Guy, Rosa 1925(?)–
Rosa Guy 1925(?)–
Award-winning novelist Rosa Guy was born in the West Indies and grew up in New York City’s Harlem. “I’m a storyteller,” Guy said in a speech entitled “Children’s Writing Today for Tomorrow’s Adults,” which she gave at the 1984 Boston Globe Book Festival. “I write about people. I want my readers to know people, to laugh with people, to be angry with people, to despair of people, and to have hope…. I want my readers… to care just a little bit more, when they put down a book of mine.” Guy has primarily written about young black people whose experiences often resemble her own. Like authors June Jordan, Louise Meriwether, and Toni Morrison, she has been praised for creating memorable black protagonists. Her books have also attracted criticism for addressing controversial subjects in an often harshly realistic way.
Guy has published nine young adult novels, three adult novels, and three children’s books. She has also written and edited nonfiction essays and contributed to periodicals. Chiefly a fiction writer for young adults, Guy began by chronicling the lives of young black women but later expanded her focus to include mysteries involving young black men. Her young adult novels describe the obstacles black teenagers face in America. Through the experiences of largely adolescent protagonists living in Harlem and elsewhere, Guy has explored themes of individual and community survival, friendship, and social acceptance.
These novels are also informed by the cultural differences between native-born black Americans and people of Caribbean descent living in the U.S. In The Friends, for instance, Phyllisia, a West Indian girl much like Guy, is ostracized at her Harlem school because of her island origins. The only classmate who tries to befriend her is the poor, sloppy Harlemite Edith. Observes Phyllisia, “Edith always came to school with her clothes unpressed, her stockings bagging about her legs with big holes, which she tried to hide by pulling them into her shoes but which kept slipping up, on each heel, to expose a round, brown circle of dry skin the size of a quarter.” Phyllisia rejects her, explaining, “I pulled myself tall in my seat, made haughty little movements with my shoulders and head, adjusted the frills on the collar of my well-ironed blouse, touched my soft, neatly plaited hair and pointedly gave my attention to the blackboard.” Later, though, Phyllisia learns she needs tough Edith’s friendship.
On a broader scale, Guy’s works have focused on race and class prejudice and economic discrimination. In arguing for racial, social, and sexual tolerance, she has raised questions
Surname pronounced “Gee”; born Rosa Cuthbert, September 1, 1925 (some sources say 1928), in Diego Martin, Trinidad; immigrated to U.S., 1932; daughter of Henry and Audrey (Gonzales) Cuthbert; married Warner Guy (separated, 1950); children: Warner Guy, Jr. Education: Attended New York University, 1940s; studied writing with Viola Brothers Shaw.
Writer, 1940s—; wrote plays and short stories at night while working days in a factory, 1940s-1950s; play Venetian Blinds produced at Topical Theater, New York City, 1954; published first adult novel, 1966; published nonfiction anthology Children of Longing, 1971; published first young adult novel, The Friends, 1973; worked on trilogies, 1976-87; adapted and translated Senegalese story into first children’s book, Mother Crocodile, 1981; The Friends adapted as a Thames television documentary, 1984; third adult novel, My Love, My Love or The Peasant Girl, 1985, made into award-winning Broadway musical Once on This Island.
Awards: American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults awards, 1973, for The Friends, 1976, for Ruby, 1978, for Edith Jackson, 1979, for The Disappearance, 1981, for New Guys Around the Block; Children’s Rights Workshop Other Award, 1987, for My Love, My Love or The Peasant Girl; New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year awards for The Friends and The Disappearance.
Member: Harlem Writers Guild (cofounder; president, 1967-1978); American Negro Theater; Committee for the Negro in the Arts.
Addresses: Home —New York, NY. Agent —Ellen Levine Literary Agency, Inc., 15 East 26th St., Ste. 1801, New York, NY 10010.
about what she terms society’s “old prejudices” and “fixed ideas.rdquo; And she has encouraged young people to change their circumstances. In Edith Jackson, for example, a teenaged orphan girl living in a foster home is told by a lawyer, “You will never count unless you decide to break the rules, take hold of your life, and make yourself count.”
Guy’s first young adult trilogy—The Friends (1973), Ruby (1976), and Edith Jackson (1978)—is probably her bestknown work. Each installment was named an American Library Association (ALA) best book for young adults, and the series is often used as a learning tool in schools throughout the United States and England. The Friends was later made into a television documentary.
Guy later wrote another trilogy—this time of young adult mystery stories based on the adventures of an inner-city sleuth named Imamu Jones. The first book of the series, The Disappearance (1979), also won “best book” from the ALA. It was followed by two others, New Guys Around the Block (1983) and And I Heard a Bird Sing (1987). Guy’s outlook is reflected in what she wrote about the series for her publisher, Delacorte Press: “Believing as I do that the world’s survival rests with the young, I like to think that my contribution as a writer to their understanding of the world lies in exposing a segment of society often overlooked, ignored, or treated with contempt.”
Guy also has written adult novels, among them My Love, My Love or The Peasant Girl. In addition, she has written stories for children and has adapted and translated a Senegalese tale from French into English. A result of her West Indian heritage, Guy speaks Creole and French. Her longtime interest in African history and culture has taken her to Haiti to observe life there, as well as to Africa. Some of her books grew out of these trips.
Rosa Cuthbert Guy was born in Trinidad on September 1, 1925, though some sources put her year of birth at 1928. After immigrating to the United States with her family in 1932, she lived in Harlem with her parents, Henry and Audrey (Gonzales) Cuthbert, and her older sister, Ameze. Family tragedy forced Guy to grow up fast: her mother died when she was nine and her father died six years later. She and her sister lived in institutions and foster homes. Not surprisingly, many of Guy’s characters suffer parental loss and life among strangers. Guy was 14 when her sister became ill. She quit school and went to work in a factory in the garment district to support them both. By the age of 16, she was married to Warner Guy and the mother of a son, Warner Guy, Jr.
Later, Guy developed an interest in creative pursuits and took acting classes at the American Negro Theater. After she and her husband separated in 1950, she became involved with the Committee for the Negro in the Arts. She even performed in a play she wrote, Venetian Blinds, which was produced at a small Off-Off-Broadway theater in 1954. Frustrated by the lack of roles available to black actors, Guy told Jerrie Norris in her biography, Presenting Rosa Guy, “It was a one-shot deal and after[wards] I started writing short stories.”
She had spent years honing her literary skills, studying writing with Viola Brothers Shaw and at New York University in the 1940s. In the early 1950s Guy and other young black writers, including John Killens, who encouraged her to keep writing, formed the Harlem Writers Guild, a workshop in which writers shared and critiqued their work. “What we wanted to do,” she told Norris, “was to have a group that really projected the … type of writing… that could only come from the black experience in the United States…” She served as the Guild’s president from 1967 to 1978.
Guy published her first novel, Bird at My Window, in 1966. Powerful and intense, it was written for adults about adults. The author was moved in part to write the book following the shocking murder of her husband in 1962 and her subsequent trip to Haiti, which gave her an opportunity to sort out her feelings on violence in American society. Thomas L. Vince said of its main character in Best Sellers, “When first encountered, Wade Williams is recovering in the psychopathic ward of a New York hospital…. Unlike the bird at his window, thirty-eight-year-old Wade has never been free and… one is given a stunning insight into the forces that hampered his freedom, discouraged his talent, and crushed his spirit.” Brooks Johnson of the Negro Digest praised the novel for its “evocation of Harlem” and the “amoralization of a black man.” According to him and other critics, Guy’s writing showed great promise.
In 1968, after race riots, civil rights protests, and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Guy traveled across the nation interviewing young black adults about their reactions to these events. She edited their comments, and they were published in 1971 in her first book of nonfiction, Children of Longing. The social concerns and compelling voices of the youths represented in this book later appeared in Guy’s young adult fiction.
Because of her unflinching treatment of the effects of racism and discrimination, her sophisticated subject matter, and the obvious anger and pain in her work, Guy’s young adult books have elicited a variety of reactions. Author Alice Walker praised The Friends as a “heart-slammer” in the New York Times Book Review and observed, “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 that 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.” Times Literary Supplement contributor Brian Baumfield wrote of Edith Jackson, “This is a vigorous, uncompromising novel by Rosa Guy, [whose] characters, especially Edith, live and breathe and are totally credible… It is a raw novel of urgency and power”
Some reviewers, though, thought Guy’s subsequent young adult novel, The Disappearance, was too adult for young readers. It introduces Imamu Jones, a tough Harlem street youth acquitted of murder, who becomes a sleuth. When he is adopted by a black middle-class Brooklyn family and they suspect him of being connected with the disappearance of their daughter, Imamu learns that their prejudice is just as damaging as that of white middle-class families.
Katherine Paterson wrote in the Washington Post Book World, “This is a harsh book, but not a hopeless one. It is a book which cries to its readers to resist being sucked into crushing and being crushed.”
School Library Journal praised New Guys Around the Block (1983), as reprinted in the 1992 Delacorte Press catalog, for being “dramatic and moving.” This sequel to The Disappearance follows Imamu as he leaves his middle-class foster home to return to Harlem to care for his ailing alcoholic mother. There he solves the mystery of a “phantom” burglar in the white neighborhood nearby after he and other black men in his area automatically become suspects.
The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books praised Guy’s last installation of this series, And I Heard a Bird Sing (1987), for having “some strong black characters” but also noted that “too often” they become “sounding boards for ideas that seem grafted on… rather than emerging naturally.” The book revisits Imamu, who is living with his recovered mother in Brooklyn. While delivering groceries to the estate of a wealthy white woman he becomes a prime suspect in a murder and solves the crime to prevent his arrest.
During the 1980s Guy wrote about teenagers and their families from a new perspective. In A Mirror of Her Own (1981), by some accounts her least successful young adult novel, Guy describes a white family living in wealthy suburban surroundings and convincingly portrays the effects of racial discrimination on white and black people. A better-received second novel for adults followed, titled A Measure of Time. Here Guy returns to a Harlem setting but also writes about Montgomery, Alabama. She depicts the Harlem of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, rather than her usual time frame of the 1970s and ’80s. In this ironic story, Dorine Davis is born to a poor Alabama family and molested as a child by her boss, “Master Norton,” while working for him as a maid. Dorine eventually becomes an upscale shoplifter but winds up vindicated as a wealthy woman in Harlem three decades later. Los Angeles Times reviewer Stuart Schoffman described A Measure of Time as “a black bildungsroman [novel of education] in the tradition of Claude McKay, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin [and] a sharp and well-written meld of storytelling and sociology.” He observed, “The writing is impressive, smelling of truth, hard and cutting and coarse, completely appropriate for such a sassy narrator as Dorine.”
Guy’s first venture into the world of children’s books was also a success. While visiting Senegal, Guy discovered a folktale by the Senegalese writer Birago Diop and adapted and translated it from French into English. Titled Mother Crocodile, it was published as a children’s book in 1981 and won the Coretta Scott king Award. Marguerite Feitlowitz of the New York Times Book Review wrote, “Guy is at her best in the lyrical passages, in leisurely descriptions of mythical landscapes. She has a good ear, and her prose has pleasing rhythms.” In 1984 Guy wrote another children’s book, Paris, Pee Wee and Big Dog, about three street-smart boys.
A year later, Guy drew on her knowledge of the Caribbean to retell a fable set there in My Love, My Love or The Peasant Girl, on which the Broadway musical Once on This Island was based. In the tale, a poor peasant girl falls in love with a boy whose differences from her in color and social standing necessitate great sacrifice on her part, and her action provokes the island’s temperamental voodoo gods. This philosophical, spiritual adult story also illuminates Guy’s favorite themes of race and class.
Guy has continued to write about class conflict and color distinctions among African Americans, as typified by The Music of Summer, her 1992 young adult novel about a poor, dark teenager who clashes with her lighter-skinned upper-middle-class friends during a summer on Cape Cod. Guy has also pursued the themes of friendship and family life in children’s stories like Billy the Great (1992), which revolves around a boy who teaches his parents about choosing one’s own friends. Spring of 1993 found the author working on a new novel for adults.
Young adult fiction
The Friends, Holt, 1973.
Ruby: A Novel, Viking, 1976.
Edith Jackson, Viking, 1978.
The Disappearance, Delacorte, 1979.
A Mirror of Her Own, Delacorte, 1981.
New Guys Around the Block, Delacorte, 1983.
And I Heard a Bird Sing, Delacorte, 1987.
The Ups and Downs of Carl Davis III, Delacorte, 1989.
The Music of Summer, Delacorte, 1992.
Bird at My Window, Lippincott, 1966, Schocken, 1985.
A Measure of Time, Holt, 1983.
My Love, My Love or The Peasant Girl, Holt, 1985.
(Adaptation and translation) Birago Diop, Mother Crocodile: An Uncle Amadou Tale From Senegal, Delacorte, 1981.
Paris, Pee Wee and Big Dog, Gollancz, 1984, Delacorte, 1985.
Billy the Great, Delacorte, 1992.
Ten Times Black, edited by Julian Mayfield, Bantam, 1972.
Sixteen: Short Stories by Outstanding Writers for Young Adults, Delacorte, 1984.
Venetian Blinds (one-act play; produced at Topical Theater, New York City), 1954.
(Editor), Children of Longing (nonfiction anthology), Holt, 1971.
Also author of essays and contributor to periodicals, including Cosmopolitan, New York Times Magazine, Redbook, and Freedomways.
Guy’s My Love, My Love or The Peasant Girl was adapted by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty for a stage musical titled Once on This Island.
Black Writers, Gale, 1988.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 26, Gale, 1983.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, Gale, 1984.
Guy, Rosa, The Friends, Holt, 1973.
Norris, Jerrie, Presenting Rosa Guy, Twayne, 1988.
Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.
Something About the Author, Volume 14, Gale, 1978.
Best Sellers (University of Scranton), January 15, 1966.
Bulletin (Center for Children’s Books), April 1987.
Essence, October 1979; November 1991.
Los Angeles Times, August 24, 1983.
New York Times, December 4, 1979; October 9, 1983.
New York Times Book Review, November 4, 1973; December 2, 1979; October 4,1981; August 28,1983.
Publishers Weekly, October 5, 1992.
Times Literary Supplement, December 14, 1979; July 18, 1980.
Washington Post Book World, November 11, 1979.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an audiotape of the speech “Children’s Writing Today for Tomorrow’s Adults,” given at the Boston Globe Book Festival, 1984, and a Delacorte Press catalog, 1992.
—Alison Carb Sussman
"Guy, Rosa 1925(?)–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 18, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/guy-rosa-1925
"Guy, Rosa 1925(?)–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved November 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/guy-rosa-1925