Rosa Guy: Writer who shone a light on Harlem's poorest youth

With others like Maya Angelou she stormed the UN and shouted down the US ambassador

The writer and militant Rosa Guy, who has died aged 89 in New York, was best known for her unflinching young-adult fiction. Of a career that spanned decades, she once said: "What I write about in large part is the state of mind of the Harlem community", and: "My concerns are the actual, everyday existence of its people: the hostilities, the anger and the small snatches of happiness."

Her most acclaimed work, A Measure of Time (1983), recreated Harlem life from the 1920s to the 1950s in the tenement flats and ageing thoroughfares that shaped the lives of generations of black people. Maya Angelou said that after reading it, "I [was] so overcome that I fell to weeping."

Rosa Cuthbert was born in Diego Martin, Trinidad, in 1922, and spent her first few years there. Her parents emigrated to the US, where Rosa and her sister, Ameze, joined them after three years spent in the care of relatives. Coming of age in New York in the 1930s was rough. The girls' parents separated and they lived with their mother until her death in 1934, when they rejoined their father. There was little money, and periods were spent in foster care.

However, Rosa did have West Indian kin and working-class roots. She marvelled at tales of the Jamaican Marcus Mosiah Garvey, leader of the world's largest black movement. In her teens, she became a factory worker and shop steward fighting racism in the powerful International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

In 1941 she married Warner Guy, with whom she had a son, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1946. She started to write and her earliest published works were short stories – "Magnify" and "Carnival" – which CLR James published in the 1960s in Trinidad.

Her activism persisted. Her first novel published in America and Britain, Bird at My Window (1966), was dedicated to the memory of Malcolm X, "... the pure gold salvaged from the gutter of the ghetto in which we live." This signalled her beginnings as a prolific writer and a lifetime activist, said Louise Meriwether, a friend of many decades.

Soon Guy's literary activism reflected Harlem's concerns. With her fellow writer John O Killens and the pan-Africanist scholar John Henrik Clarke, she co-founded the Harlem Writers Guild in 1950, the oldest organisation of writers of the African diaspora. Writers from the collective have influenced the movement for black literary liberation and include Angelou, Paule Marshall, Alice Childress and Audre Lorde. Later, as president, Guy explained, "What we wanted was to have a group that really projected the life, the style, the dialogue, the expression that could only come from the black experience in the United States".

For such a gritty subject, her novels for young people are lyrical and radical. Black boys, perhaps like young Malcolm Little (later Malcolm X), came of age amid violence, drugs, corruption and crime. Their troubles crowd her teenage novels, And I Heard a Bird Sing (1987), New Guys Around the Block (1983) and The Ups and Downs of Carl Davis III (1989), among others.

Guy's trilogy The Friends (1973), Ruby (1976) and Edith Jackson (1978) won praise from the American Library Association and attracted an almost cult-like following. Women thanked her for addressing the unspoken, powerful forces of race, sexuality and class that cripple black adolescent girls. She attracted a new following among Afro-Europeans through her lectures at the Institut Fur Jugendbuchforschung in Frankfurt and London's Riverside Studios in the 1980s.

African liberation was in her scope, too. In 1961, Guy and other black militants, including Angelou, Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, stormed into the UN General Assembly to protest about the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, first prime minister of the Congo. They shouted down the US ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, in an incident never before seen at the United Nations. "That rage became a part of us," Guy recalled, "a rage that went on to become part of the Black Revolution of the 1960s and '70s and the Black Power Movement."

At the time of her death from cancer, Rosa Guy had won international acclaim and numerous prestigious awards: the Coretta Scott King Award, The New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year citation and the Phyllis Wheatley award for contributions to literature. Her son died in 1995, but the five grandchildren who survive her – Didier, Warner, Charles, Alice and Ameze, and a grandnephew – called Guy "Mama Rosa"; to her six great grandchildren she was "GGMA", great grandma.

Rosa Cuthbert, writer and activist: born Diego Martin, Trinidad 1 September 1922; married 1941 Walter Guy (divorced 1946; one son deceased); died New York 3 June 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own