Wade-Gayles, Gloria Jean 1937(?)–
Gloria Jean Wade-Gayles 1937(?)–
Scholar, literary critic, and essayist Gloria Jean Wade-Gayles has written extensively on African-American women in fiction. Long associated with Spelman College in Atlanta, she is an ardent supporter of historically black colleges and universities, viewing them as a cultural repository and a beacon to bring a new generation in touch with its heritage. The writer’s own heritage is a quintessentially African-American one for her era: born in the segregated South, she came of age during the civil-rights era and emerged as a strong voice in black feminist literature in the 1970s. It was a story she chronicled in a compelling 1993 memoir, Pushed Back to Strength: A Black Woman’s Journey Home.
Wade-Gayles grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1940s, and lived in a public housing complex in what was then a rigorously segregated city. Nevertheless, she later came to realize that living in a tight-knit, ethnically homogenous community did have certain advantages. In her book Pushed Back to Strength, she recalled the insular black community of Memphis—its schools, her teachers, the doctors and dentists who served the community—and reflected that it ultimately gave her a sense of pride in her heritage and the courage to go out into the world. She went back to her old neighborhood while writing her book, and drove past the blocks of public housing units that were once her home, wondering, “in disbelief, if I ever lived there and loved living there. There are no patches of earth decorated with [flowers], and the courtyards where I once played on hot sticky summer nights, under the careful watch of adults, are empty, desolate, and littered with paper cups and bags from fast food restaurants and broken bottles from corner liquor stores. Once the windows were open, now they are closed, and you can see little through the bars of the rooms that are seldom lighted at night.”
Wade-Gayles and her sister were raised by a mother who was determined that her daughters should succeed in the larger world. Bertha Reese Wade had been valedictorian of her own graduating class, and filled her Memphis home with books on various subjects for her daughters to read. During high school, they worked at the counter of a movie theater, and were allowed to study when business was slow. Both Wade sisters were excellent students, and the white theater owner asked them to tutor his own son and daughter—but soon informed them that they should address their “students” as “Mr. Herman” and “Miss Barbara.” Insulted, Wade-Gayles and her sister went home that night and told their mother that they planned to quit. Bertha Wade, however, refused to allow it. “This little job is a stepping stone,” their mother said, according to Wade-Gayles’s recollections in an Emory Magazine article by Allison O. Adams. “All these hurts are but a second in your life. This is a means to an end.”
Wade-Gayles entered LeMoyne College in Memphis—the city’s only college open to black students at the time—with a full scholarship, and planned to study math. When she became interested in literature and writing during her sophomore year, her mother supported her change in direction, and Wade-Gayles
At a Glance…
Born in Memphis, TN; daughter of Bertha Wade; married Joseph Nathan Gayles; children: Jonathan, Monica. Education: LeMoyne College, BA, 1959; Boston University, MA, 1962; George Washington University, doctoral studies, 1966–67; Emory University, PhD, 1981.
Career: Spelman College, Atlanta, GA, instructor, 1963–64, assistant professor, 1984–89, professor of English and women’s studies, 1989-; taught at Howard University, Washington, DC, Talladega College, Taladega, AL, and Dillard University, New Orleans, LA; contributor to various scholarly periodicals.
Selected memberships: College Language Association, executive board, 1977– National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Congress of Racial Equality.
Selected awards: Woodrow Wilson fellow, Boston University, 1962; Danforth fellow, 1974; National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, 1975; United Negro College Fund Mellon Research Grant, 1987–88, DuBois Research Fellow, Harvard University, 1990; Emory Medal, Association of Emory Alumni, 1994.
Addresses: Office— Spelman College, 350 Speiman Lane S.W., Atlanta, GA 30314–4399.
graduated with honors in 1959. From there she went on to Boston University, where she had been accepted as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow to study American literature. Boston, she discovered, was even more segregated than Memphis in some ways, and Wade-Gayles began participating in the city’s chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which worked across the country to break down color barriers.
After graduating from Boston University in 1962, Wade-Gayles began teaching at Speiman College in Atlanta, a black college for women situated near Morehouse College. Her civil rights activism continued, and after being arrested one time too many, she was fired from Speiman. She used the opportunity to devote herself full-time to the movement, and traveled throughout the South teaching and participating in voter registration drives. Along the way, she also came of age politically. As she wrote in Pushed Back to Strength, until one brief stint in jail, she had always prided herself on her perfect ponytail, part of a coif that rarely went back to its natural state. Once, however, she shared a cell with a woman who was there on a murder charge, and Wade-Gayles cried when she was released. “I could never be the same,” she wrote in her memoir. “Nor could my hair. A metal comb placed on an open flame, heated, and then pulled through my hair suddenly seemed utterly ridiculous. Straightened hair became a weight pulling my head down when I wanted to hold it up. High. I decided to wear an Afro.”
For a time, Wade-Gayles taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she met her future husband. She wed Joseph Gayles, who had a Ph.D. in chemistry, began work toward her own doctorate at George Washington University, and soon became the mother of two. She earned a Ph.D. in American studies from Atlanta’s Emory University in 1981. Speiman, which had changed with the times, rehired her in 1983 and she rejoined the faculty in 1989 as a full professor of English and women’s studies.
Wade-Gayles’s first book, No Crystal Stair: Visions of Race and Sex in Black Women’s Fiction, 1946–76, appeared in 1984. Its title is borrowed from a line in a Langston Hughes poem, and the essays focused on the works of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, and other acclaimed African-American women writers. Wade-Gayles’s own literary talents were showcased in Anointed to Fly, a collection of poetry issued by Harlem River Press in 1991. Her memoir Pushed Back to Strength arrived two years later and won enthusiastic praise from reviewers. The title of the work comes from what Wade-Gayles used to say to her grandmother in complaint about the harshly segregated Memphis of her childhood. Her grandmother would reply, “They’re pushing you back to us, where you get strong.” Writing in Essence, V. R. Peterson found that the author “shares a bittersweet portrait of how our people survived then and must continue to survive now.” Booklist critic Margaret Flanagan described the book’s recollections as “a richly textured autobiographical tapestry,” and termed it a work “that serves as an illuminating testament to the collective tenacity of” black women in America.
Other works from Wade-Gayles include My Soul Is a Witness: African-American Women’s Spirituality, which she edited. The 1995 collection features a range of selections on several topics, from colloquially worded spirituals to academic essays, including writers such as Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou, and Iyanla Vanzant. “Brought together [by Wade-Gayles], these pieces create a garden ablaze with glory,” noted an African American Review critique by Carla L. Peterson. Wade-Gayles also earned strong praise for her 1996 work, Rooted Against the Wind: Personal Essays. The essays focus on such subjects as her own escape from sexual assault, her changed views on interracial marriage, and her realization that perhaps some of the openly gay Spelman students who voiced objections to her syllabus had a valid point. In “Going Home Again: The Dilemma of Today’s Young Black Intellectuals,” she argues that historically black colleges like Spelman and LeMoyne serve a vital purpose in the African-American community. She wrote that they are important cultural heritage institutions, as well as excellent settings in which students can thrive even in modern, affirmative-action times, and dismisses the arguments of some of her peers that the schools encourage segregation. “Taken together, these essays show a mind hard at work at maintaining the marriage of passion and reason,” asserted a Publishers Weekly contributor.
Wade-Gayles also edited the recollections in Father Songs: Testimonies by African-American Sons and Daughters, published in 1997. In her introduction, she describes the widely held negative image of black men as parents in America, while essays from John Edgar Wideman, Pearl Cleage, and others present a far more varied portrait. A Publishers Weekly review of the work noted that since the recollections presented fathers who raised their families in a more distant era, a “racial dignity in the face of bigotry is an important facet of their identity.”
Wade-Gayles had been honored with Spelman’s Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair by the time her eighth book was published in 2003. In Praise of Our Teachers: A Multicultural Tribute to Those Who Inspired Us, edited by Wade-Gayles, features essays by Lang-ston Hughes, James Earl Jones, Angela Davis, and Howard Zinn, among others. It offers a collective portrait of teachers in both parochial and private schools, from the elementary to college level, during the twentieth century. “I have chosen to remain at historically black colleges, and that has meant that I’m outside the mainstream,” Wade-Gayles told Adams in the Emory Magazine article. “As a critic, as a writer, as anything, you don’t get the kind of recognition working in a black school that you would get working in a white school,” she pointed out. Yet Wade-Gayles remains committed to Spelman. “My students give me energy, pride, respect for the transforming power of literature and the learning experience,” she told Adams. “They are a magical mirror that reflects both the past and the future, down this long, long stretch of years. I see myself, and I see my mother.”
No Crystal Stair: Visions of Race and Sex in Black Women’s Fiction, 1946–76, Pilgrim Press, 1984.
Anointed to Fly, Harlem River Press, 1991.
Pushed Back to Strength: A Black Woman’s Journey Home, Beacon Press, 1993.
Moving in My Heart: African American Women’s Spirituality, Beacon Press, 1994.
(Editor) My Soul Is a Witness: African-American Women’s Spirituality, Beacon Press, 1995.
Rooted Against the Wind: Personal Essays, Beacon Press, 1996.
Father Songs: Testimonies by African-American Sons and Daughters, Beacon Press, 1997.
(Editor) In Praise of Our Teachers: A Multicultural Tribute to Those Who Inspired Us, Beacon Press, 2003.
African American Review, Summer 1997, p. 355.
American Visions, April 1996, p. 28; April-May 1997, p. 31.
Black Issues Book Review, May 2001, p. 76.
Black Issues in Higher Education, October 1, 1998, p. 29.
Booklist, October 15, 1993, p. 416; October 1, 1996, p. 310.
Emory Magazine, Spring 1995.
Essence, December 1993, p. 54.
Library Journal, August 1997, p. 112.
Publishers Weekly, August 23, 1993, p. 50; August 14, 1995, p. 28; August 26, 1996, p. 84; April 21, 1997, p. 51.
San Francisco Chronicle, November 16, 1996, p. 5.
“Gloria Jean Wade-Gayles,” Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (June 15, 2003).
“The Making of a Permanent Afro, January 12, 2003,” Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, www.mvuf.org/minister/afro.html (June 23, 2003).
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