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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore