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Gwen Gilyard: a pioneer in her own rite

Nayaba Arinde | 4/12/2011, 4:39 p.m.

A quiche baking in the kitchen lent its powerful aroma throughout Gwendolyn Akua Afriyie Gilyard's beautiful home filled with the most wondrous art from all parts of the Diaspora. Those two senses, hit at the same time, formed the backdrop of the interview.

The retired teacher and actress, dressed in a traditional Nigerian up-and-down-wrapper and blouse, welcomed the AmNews to the Harlem home she shares with her husband for four decades, Manuel Gilyard, chairman of the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee and co-founder of the Ebony Society of Philatelic Events and Reflections. "From the Cottonfield to Higher Places" is both the name of Gwendolyn Gilyard's autobiography-in-progress and an apt description of her life thus far. The graduate of Georgia's Moultrie High School for Negro Youth has spent the best part of 40 years in New York. Before she settled up north, she spent four years teaching in Ghana. Gilyard taught drama in Mpraeso and Accra. Upon her return to the States, she began teaching in Harlem schools and met and married Manuel Gilyard.

"I met him 39 years ago in New York," she recalled. "I was teaching, and my students called me 'the African teacher.' There was an issue with his nephew, and he claimed he just came to check on me. But I think he just wanted to see who this African teacher was. We've been married just a little bit less than 40 years."

Surrounded by intriguing works of art and family photos and prompted to reminisce, Gilyard told the AmNews, "My greatest interest is theater. I majored in theater in college. When I came back from Ghana, I went to the National Black Theater in Harlem. It was really great. It did more than give me the opportunity to show my acting ability; it helped me to develop my inner self. Barbara Ann Teer really did have a method for people to investigate themselves and to see what they were about, and how to relate to other Black people."

She smiled warmly before continuing, "I went on leave from there when I was pregnant with my oldest daughter and I never went back. I try and pay my dues as a member, but I haven't been involved with any theater work. I had to teach to make a living." So she taught elementary students at PS 129 and PS 200 "and then I became a librarian," she said.

"I got involved with my kids, and I loved it. I loved being an elementary school teacher because I had a principal who allowed me to do more or less whatever I wanted to do. I said I wanted to teach writing to the kids, and so I did: from kindergarten to sixth grade."

To her horror, though, Gilyard said she discovered "that the kids didn't know anything about Black history. Some of them knew about Martin Luther King and a few knew about Malcolm X--I think the movie was out then. So I said to the principal, 'Can I please teach Black history, Ms. Smith?' and she said 'yes,' so I did. I really did enjoy that because I was able to create my own curriculum and materials." Despite what folk might have said about District 5, Gilyard said, "They did concentrate on Black history and they did concentrate on libraries.