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Goldie Taylor survived abuse in East St. Louis and drew on literary giants to find success

Goldie Taylor

Goldie Taylor started teaching herself to read around age 3, sounding out the words written on billboards and above storefronts.

She eventually moved on to encyclopedia volumes and, in middle school, the work of James Baldwin and other African American intellectuals. Along the way she endured years of abuse and sexual assaults, sleeping on the floor of her aunt’s living room in East St. Louis and receiving little emotional support from the adults in her life.

Taylor chronicles her childhood in her memoir “The Love You Save.” She’ll discuss the book Wednesday at the Ethical Society of St. Louis with Peggy Lewis-LeCompte, a teacher Taylor credits with teaching her how to present arguments effectively in written form. Left Bank Books is sponsoring the event.

As a child, Taylor bounced between East St. Louis and her mother’s house in St. Ann, navigating among schools made up almost entirely of Black students and ones where all of her peers were white.

She moved with her mother to Atlanta at age 17. Later she became a Marine specializing in broadcasting, a novelist and a prolific writer of essays and op-eds. Last year she became senior vice president at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, leading the agency’s communications efforts.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Taylor about her memoir.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: You’ve said that this is a story you never planned to tell publicly. Why write the book?

Goldie Taylor: I think there are some things that unfold in your life that you are a part of or a witness to that maybe they hurt so much that you disassociate from them, that you put them away, that to be able to function every day, you can't carry it around on your back. Things get too heavy.

This was one of those things that I had simply tucked away. And after a while, after lots of decades, I think I regarded it as something that didn't even matter, that the entire era of my life between maybe 11 or 12 and 16, that they didn't matter to the woman that I had become. But there was a day in August of 2019 that it all came rushing back. It was by a conversation with a granddaughter of mine.

Goodwin: What happened in August 2019?

Taylor: There was a conversation with my oldest grandchild, Taylor. And the fight was, “Why can't you sleep in your own room?” And she said, “I don't really like my room.”

And I said, there's lots of things to love in here. You have beautiful curtains, pretty paintings on the wall, all your favorite stuffed animals are here. And I said, “Nana didn't have a bed when she was your age, or even my own room.”

And I remembered at the moment of sharing a room in bed with my older sister who was seven years older, but then not so long after that, not having any room at all and making my pallet on the floor of my aunt's living room in East St. Louis along with a gaggle of other cousins.

I had to figure out, how did you get to that floor? And when I realized the chain of events that led to it, it broke my heart, quite frankly — for myself, for my parents, for the entirety of my family, for our community. When I realized how I got to that floor it left me, well, it left me mute.

Goodwin: But with a powerful voice in your pen, which we get to share in as the readers.

Taylor: I guess. I've always been mouthy, my mother would say. I've always had something to say about something all of my life. But that voice got a form. It got a reason for being. When I was in middle school in East St. Louis, I came upon an English teacher. She's my honors English teacher in eighth and ninth grade. Her name is Peggy Lewis-LeCompte.

She was the first who challenged me and who challenged me to speak aloud, but with form and with discipline and with intention and with understanding what's on the other side of your voice. How it lands with people was important.

And so the voice not only was out loud, but she taught me how to put it on a page. And so the very same essays that I'm writing today, I tell people that I wrote the first one in the eighth grade and I've been writing ever since.

Goodwin: You tell a story in the book about a librarian in East St. Louis who gave you a photocopy of Frederick Douglass’s introduction to a book by Ida B. Wells. There's a real sense in this book of African Americans passing along a history to each other that was not being documented in the classroom or elsewhere.

Taylor: I think that's absolutely true. I think I heard a speaker once say, and I was in high school, that there's only room for 12 faces on the calendar. And we had those paper calendars that hung on the wall back then. And so during Black History Month, there are maybe 12 people, maybe 20, that we'll celebrate, but we'll celebrate them in passages. We won't celebrate the fullness of their story. We'll only hear pieces of who Dr. King was. We won't hear all of him, but your job is to fill in the blanks. We filled in those blanks as a community through family and other relations by passing it down.

My first introduction to Malcolm X was that paperback my uncle carried in his trench coat pocket walking down 10th Street to our house. He wanted to bring me something to read. He didn't know if this was the right thing, but there was a Black man on the cover and he thought I might be interested.

I don't even remember the librarian's name in East St. Louis at that public library, but I just remember her glorious red lipstick and her big black round curly hair. And how she said there isn't a lot here, but she was going to show me what she had and I was going to devour every single thing.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.