Gwen Gilyard: a pioneer in her own rite

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

They had a caravan that went round to schools and had a class at least once a week, and there were teachers who taught Black history. But like what happened in the universities as the years went by, all that dissipated."

Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, as the mother of two young girls, Gilyard "started a rites of passage group. Before that, my eldest daughter and her friends were initiated into womanhood. We had classes and ceremonies. Other parents were involved and Rev. Williams and Donna [Marimba] Ani. In 1986, we had a rites of passage for my youngest daughter, who was about 11 years old. I asked someone from The New York Timesto write it up, and when the article came out, we got so many calls at the Harlem School of the Arts. People were asking, 'How can we do it?'"

Gilyard said that there were so many inquiries, "We said, 'Hey, let's just write it up in a book.'" So they did: "A Rites of Passage for African American Girls" was published. But there was more to come. Demand was heavy.

"We held the first conference on rites of passage in America. We tried to have conferences every year, but they became scattered, and it was expensive. We decided to build an organization. It was called the Sojourner Truth Adolescent Rites Society. We were part of the pioneer movement for adolescent rites of passage. There weren't but a few of us. But there were some like Paul Hill; and there were people involved with adolescent psychology. We had our conferences, and we prevailed for 11 years. But one member died, two moved away, and I was doing a lot by myself and I was marketing the book, too. So it became a little much for me. And then people didn't want to do it and children of the members were all grown and they didn't want to be bothered. And some people didn't have time

because they were trying to get their kids in college and had to do extra work. So we really couldn't keep it up."

That took up 11 years, Gilyard sighed, thus, "I never really thought about going back to the theater."

Meanwhile her own children, Maisha and Tulani, had grown. She wrote a slim tome, "Adventures in a Country Place," penned her autobiography and kept involved in different social and educational groups. One such organization was EYES--Every Year, Every Story:

"We try and get every story to be recorded, but the Library of Congress doesn't recognize a whole lot of Black writers. We have written a letter to them, but we haven't heard from them. But we feel that we can get them to respond if we can get one or two well-known authors to be a part of our petition asking them to record more Black writers. We are trying to reach publishers, but a lot of publishers don't automatically record their writers."

For clarity, the 70-year-old Ms. Gwen said, "I do have to have books that are recorded because I have limited eye-sight."