Coloring Outside the Circles

As a teacher, scholar, and writer, alumna Gloria Wade-Gayles finds her voice beyond the mainstream

By Allison O. Adams

 As teenagers in the 1950s, Gloria Wade and her sister, Faye, sold movie tickets and popcorn at the Georgia Theatre in Memphis. On slow nights, they would open their schoolbooks behind the counter and study, as well as tutor the son and daughter of their white employer. Embarrassed that his children needed help with their homework from "colored girls," the proprietor told Gloria and Faye one evening that they were either to address the two as "Miss Barbara" and "Mr. Herman" or lose their jobs.

After work that night, Gloria and Faye decided to quit. But their mother, Bertha Reese Wade, would not allow it, knowing there were no other safe workplaces nearby where the girls could study on the job. A voracious reader and high school valedictorian, Bertha Wade filled her family's home in a Memphis housing project with books on literature, philosophy, history, and theology. She encouraged her daughters to excel in the city's segregated schools, taught them self-discipline and determination, and regularly engaged them in polemic on religion and politics.

"This little job is a stepping stone," she told Gloria and Faye. "All these hurts are but a second in your life. This is a means to an end."

The girls remained at the Georgia Theatre for three years, still studying and tutoring but never once addressing Barbara and Herman by their imposed titles; they simply did not call them by name. Years later, when Gloria and Faye had both earned graduate degrees, Gloria would write, "Mama had what she called a `single eye.' It focused on our education."

Now an acclaimed writer, teacher, and scholar of African-American women's literature who earned her Ph.D. degree from Emory in 1981, Gloria Wade-Gayles says of her mother's love for knowledge and books, "She saw the freedom to trust your own power to think, a validation of yourself as something other than just a sponge that receives. We were so bound in time and circumstances that the books were liberating, empowering, motivating."

In her 1993 memoir, Pushed Back to Strength: A Black Woman's Journey Home, Wade-Gayles writes of a wise and loving woman intent on her daughters' achievement: "Mama envisioned my sister Faye and me earning graduate degrees, giving speeches, publishing, traveling abroad, winning medals. . . . And toward that end, she `scrimped and saved,' as she put it, and `went without.' " Wade-Gayles often hears her mother's lessons echoed in the writings of Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison: "The struggle for a sense of community, resilience, and hope. The absolute necessity to somehow save our humanity," she says. "Those are universal themes, made different by the reason, the place, and the spiritual resonance of our struggle." Sustained by those lessons, Wade-Gayles has moved as a teacher and writer out of what she calls "the narrow space of race and the dark enclosure of sex."

In 1955, Gloria Wade, who married Joseph Gayles in 1966, received a full scholarship to LeMoyne College, the only Memphis college that accepted African-American students. She declared herself a math major and an English minor, but during her sophomore year a visiting literature scholar urged her to write. "I talked to my mother about it, and she said, `Go with your heart,' " Wade-Gayles recalls. In 1959, she earned her bachelor's degree in English, graduating cum laude with distinction. That same year she began work toward a master's degree in American literature as a Woodrow Wilson fellow at Boston University. In a city that, she writes, "failed every test on racial sensitivity and racial justice," she joined the Boston Committee On Racial Equality. Her experiences in the early sixties planning demonstrations and preparing leaflets in Boston were the beginning of her long involvement in the civil rights movement.

Upon returning to the South in 1963, she became an instructor at Spelman College in Atlanta. She also continued as a civil rights worker and was arrested many times during peaceful demonstrations. At the end of that school year, she was dismissed from Spelman for being, as she writes in her memoir, one of the "faculty at the black colleges who were tampering with Atlanta's image." She spent the following three months as part of the Confederation of Freedom Organizations' "nonviolent invasion" of Mississippi, teaching in freedom schools and registering voters. After that summer, she began teaching at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she met her future husband, who had earned his Ph.D. degree in chemistry from Brown University. In 1967, the couple moved to the West Coast. Two years later, with a one-year-old son and a daughter on the way, they returned to teach at the Atlanta University Center.

Gloria Wade-Gayles entered Emory's Institute for the Liberal Arts (ILA) in the mid-seventies to pursue her doctoral degree. "[The ILA] was a twenty-first-century vision of education," she says. "It was interdisciplinary, it permitted students to do women's studies, ethnic studies, multicultural studies--to color outside the circles." The ILA was also one of the University's few programs with African-American female faculty members--Gloria Blackwell in African-American literature and Delores Aldridge in sociology. Wade-Gayles remembers the faculty of the program, particularly her graduate adviser, Peter Dowell, as "unusual human beings, concerned about women's issues, ethnic issues, racial issues."

She received her Ph.D. degree in American studies in 1981, and in 1983 she returned to the faculty of Spelman, where she is now a professor of English and women's studies. In 1991, she was named Georgia's Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. That same year, she became a research fellow at the DuBois Institute of Harvard University and received Spelman's Presidential Award for Scholarship. Last fall, the Association of Emory Alumni honored her with the Emory Medal.

"Sister Professor Gloria, as I am fond of calling her, is a master teacher . . . ," writes Spelman President Johnnetta B. Cole in the foreword to Pushed Back to Strength. "Gayles is a tough and a tender teacher who sets impossible standards for her students to reach and then works with them until they get there."

Gloria Wade-Gayles' scholarly writings reject traditional approaches to literary criticism by presenting a deeply personal perspective. "When you step outside the expectations of the academy, you take a risk," she says. "But I can't breathe professionally without also breathing personally. My work is a reflection of my identity. It's about going to the art and hearing my own voice, my mother's voice, my grandmother's, my uncle's, my father's."

In addition to Pushed Back to Strength, Wade-Gayles wrote a 1984 interdisciplinary study, No Crystal Stair: Race and Sex in Black Women's Novels, 1946-76. A collection of poetry, Anointed to Fly, was published in 1991. No Crystal Stair examines the novels of writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Ann Petry in the context of history and sociology, casting a light of authenticity on fictional characters. In the book's first chapter, Wade-Gayles writes, "I believe the fascinating and complex imaginary women the writers have given us are counterparts of black women in real life, and we love them and hate them, learn from them, and grow in sensitivity and strength because we step, invited, into their lives and dreams."

Her poetry, which documents her evolving relationships with family, community, and work, was composed "on stolen time and in borrowed rooms," she says. "I am not at all pleased with what I have written. . . . I released them knowing of their flaws. It's a statement on the reality of many black women of my generation. We simply didn't seek time or space for anything other than the commitments that mattered--family, service, community, and the struggle."

As a New York Times book reviewer noted, Wade-Gayles further blends life and literature in Pushed Back to Strength. "Her poet's voice makes her a powerful creator of images . . . ," the reviewer wrote. "And her story is flawlessly told." Wade-Gayles says the book "was a way of pulling on the brakes. When you're racing downhill and you're afraid of where you're going, the memoir stops and asks, How can I as an African American reclaim and pass on that which kept my people sane and humane and dignified and strong? In this time of violence running rampant in our communities, of savage inequalities and now resegregated schools, these were our strengths. How do we recapture them?"

Her current projects represent a continuing effort to recapture those strengths. Due out this spring is My Soul is a Witness: African-American Women's Spirituality, an anthology of writings of various genres she has edited. She is co-editing with writer Haki Madhubuti a collection of essays on African-American fathers. A forthcoming book of her personal essays addresses current political issues facing African Americans, such as relations between African Americans and Jews and the future of historically African-American colleges. And she has begun her first novel, which concerns "the complexity of sexuality for a black woman over fifty in a culture that celebrates youth and has a very narrow, racist, sexist definition of femininity and beauty."

Wade-Gayles calls herself a passionate, unorthodox teacher. In the classroom, her gestures are large and embracing, and her gravelly voice rises and falls in volume. She raps the blackboard with chalk to emphasize a point, her bracelets jangling with each punch. Engaged by her theatrics, her students laugh, speak out, and ask questions. She thrives on their energy and participation. "Unless we encourage them to share what they're thinking, to claim their space, we will not help them become critical thinkers," she says.

She has spent this year as a visiting professor at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Bennett's students, like Spelman's, are all women and predominantly African-American. "I have chosen to remain at historically black colleges, and that has meant that I'm outside the mainstream," she says. "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, even if that white school does not begin to compare in quality with the black school."

She has never doubted her decision. "My students give me energy, pride, respect for the transforming power of literature and the learning experience," she says. "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. I see teachers and writers and community workers--people who have so much to share and receive.


Pushed Back to Strength: A Black Woman's Journey Home

It might have been the collective consciousness of the race that gave me understanding of racial pain, but I think it was the message I read in Uncle Prince's eyes when he recalled the difficult times my mother's family had had growing up. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, they had lived in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Later, they moved to Memphis, "as bad as any Mississippi town," my uncle would often say. Theirs was a reality of racial violence. My uncle just didn't "have the stomach" for it, Mama often said. It was devastating for someone as sensitive as he.

"And, then too," Aunt Mae would add, "Prince was so bright, the schools didn't know what to do with him." The teachers would tell my grandmother that he learned everything so fast they couldn't keep him busy. The truant officer who returned my uncle to school many times was determined to save him. My aunt remembers the words passed down by my grandmother: "Prince Reese," he would say, "you too smart not to be in school." Many years later, I would read Toni Morrison's Sula and think about my uncle. Sula had no outlets for her creativity. A frustrated artist without clay or paint, she became destructive and self-destructive as well. My uncle, an artist, had only the pencils available to him in my grandmother's kitchen and nowhere to display his art.

For more about Gloria Wade-Gayles, read Prelude.

Return to Spring 1995 contents page.