When I arrived in Brooklyn at the age of fifteen, staring a new culture in the face, and the prospect of freezing cold winters, I was excited, but worried. I worried about what I would wear. I worried about whether I would fit in. I worried because so many people did not look like me. Growing up in Trinidad & Tobago, everyone looked like me, more or less. It’s a rainbow of brown hues in the hot Trinidad sun, from blue-black, to red (a color name reserved for people with light skin). In my own family, a mix of Indian and African ancestry, we had every color on the spectrum. But in New York, I was introduced to a whole lot more, plus entire shifts in cultures around every block. The city streets were jarringly weird. School was awkward (it was my first time going to a co-ed school). Finding clothing that didn’t out me as a foreigner and that kept me warm was a bit of a nightmare. But the hardest part of that transition was coming from a family “of means” to one that struggled financially. Then one day I found a book in the library that seemed written for me. It was Rosa Guy’s THE FRIENDS. And finally I didn’t feel like such an anomaly.
Written in 1973, it was Guy’s take on her own trek from Trinidad to New York. The narrator, Phylissia, aged 16 and finding her new life in America flawed and socially fraught, and with the same sudden financial woes, was me in print. Literally. Alice Walker called it a “heart-slammer.” THE FRIENDS was the first of a trilogy followed by RUBY (1976), and EDITH JACKSON (1978), all dealing with the lives of adolescent Black girls in New York, the first two from the perspective of Black Caribbean girls adjusting to American culture. Despite the fact that they were written about the New York of the 70s it was still very familiar. Guy’s books were surprisingly direct and felt to me like a much-needed drink of water. “She’s never afraid of the truth,” Maya Angelou once said. “Some writers dress the truth in a kind of elegant language, so it doesn’t seem quite so blatant, so harsh, so raw. But Rosa was not afraid of that.”
Another trilogy, THE DISAPPEARANCE (1979), NEW GUYS AROUND THE BLOCK (1983), and AND I HEARD A BIRD SING (1987) also called the Imamu Jones Mysteries, are about a Harlem teen who finds himself in and out of trouble—and jail, in an emotional and social landscape that still resonates today.
Standalone young adult novels include MIRROR OF HER OWN (1981), a coming of age story about eighteen-year-old Mary Abbot and THE MUSIC OF SUMMER (1992) which dealt with colorism viewed from the perspective of the darkest-skinned girl in a group of teens during a summer on Cape Cod. For younger readers, Guy wrote PARIS, PEE WEE AND BIG DOG (1984) about ten-year-old Paris and his friends on one adventurous and unsupervised day in New York City, and THE UPS AND DOWNS OF CARL DAVIS III (1992) about a Harlem boy who moves to live with his grandmother in South Carolina.
Guy also wrote picture books. In MOTHER CROCODILE: “MAMAN-CAIMAN” (1988), Guy retold a series of African folktales. The book won a Coretta Scott King Award for the illustrations by John Steptoe. BILLY THE GREAT (1992) explored what happens when parents have different plans for a kid’s future than the kid himself.
But Guy’s career began writing for adults. BIRD AT MY WINDOW (1966) was her first novel. A MEASURE OF TIME (1983) once again delved into her personal experiences living in Harlem, and MY LOVE, MY LOVE, OR THE PEASANT GIRL (1985), which has been described as The Little Mermaid meets Romeo and Juliet, was adapted for stage and became the eight-time Tony Award-winning Once on This Island.
What Guy did for the landscape of literature goes beyond her own writing contributions. In 1950, she was one of the founders (the only woman) of the Harlem Writer’s Guild. Their mission to develop works by writers of the African diaspora helped literary greats including Ossie Davis, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Sidney Poitier, and Walter Dean Myers. In 1977, the group was honored by the United Nations Society of Writers, and by 1986, founder John Oliver Killens estimated that their members “had produced over 300 published works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, and screen plays.”
Guy died in 2012 of cancer. While her work never became as popular as Myers’ for example, it was certainly as important and she herself may have been even more influential in the number of writers she helped to develop.