By Karen J. Rieley
It may be coincidence that two Black female writers who are receiving recent national recognition for their books graduated from the same high school. However, it may be part of the school’s legacy, and it’s interesting to draw lines between the two writers.
Deesha Philyaw and Dawnie Walton have burst into the world of literature in a big way. Who knew in the spring of 1989, when Philyaw had just graduated and Walton was finishing seventh grade at Stanton College Preparatory School, that these two would receive such acclaim 32 years later?
Philyaw’s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, has won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020/2021 Story Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize: the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. She was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for fiction. Her book focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church and is being adapted for television by HBO Max with Tessa Thompson executive producing. Philyaw is also a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and will be the 2022-2023 John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi.
The nine stories in Philyaw’s collection feature four generations of characters grappling with who they want to be in the world, caught as they are between the church’s double standards and their own needs and passions.
“I want Black women, particularly those who have been harmed or constrained by the church’s teachings, binaries, and double standards, to feel seen and heard in my characters and stories,” Philyaw says. “And I know that readers who aren’t Black women can connect to these stories as well, because our stories are also universal.”
Walton’s novel, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, has been named one of 2021’s most anticipated books by Essence, Vogue, The Oprah Magazine, Elle, The Independent, Lit Hub, PopSugar, The Millions, and Hypebae.
A MacDowell Colony fellow (2015), Tin House Scholar (2017), and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (MFA, 2018), she has worked as an executive-level editor for magazine and multimedia brands.
The novel is the fictionalized story of the meteoric rise of an iconic 1970s interracial rock duo, Opal and Nev, their sensational breakup, and the dark secrets unearthed when they try to reunite decades later for one last tour.
“I just wanted to share a character like Opal, my dream rock and roll idol, a complex Black woman always moving a few beats ahead of her time,” Walton says about her book. “I wanted to explore the tensions she experiences between her ambition and the responsibility she feels toward her community.”
In the national media, the fact that Philyaw and Walton grew up in Jacksonville is often overshadowed by where they now live. That they both graduated from the same high school is almost never mentioned. And yet, they say that those facts color all of their writing.
Philyaw says she didn’t aspire to write until she was in her late 20s, married and a stay-at-home mom with a toddler. She credits Stanton College Preparatory School, however, for giving her a great education.
“It was an education that fostered my intellectual curiosity and love of reading and learning,” she said. “I was successful at Yale because Stanton prepared me so well. Both Stanton and Yale gave me the confidence to follow my own path regardless of conventional wisdom or expectations.”
“I clearly remember teaching Deesha in ninth grade,” says retired Stanton teacher Meg Hawley. “I remember her being bright and conscientious as a student, but my being dazzled by her has come about in her adult years. The level of writing talent knocks me out.”
“I remember Dawnie as a consistently good writer, one whose essays had a sense of a voice at an age when even bright students sometimes rely on formulaic responses,” says Stanton language arts teacher Elizabeth Renfroe. “Some students love to hear the sound of their own voices, but Dawnie’s comments in class were measured. She was quieter than some, but she was always listening and thinking.”
“Stanton attracted many brilliant young people who have gone on to do amazing things,” Walton says. “Stanton instilled in me a certain rigor and made me a better writer and thinker. I didn’t always love the readings assigned, but I was welcomed to analyze them deeply.”
“The true excellence of the school comes from its fabulous student body,” Hawley says. “The spiraling upward of intellect happens when the petri dish one gets to learn in is rich with other upward spirals! The inspiration of being surrounded by other bright, focused students is the key.”