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.
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.”
As for her own book, “It includes different aspects of my life: ‘From the Cottonfields to Higher Places.’ I sure did pick cotton,” she laughed. “But I’m not going to publish it–it is for my family.”
She is a woman who has experienced so much and contributed so much to communities, south, north American and on the Continent of Africa. “I am very concerned about what is going on with us environmentally as well as politically,” she told the AmNews. “I think I have always been grateful for what I have achieved, because as I said, coming from the cotton fields of Georgia these things didn’t have to happen. The most wonderful thing was that I had some extended family members who made sure that I got an education. In high school, I met this wonderful teacher who got me started in drama and then she sent me off to Florida A&M with a full scholarship. In the second year, President Eisenhower sent my college theater group to Africa on a six-country tour. That opened up a lot of things.”
When a grateful student sits at the foot of an elder griot, the act of recollecting brings all sorts of thoughts to the forefront. “We’ve had a pretty good life with the girls,” Ms.Gilyard said quietly. Of her husband, the well-known community activist Manny Gilyard, she said, “Anything I’ve been involved in, he has always been helpful. He has introduced me to a whole lot of situations I might not have gotten involved in.”
As for his stamp-collecting hobby, she admitted, “I’m not as involved as he is, but I love stamp collecting. My stamp collection involves African art and Native American art. He does a little bit more than I do because he doesn’t fear spending money!”
With pride though, she shows her African, Gullah and Native American baskets, which border the walls of her parlor. “Manny is Gullah,” she said proudly.
The member of the Abyssinian Church’s Black Teachers Who Care keeps her finger on the social pulse. Reflecting on the nation’s new president, Gilyard offered, “President Obama, along with us, has a lot to do. People should give him a chance and see what is going to happen. We have to support him because the job is great, and because he inherited the problems. It was just like when these Black people were getting these towns and cities that were already washed up. That’s what has happened with him.
“We know he has to think carefully about what he says, especially with what is happening with Israel. He has to use his common sense. We have to watch and see and give support. I think he has the ability to think and make good decisions.”
For more information about Every Year, Every Story, call (212) 928-5165.