Mayfield’s style was as stark as Richard Wright and poetic as Ernest Hemingway, but was grounded in urban realism.
“What did you dream last night?” Grandma often asked when I was a young boy in the early 1970s. Walking home after picking me and my baby brother up from our sitter’s place, which was only three blocks from our apartment, usually the question was asked as we headed down the hill of 151st Street. With the Hudson River in full view as we descended the hill, Grandma’s curiosity had nothing to do with her desire to interrupt the strange Freudian journey of images that boogied through my subconscious mind, but to see if there were any golden numerals amongst my nighttime reveries that she might apply to playing the numbers.
If I told Grandma I dreamt of a jacket, she’d ask me how many buttons were on the garment; if I told her I was swimming in red water, she’d asked if it was a pool, the river, or the ocean, and then later consulted one of the tattered dream books on her night table. As with any game, each player had a theory about how to win, and some crazy method to get them there. But it was through my grandmother’s obsession that I began paying more attention to dreams, mine as well as other folks’.
Indisputably, the world is full of dreamers, but not all of them are winners. Although the numbers (or racket or policies) was gambling, and gambling was illegal, the game was part of our everyday existence. “The chances in the numbers game are a thousand to one against the player,” Langston Hughes wrote in 1957. “Yet masses of New Yorkers, white and colored, gamble on numbers every day, and it has become a multi-million dollar business.” Back then, in Black communities throughout the country, the numbers game was the equivalent of a daily carnival amusement, a get-rich scheme that would make the hard-knocked life of the residents a little easier as they kept hope alive that their numbers would “come out” and change their lives.
Years before the government took control and introduced off-track betting, lottery tickets, Power Balls, and scratch-offs, the numbers player chose either three-digits or “single action” bets from a penny to whatever amount, and prayed the rest of day to hit (win). Around where I lived, there were number spots that were fronting as regular candy stores, while others were more like social centers serving coffee, Danish, and allowed some players to simply hang out.
Spanish Raymond Márquez, the Harlem numbers banker kingpin who owned a spot around the corner from our apartment, catered to the community and opened a bar called The Gallery directly next door to his place. Another spot had an annual Memorial Day barbeque where one year the young white priest from St. Catherine’s was seen munching on a burger in the backyard. Surprised, my mother shook her head and laughed. “Father Bob? What are you doing here?” Looking like Robert Redford wearing a clerical collar, he smiled. “I have to go where my parishioners go,” Father Bob jokingly replied.
Writer Bridgett M. Davis, whose forthcoming memoir The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers, grew up around the game due to her mom, a rare woman numbers banker in the city of Motown and auto factories. “Depending on what state you lived, the numbers were selected from various sources,” Davis says. “Some places took the numbers from their local race tracks while in others they might be totally made up by the Mafia. As a kid, I was well aware of what my mother did for a living, but it remained a secret from most of my family and friends.”
It wasn’t until Davis’ mother gifted her a copy of Louise Meriwether’s outstanding Daddy Was a Number Runner (1970) when she was ten years old that Bridgett realized that there were other little girls who shared her secret world. “Daddy Was a Number Runner changed my life, and was also the book that made me fall in love with literature and writing,” says Davis. However, Meriwether’s classic is just one of many books in the canon of Black Literature that uses the number game as part of the narrative. “Coming from Detroit, of course I was into the novels of (Detroit native) Donald Goines, whose books often referred to the numbers game. While I was working on the memoir, I read The Book of Numbers by Robert Dean Pharr, which was fantastic. That book took place in the South (Richmond, Virginia), which was very different from either Detroit or New York.”
While Meriwether and Goines’ books, which could be seen as precursors to the so-called “ghetto lit” trend in the early-to-mid 2000s, have become cult classics and are still in print, my preferred numbers racket books The Hit (1957) and The Long Night (1958), written by true Renaissance man and dreamer Julian Mayfield, hasn’t been in circulation since they were reprinted in single volume by Northeastern Library of Black Literature in 1989. Professor Phillip M. Richards wrote the introduction, schooling the reader that Mayfield’s slim books were “written at roughly the same time in the early fifties” and that they were “products of an extraordinary career that spanned politics and the arts.”
In Mayfield’s case, the arts included being a playwright, Broadway actor, off-Broadway sensation, and screen star. In fact, my own introduction to Mayfield’s name wasn’t through his books, but when I saw him on the television screen in the film Up Tight that I first bought on VHS from a cool cat video vendor in the late ’90s in front of Fun City tattoo parlor on St. Marks Place. Starring in the controversial 1968 proto-blaxploitation Black militant-themed drama, Up Tight was a brilliant movie that is as underrated and underappreciated as the brother’s books.
In addition to portraying the desperate, scared anti-hero Tank in the picture alongside Ruby Dee, Raymond St. Jacques, Max Julian, Janet MacLachlan, Juanita Moore, Roscoe Lee Browne and Dick Anthony Williams, the then forty-year-old Mayfield collaborated on the script with co-star Ruby Dee and director Julies Dassin. In 2009, critic J. Hoberman described the film as having, “ferocious performances; a vivid, almost allegorical use of location; and a sense of bottled rage that explodes in the movie’s apocalyptic final half-hour . . . Up Tight effectively capped (Dassin’s) career, recapitulating the themes and style of his strongest Hollywood films with a scarcely modulated brute force.” Mayfield was hired through the efforts of co-star Frank Silva, whom he had met a few months before at a writer’s conference at Fisk University, shortly after returning to the country after living in exile in Ghana during most of the sixties after aiding black militant Robert Williams, head of the NAACP in Monroe, North Carolina, in 1961.
“Frank telephoned and said Dassin was working on a project and I might help out,” Mayfield told Ebony in 1968. “I thought of coming down to see if I could get a writing assignment.” Dassin was impressed with Mayfield as a writer, but also with his towering 6’1” frame that weighed over two hundred pounds. Ebony derogatorily described him as, “ . . . big, black and burley. He is in a word—Every-nigger.” In contrast, his friend Maya Angelou once described him in more loving terms. “Julian Mayfield had the looks to flutter a young girl’s heart. He was tall, broad, black, witty, handsome, and married.”
Up Tightitself is a moody, brooding, haunting masterpiece. During filming, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. Dassin stopped shooting and flew with a crew to Atlanta, Georgia for the burial and rewrote the script to reflect the national tragedy. Originally titled The Betrayal, it was later changed. “Jules was very pleased when the new title was suggested,” Ruby Dee said in 2008 when the film was shown at Brooklyn’s BAM theatre. “It was an uptight time. Being Black in America is an uptight situation.”
Pulp pop critic Andrew Nette (co-editor of Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980) wrote an appreciation essay published in Sight & Sound (March, 2017), calling Up Tight a precursor to the blaxploitation movement that exploded with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft in 1971. It wouldn’t be the first time that Julian Mayfield was spoken about as having inspired the 1970s film generation, with British cultural critic Jonathan Munby describing Mayfield’s novels as the “link between the world and era of (Richard) Wright’s call for urban realism and that of blaxploitation.”
However, Mayfield’s novels The Hit and The Long Night were both essentially domestic dramas about the struggles of family joys, laughter, tears, and blues. If that blaxploitation link is true, Mayfield’s books have more in common with Sounder,Claudine, and Five on Black Hand Side than with the criminal minded Super Fly,The Mack, or Cool Breeze. As Lawrence P. Jackson notes in his tome The Indigent Generation: A Narrative History of African-American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960, “He (Mayfield) emphasized black families facing down giants to stay together.”
In 1945, Black Boy by Richard Wright was published when Washington, DC transplant Julian Mayfield was a sixteen-year-old student at Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School. He read the book while working at the Library of Congress pasting labels on the spine of books. In an ironic twist of literary fate, Wright, Dunbar, and Mayfield each had stories reprinted in DC Noir 2, edited by George Pelecanos. In the September 24th, 2008 edition of the Washington Post, Art Taylor’s review, “Noir or Not: A Compelling Compilation,” described Mayfield’s story as being about “a group of black kids hyped up to see Joe Louis ‘knock the living stew out of a big German named Max Schmeling’ and prepped to knock some heads themselves, stockpiling knives and baseball bats and ‘bricks that you could aim at a white boy’s head.’”
Mayfield had originally hoped to publish the 1960 story in the New Yorker, but it was rejected; it later appeared in Lunes de Revolución, a literary magazine published in Havana. Appearing in the special “Los Negros en USA” issue, work by LeRoi Jones, Langston Hughes, Alice Childress, and James Baldwin were also published in that edition. Considering how militant his politics were becoming at that point, Mayfield probably preferred the Castro-approved lit journal over the elitist white boy posse of John O’Hara, John Cheever, and John Updike.
That same year, Mayfield published “Into the Mainstream and Oblivion,” warning “fellow black American artists and intellectuals to avoid embracing a prevailing white standard . . . salvation lies in escaping the narrow national orbit—artistic, cultural and political—and soaring into the space of more universal experience.”
Mayfield got his first taste of racial discrimination when, while still in high school, he went to the WashingtonPost to apply for a job as a copy boy, only to be told by the receptionist that the paper did not hire “colored” copy boys. Whereas someone else might’ve given up, Mayfield was determined to become a writer. Joining the Army in 1946, he did his service in Honolulu and, after being discharged, took classes at Lincoln University and moved to New York City in 1948. He joined the Communist Party, campaigned to save the lives of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, became a bodyguard for actor/rebel Paul Roberson and, beginning in 1954, was under FBI surveillance.
Mayfield’s now public FBI files noted that he had brown eyes, lived at 69 West 99th Street, acted in plays sponsored by the Committee for the Negro Arts, wrote articles for the Daily Worker, and once protested the City Ballet for going to Franco, Spain in 1952. In addition, he worked alongside Lorraine Hansberry at the Negro paper Freedom, understudied for buddy Sidney Poitier, and was a founding member of the Harlem Writers Guild. Other members included Ossie Davis, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, Audre Lorde, and Douglas Turner Ward.
Phillip M. Richards noted in the Northeastern Library edition that, “Mayfield developed as a novelist in the Harlem Writers Guild the early fifties under John O. Killens.” The writer’s group met on Thursday nights at the 125th Street space and “subjected each other to frank and often brutal criticism.” Judging from Mayfield’s powerful descriptions of Harlem in The Hit (“ . . . the beat and grunt of a jukebox going full volume in a bar on Eighth Avenue, the sudden roar of baseball fans in the Polo Grounds . . . the great hum of the city . . . was like an orchestra . . . ”) it’s obvious that he fell in love with the landscape. “Members of the Guild had a sense of being outsiders in the house of literature,” Richards wrote, “working with subject matter that was not fully accepted in the American mainstream.”
While I can clearly see Mayfield within the Harlem of my mind—chatting with Lewis H. Michaux inside the cluttered African National Memorial Bookstore, sipping on whiskey at the Baby Grand, bopping to Basie at the Apollo and nodding solemnly as Malcolm X orated outside of the Chock Full o’Nuts, next door to the Hotel Theresa—it wasn’t until he married Ana Livia Cordero in 1954 that his novel writing started to flow. In Maya Angelou’s 1997 memoir Heart of a Woman, she described Cordero as, “a small dark-eyed beautiful Puerto Rican . . . who was opinionated as a runaway train on a downhill slope.”
After relocating to his bride’s native Puerto Rico in 1954, Mayfield finally sat down to write the Harlem books. In the first novel, based on his own off-Broadway play 417, Mayfield’s style retained a sense of dramatic flair. Publisher James Farrell of the chance-taking Vanguard Press offered him $500 for The Hit. Like my grandma’s belief in the power of dreams that were interpreted and played the following day, Mayfield’s trifling protagonist Hubert Cooley is also guided by dreams: of leaving his wife Gertrude for Sister Clarisse, a fellow church member; of starting a business; of breaking away from the neighborhood; of hitting the number for enough loot to do it all and “create a new life for himself.” In the hands of some, The American Dream can become a nightmare.
After cursing God for his loser life—always a mistake—and getting arrested by a white cop for being an arrogant Black man in America, Hubert dreams the number 417 in the jail cell where he spent the night. “A man was a fool not to pay attention to his dreams especially if they had numbers in them,” Hubert observed. Retrieved by his Korean War vet son James, Hubert returns to Harlem where he plays the number for seven dollars with pretty boy number runner/minor banker John Lewis. Although Hubert hits for big bucks, his life soon bursts like a balloon.
For a first time novelist, Mayfield didn’t fall into the autobiography bag. Unlike the fragmented families in his fiction, in real life his Chocolate City clan, as Mayfield said in 1978, was tight. “I had a very happy childhood in terms of my mother and father being there, being supportive and all that.” Mayfield started writing poems to a teacher when he was in elementary school, and when he was thirteen, ripped-off the premise of Lillian Smith’s popular interracial love affair Strange Fruit to propel his own novice novel.
In later years, Mayfield’s language and style were as stark as Wright and poetic as Hemingway, but were grounded in urban realism. He was also was inspired by Henry James, who was also one of Baldwin’s heroes. While Wright and James had their own takes on realism, in his tales, Mayfield’s sometimes harsh view of Harlem’s residents is balanced with a gentle giant sensitivity. “As Mayfield began to take seriously the task of creating his own novels,” Lawrence P. Jackson writes in The Indigent Generation, “he found himself wandering back through the garden of Henry James.”
Mayfield’s prose was picturesque, as though influenced by the images of Roberto Rossellini, James Van Der Zee, Vittorio De Sica and Gordon Parks. Each chapter in The Hit is told from the perspective of one of the various characters in Hubert’s sad life, including James’ fed-up woman Essie, who becomes essential in the narrative. As the only person who finally does something positive to change her life, she never looks back.
While Hubert’s dream was deferred in The Hit, in the NY Herald Tribune Book Review, poet and fictioneer Langston Hughes described the book as “Vividly pictured in simple, straightforward prose, the characters come alive and their stories seem real. Julian Mayfield writes well, at times poetically, and occasionally with high humor.” The following year, Vanguard Press published The Long Night, which showed Mayfield’s growth as a writer, with its atmospheric “Harlem Nocturne” style that was as loose and mysterious as the jazz standard when performed by Duke Ellington.
The Long Night tells the story of ten-year-old manchild Frederick “Steely” Brown who, though named after Frederick Douglass, daydreams about being Superman while babysitting his brother and sister when their mother works at the laundry. Since his daddy Paul left the family after flunking out of law school, his mother has been mean for months, but her mood changes after she hits the number (321) for twenty-seven dollars.
Sending Steely to Mrs. Morgan to pick-up her winnings, the boy slips on his Comanche Raiders street gang jacket and prepares to journey into the darkness. “You be careful now, Fred, and remember what I told you,” his mother says. “Come straight back here and don’t you stop for nothing or nobody . . . and if you lose that money, boy, don’t come back at all.”
A few pages later, robbed by his gang homeboys of the twenty-seven dollars, Steely’s sojourn into the night that began with him on a mission to get his mother’s money back develops into a quest and redemption story. There was also a dreaminess to Steely’s quest as he desperately journeys through the dark streets as dilemmas loomed in the shadows of each city block. As forerunner to New Wave classic The 400 Blows (1959) and ABC Afterschool Specials, the novel was filled with vice, fights, juvenile delinquents, powerful flashbacks of domestic life, and a sentimental-as-Steven Spielberg ending that was sweeter than my morning Bustelo.
Writing in a prose style that was vibrant and vivid, but undefined by a particular literary movement, Mayfield was too late to be part of the Harlem Renaissance, too early to be down with the Black Arts Movement, and his work, for the most part, has been neglected. Julian Mayfield’s writings aren’t, as Jonathan Munby observes, “well represented in anthologies of African-American literature.” His last book The Grand Parade, published in 1961, was described as a “hard-hitting, more substantial novel,” but it hasn’t been in print since J.F.K. was in office.
According to The New York Times, Mayfield was “an early advocate of Black Nationalism, who, after writing his novels, went in 1962 to Ghana, the former Gold Coast that had attained independence in 1957, to assist Mr. (Kwame) Nkrumah, the first prime minister and president of Ghana, having led it to independence from Britain in 1957.” For Mayfield, writing fiction became frivolous in comparison to committing himself politically overseas. Dreaming that politics was more powerful than the pen, Mayfield wrote, “Let another generation deal with the niceties of beauty and art.”
In Ghana, Mayfield’s wife Ana was W.E.B. DuBois’ doctor and Julian became a close friend. He was also the welcome committee for visiting dignitaries such as Malcolm X. “The continuity between Mayfield’s early novels and his later literary and political commentary suggests that the first two novels were crucial to the development of his thought,” Phillip M. Richards noted. After Nkrumah was overthrown in a military coup in 1966, Mayfield returned to the United States, the theater and later, beginning in 1978, as a teacher at Howard University. Having divorced Ana Livia Cordero, he was later married to Joan Cambridge, a Guyanese novelist (Clarise Cumberbatch Want To Go Home, 1987) and colleague in the Ministry of Information and Culture.
Former Howard University employee and poet E. Ethelbert Miller remembers the couple well. “Julian was charming, generous and very funny,” says Miller, former director of the African American Resource Center. “As a writer, I like connecting with my tradition, so I went to visit from the moment he was hired.” Some of the courses Mayfield taught include “American Negro Literature,” “Technical Writings,” “Twentieth Century American Literature,” “Introduction to Drama,” and a creative writing workshop. “When I got married, he gave me a framed picture of Malcolm X in Ghana. He loved being a teacher, but he was a writer until the end.”
The author secured a $10,000 advance from Random House for an autobiography which he tentatively titled Which Way Does the Blood River Run. Mayfield envisioned the autobiography as a “first-hand account of the development of political ideas, attitudes, and trends in the black community since the Second World War.” The book remains unpublished although a revised draft was due for publication the year of his death. Included in his papers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is an unpublished 1963 novel about Broadway and Harlem called Those Were the Days and later titled Look Pretty for the People, as well as an unpublished book of short stories.
Julian Mayfield died on October 20, 1984, of heart complications at the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, MD. He was fifty-six years old, a resident of Washington, and a son of Harlem.
Michael A. Gonzales has written essays and articles for The Village Voice, New York, Pitchfork and Mass Appeal. Co-author of Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture (1991), he has written music journalism for Newark Bound, Red Bull Academy, The Wire, and Wax Poetics. His short fiction has appeared in Bronx Biannual, Brown Sugar, Black Pulp and Crime Factory. Gonzales is currently finishing his literary New York City hip-hop novel Boom for Real. More information on The Blacklist can be found on Facebook.