born on June 2,1932, in Newport News, VA; died on October 3, 1991, in Manhattan, NY; son of Addison Sr. and Carrie Holloman Gayle; married Rosalie Norwood on September 12, 1965 (divorced 1971), Education: City College of New York, 8A, 1965; University of California at Los Angeles, MA, 1967. Military Service: Air Force, 1950.
Career: City College of the City University of New York, New York City, lecturer in English, 1966–69; writer and editor, 1969–91 ; Bernard M. Baruch College of the City University of New York, New York City, professor of English, 1969–82, distinguished professor of English, 1982–91; University of Washington, visiting professor of American and Afro-American literature, 1971; Rutgers University, assistant professor of creative writing, 1971–72; lecturer on black heritage and other subjects for various institutions, including Oberlin College, University of Virgìnia, Yale University, and University of California, Irvine, 1970s-1980s.
Memberships: PEN; Authors Guild; Authors League of America.
father suffered a debilitating stroke while his son was still in high school, and died two years later, in 1952, of a brain hemorrhage.
Before he completed high school, Gayle finished work on a novel manuscript titled “Fear Not, Young Blood.” Saunders Redding, a writer on the staff of nearby Hampton Institute, read the manuscript and encouraged Gayle to keep studying and writing. But after graduation, Gayle realized he had “no means of entering college” and enlisted in the Air Force.
Gayle lasted only six months in the Air Force, much of it based in Geneva, New York, because he was discovered to have a heart condition. He returned to Newport News with pages of poetry and fiction he’d been working on in his spare time. After his father’s death, he moved north at the suggestion of an aunt to a friend’s house in Newark, New Jersey, where he found work as an orderly at Bethlehem Hospital, writing his novel at night. After a failed love affair and suicide attempt in 1954 (”another way of striking back at my enemies,” Gayle admitted in Wayward Child, “of making people notice me, accept me”), he left for Detroit, Michigan. Unemployed and broke in Detroit, he was soon forced to move to his aunt’s home in Philadelphia and find work once again as an orderly, this time at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital.
In 1955 Gayle moved to New York City. Living at first in Harlem and subsequently in Brooklyn, he worked at three different hospitals over the next three years. In 1958 he secured a job as porter at the Brooklyn Army Base. In New York, Gayle discovered that the absence of politically enforced segregation did not mean an absence of racial hostility. He experienced police brutality firsthand when he was arrested, accused of stalking, and beaten. Gayle recalled an incident with a prospective employer (who refused to hire him because he was black) in his first book, The Black Situation. His feelings of bitter helplessness drove him, he wrote in Wayward Child, to “set higher immediate goals for myself.”
In 1960, at the age of 28, Gayle enrolled in the City College of New York. His first two years were spent studying part-time, followed by three years of full-time study. At the City College, Gayle found both intellectual stimulation and encouraging mentors, including the poet James Emmanuel, his only black professor. Gayle completed the draft of another novel, “The Black Messiah,” in 1961 and sent it to Jackie Robinson’s office for his comments; Robinson was encouraging, urging Gayle to seek publication. However, despite Robinson’s endorsement, Gayle could not find a publisher for his novel.
Gayle completed his undergraduate studies in the fall of 1965 and moved to California to pursue graduate studies at UCLA. Gayle was accompanied by his wife, Rosalie Norwood, whom he married in September of 1965. Gayle found living in a strange city during the first months of married life a strain, though his relationship with Rosalie improved when she enrolled at USC and his first critical essay, a survey of the history of black literature, was published in Negro History Bulletin. By the time he graduated and left Los Angeles in 1967, a second article, on James Baldwin and Richard Wright, was accepted for publication in the College Language Association Journal.
Returning to New York, Gayle was offered the post of lecturer at the City College of New York by his former teacher, Leslie Berger. Gayle immediately courted controversy by asking to teach Soon One Morning, Herbert Hill’s anthology of black writing, to his composition students. His own experience as a student, derided for studying black authors and challenged to find sufficient critical material, inspired Gayle to compile his first anthology, Black Expression: Essays by and about Black Americans in the Creative Arts, in 1969.
In his introduction to Black Expression, Gayle argued that “Negro literature remains an unwanted and unacknowledged appendage to the vast body of American literature.” He also contended that black critics, as overlooked as black writers, saw writing as “a moral force for change as well as an aesthetic creation.” Gayle also contributed an essay to the collection, “Perhaps Not So Soon One Morning,” responding to claims that black writers were being assimilated into the American literary community and recalling the uproar when he proposed teaching Soon One Morning.
Although his teaching schedule was heavy, Gayle’s output was prolific, working on articles as well as his anthology. He published a short story, but his nonfiction began to win him the attention and recognition he’d craved for so long. He became a known and respected fixture in the black literary scene and wrote for a number of black cultural magazines. In 1970 he was appointed an assistant professor of English at Bernard M. Baruch College of CUNY, the place he was to teach for more than 20 years.
Gayle still often experienced bouts of depression, a condition that had plagued him all his adult life. He separated from his wife in 1971. With the help of a therapist, he identified the source of much of his ongoing rage and dissatisfaction as his life-long rejection of his blackness. He now entered one of the most productive phases of his working life. In quick succession, Gayle published The Black Situation, a collection of personal essays and his personal favorite among his books; edited the anthology Bondage, Freedom and Beyond: The Prose of Black America; and edited the book with which he is most closely associated, The Black Aesthetic, in 1971.
In his introduction to The Black Aesthetic, Gayle took a bolder and more radical stand than in Black Expression, arguing that anger was the ongoing currency of black art and, controversially, that “the serious black artist of today is at war with the American society.” In his essays “Cultural Strangulation: Black Literature and the White Aesthetic” and “The Function of Black Literature,” both included in The Black Aesthetic, Gayle criticized the domination of literary criticism by white academics and commentators and asserted the irrelevance of white aesthetics to any discussion of black literature. This separatist doctrine garnered attention and met with some skepticism, but Gayle received recognition for the vitality of his intellectual approach to both black writing and black literary criticism.
Gayle wrote several literary biographies, including books on W. E. B. Du Bois, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. His most well-known biography was Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son, published in 1980. In 1977 he published a frank memoir of his childhood, early adult life and marriage, Wayward Child: A Personal Odyssey.
In addition to his professorship at Bernard M. Baruch College, Gayle also served as visiting lecturer at numerous other institutions, including Oberlin College, the University of Virginia, Yale University, and the University of California, Irvine. He became the annual donor of the Richard Wright-Amiri Baraka Award for the best critical essay published in Black World magazine, and sponsored the Richard Wright Award for students at Baruch. He was a member of numerous university committees, including the Black Arts and Cultural Festival committee, and served as a consultant to minority writers for Doubleday and Random House publishers.
Although Gayle felt he had struggled against a disinterested academic orthodoxy through much of his own studies, to many of the new generation of black radical writers he was associated with the critical establishment. “This black aesthetic thing is a northern, urban, academic movement,” said Ishmael Reed in an interview on the Center for Book Culture website. However, as a teacher he often proved an important mentor; poet and activist Tony Medina has credited Gayle with introducing him to the work of the Black Arts Movement poets.
Addison Gayle died of complications from pneumonia on October 3, 1991, in Manhattan, New York. After his death, Baruch College instituted an annual lecture series in his honor. The college also presents the annual Addison Gayle Fellowship Award to a graduating student who excels in an African-American literature course.
(Editor) Black Expression: Essays by and about Black Americans in the Creative Arts, Weybright & Talley, 1969.
(Editor) Bondage, Freedom and Beyond: The Prose of Black America, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1970.
The Black Situation, Horizon, 1970.
(Editor) The Black Aesthetic, Doubleday, 1971.
Oak and Ivy: A Biography of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Doubleday, 1971.
Claude McKay: The Black Poet at War, Broadside Press, 1972.
The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America, Doubleday, 1975.
Wayward Child: A Personal Odyssey, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977.
Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son, Doubleday, 1980.
Gayle, Addison, Jr., Wayward Child: A Personal Odyssey, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977.
“Addison Gayle, Jr.,” Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (June 21, 2003).
“An Interview with Ishmael Reed,” Center for Book Culture, www.centerforbookculture.org/interviews/interview_reed.html (July 2, 2003).
“Tony Medina’s Slam,” Horizon: People and Possibilities, www.horizonmag.com/2/tony-medina.asp (July 2, 2003).
“Welcome to the Department of English,” Baruch College-The City University of New York, www.baruch.cuny.edu/slas/departments/english/chair.html (June 21, 2003).
—Paula J.K. Morris
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