Mayfield, Julian, 1928-1984

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1928-06-06
Death 1984-10-20

Biographical notes:

Julian Mayfield lived a varied career as a novelist, playwright, actor, journalist and critic, aide to two heads of state, an educator and writer-in-residence at several colleges and universities.

He wrote, produced and directed several off-Broadway and summer stock productions between 1949 and 1954. He played the juvenile lead role of Absalom Kumalo in the Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson musical "Lost in the Stars," and directed Ossie Davis's first play, "Alice in Wonder," in 1952. Two of Mayfield's plays, "Fire" and "417," were produced off-Broadway and in summer stock. "Fire" was produced in 1949 by the Group 20 Players.

Mayfield's first three novels, The Hit (1951), The Long Night (1958) and The Grand Parade (1961) were published by Vanguard Press. He went to live in Ghana in 1961 and worked as a writer in the office of President Kwame Nkrumah and as a journalist and editor of African Review, an international magazine of political and economic affairs. He was host to Malcolm X in Ghana during the latter's trip to West Africa, and helped organize the first international branch of the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964. Mayfield left Ghana in 1965 and lived briefly in Spain before returning to the United States. Between 1967 and 1971, he taught at Cornell and New York Universities, lectured broadly, and starred in Jules Dassin's film "Uptight." The author lived in Guyana between 1971 and 1974, serving as an adviser to the minister of information and culture and to the prime minister, Forbes Burnham. He helped design the country's National Service, a compulsory development program for Guyanese youth. Mayfield was awarded a Senior Fulbright-Hays Fellowship to teach American studies in Germany for the academic year 1976-77. For the remainder of his life, he worked as lecturer and writer-in-residence at the University of Maryland at College Park and at Howard University.

From the description of Julian Mayfield papers, 1949-1984. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122485249

Born in Greer, South Carolina in 1928, the oldest child of working-class parents, Julian Mayfield lived a varied career as a novelist, playwright, actor, journalist and critic, aide to two heads of state, and educator and writer-in-residence at several colleges and universities. He grew up and attended the segregated public schools in Washington, D.C., where his parents had migrated in the 1930s to escape segregation and the worst aspects of the Great Depression. Mayfied recalled deciding to become a writer as a child and completing his first novel at the age of 12 or 13. His first exposure to black literature came by way of Richard Wright's autobiographical essay, Black Boy, which he read at 16 while working at the Library of Congress pasting labels on the spine of books. His first encounter with racial discrimination occurred the same year, when he went to the Washington Post 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.

The young Mayfield graduated from the renown Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School in 1946. He excelled in oratory and dramatics and was the winner of the American Legion Historical Contest award, the year of his graduation. He enrolled the same year in the U.S. Army and did a tour of duty in the Philippines and in Hawaii. Returning to civilian life after a medical discharge in 1947, he continued his education at Lincoln University and later at the Jefferson School of Social Science in New York (1951-1954). He also spent several years studying acting and drama at the Paul Mann Actors Workshop, one of New York's leading theater schools in the 1950s.

Moving to New York after his first year at Lincoln University, Mayfield did an apprenticeship in the theater while doing odd jobs to sustain himself. His first appearance on the stage was in the 1949 Blackfriar's Guild production of City of Kings in the role of Blessed Martin de Porres, an 18th century black Peruvian later consecrated as a saint in the Catholic Church. His next roles were in the revival of John Wexley's They Shall Not Die, about the Scottsboro trial, and in the Harlem production of A Medal for Willie written by William Branch. His big break in the theater came in 1949 when, as an understudy for the juvenile lead role of Absalom Kumalo in the Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson musical Lost in the Stars, he stepped into the role after the lead actor, Sidney Poitier, went to Hollywood to star in his first movie No Way Out. The play was based on the novel Cry the Beloved Country by the white South African writer Alan Paton.

Mayfield also wrote, produced and directed several off-Broadway and summer stock productions between 1949 and 1954. He played the leading role in Stanley Green's off-Broadway production of A Wedding in Japan and appeared in the Harlem production of Sidney Kingsley's Detective Story and in Somerset Maugham's Rain. He directed and, together with Maxwell Granville, produced Ossie Davis's first play, Alice in Wonder, which opened at the Elks Community Theater in Harlem in 1952. Mayfield also wrote two one-act plays, A World Full of Men and The Other Foot, as a prelude to that performance. All three plays received critical acclaim and attracted sizable black audiences. Two other plays written by Mayfield, Fire and 417, were produced off-Broadway and in summer stock. Fire was produced in 1949 by the Group 20 Players. 417 was published in the January 1955 issue of Contemporary Reader.

In his unpublished autobiography, Mayfield claimed he joined the Communist Party in the late 1940s, shortly after coming to New York. He was a member of various left-wing and communist front organizations, including the Committee for the Negro in the Arts (CNA), and participated in numerous campaigns, such as those to help save the lives of Willie McGee, the Martinsville Seven, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. He contributed articles to Paul Robeson's newspaper, Freedom, and was part of Robeson's security detail in Peekskill, New York when the increasingly controversial singer performed there in the face of white racists who rioted and threatened to kill him. Although he claimed only a rank and file membership in the Party, Mayfield's status was more that of a minor celebrity, in light of his work as a writer and producer in the theater and his performance in Lost in the Stars. He resigned his chairmanship of the CNA Writers' Workshop in 1954, citing “petty gossip and personal malice” against him, and alluded to having left the Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

That same year he met and married a young Puerto Rican activist and physician, Dr. Ana Livia Cordero. The couple moved to Puerto Rico where Mayfield worked for the next three years as an announcer and newscaster for the island's first English-language radio station, WHOA, and as an editor and critic for the Puerto Rico World Journal. He also wrote two television dramas which were translated and broadcast over local television. He completed his first two novels in Puerto-Rico, enlisting the help of his friend John Henrik Clarke in New York secure a publisher.

The Hit is a short novel based on Mayfield's earlier play, 417. The Long Night, another short novel based in Harlem, tells the ordeal of a 12-year-old boy, Steely Brown, who loses his mother's winnings from the numbers game. The two books were published by Vanguard Press in 1957 and 1958 respectively, and were favorably and extensively reviewed. The author emerged almost overnight as a novelist of considerable stature. Pocket Books signed The Hit for paperback distribution in November 1957. Karamu House in Cleveland offered to work the novel into a musical play, but Vanguard declined in favor of a hoped-for Broadway contract. A third novel entitled Deadline, also written in 1957, was submitted to Ace Books but was never published. Meanwhile, the author had begun work on a more ambitious novel of a town in a border state being torn apart as a result of efforts to desegregate. The new work, The Grand Parade, was published by Vanguard Press in 1961.

Meanwhile, in 1959, Mayfield and his wife had moved back to New York with their newborn son Rafael. There, the author became part of a collective search for identity among New York's black intellectuals, spurred in part by the wave of independence among African countries. His landmark paper “Into the Mainstream and Oblivion” was delivered at the First Conference of Negro Writers organized by the American Society for African Culture (AMSAC) in 1959, and was published in an AMSAC compilation, The American Negro Writer and His Roots (1960), and in several anthologies. The essay spelled out the fear among black nationalists, activists and writers that the diversity and the originality of the African-American experience would become casualties of the integration dream. The author was also skeptical of the effectiveness of the nonviolent strategy espoused by the Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and by the emerging sit-in movement associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

In 1960 the Mayfields went to Cuba with a group of African-American intellectuals as guests of the Fidel Castro government for the first anniversary of the Cuban revolution. There the author met Robert F. Williams, the former president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Monroe, N.C., who had become the leader of an armed resistance movement against the Ku Klux Klan. Williams and his armed men had successfully fought Klan violence against the local black community and was hailed as a hero in Cuba. But in the U.S. he had been suspended by the national office of the NAACP and was shunned by liberal whites and integrationist blacks alike. Mayfield on the other hand had hailed Williams as the prototype of a new kind of leader in the struggle for black freedom, and had been invited to come to Monroe.

Back in New York after August 1960, Mayfield was among the group of black activists and intellectuals who welcomed Castro to Harlem. Ostensibly dissatisfied with his reception at the Commodore Hotel, Castro had moved to the Theresa Hotel in Harlem and was enthusiastically received by the Harlem crowds. Returning to New York in February 1961 after a trip to Monroe, Mayfield also joined a protest at the United Nations against U.S. aggression against Cuba, and helped draft a full-page advertisement, “An Appeal to Conscience,” for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. The statement denouncing the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion was published in The New York Times. As a cosigner to the Appeal, Mayfield was subsequently subpoenaed by Senator James Eastland to appear before his Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. Later during his residency in Ghana, Mayfield claimed he worked closely with the Cuban Embassy there and had several long talks with Che Guevara during the latter's trip to Africa. His short story “The Last Days of Duncan Street” appeared in Lunes de Revolución, a literary magazine published in Havana (1960).

The April 1961 issue of Commentary magazine featured an article by Mayfield, “Challenge to Negro Leadership.” The article took the NAACP leadership to task, asserting that the tactics favored by the established civil rights leadership were ineffective and could only yield token results. The author praised young militant leaders, like Robert Williams, who had come to the fore to lead the increasingly militant and dissatisfied black masses. Mayfield was commissioned by the York, Pennsylvania Call and Daily in August 1961 to report on the situation in Monroe. Meanwhile the governor of North Carolina ordered Williams and his supporters arrested on charges of armed insurrection. Fearing for their lives, Mayfield drove the Williams family out of the South in his own car, along with Mae Mallory, an African-American activist from New York who had also gone down to Monroe to lend support. The Monroe leader subsequently went into exile in Cuba. Mayfield for his part fled to Canada and later to Ghana.

It is not clear how much preparation had already occurred prior to Mayfield's last visit to Monroe, or how he came to settle on Ghana, or who introduced him to the circle of power around Nkrumah. The author quickly became the unofficial leader of the African-American community in Ghana and enjoyed direct access to the President. Later, he would invariably refer to his Ghana years as the most rewarding and productive period in his life and the beginning of his exploration of the theme of power as it relates to black people. Mayfield worked as a writer and editor in the office of the President for the duration of his stay. He was also an active journalist and was the founder and editor of African Review, an international magazine of political and economic affairs. Additionally, he was the chief documentalist for the Accra Assembly, an international peace conference convened by Nkrumah in 1962, and edited the proceedings of the conference, published the following year with an introduction by Nkrumah ( The World Without the Bomb: the Papers of the Accra Assembly, Ghana Government Press, 1963). Also in 1963, he completed a semiautobiographical novel of Broadway and Harlem life in the 1950s, Look Pretty for the People.

In 1964, Mayfield was host to Malcolm X in Ghana during the latter's trip to West Africa, and helped organize the first international branch of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He traveled with Malcolm X to Egypt and wrote an authoritative essay in the Ghanaian Times, defending Malcolm X against charges of racism brought in the same publication by the white South African communist expatriate and adviser to Nkrumah, H.M. Bosner. He was also a vocal critic of American racism and of U.S. policy toward Africa, and led a demonstration in front of the U.S. embassy in Accra on the day of the 1963 March on Washington. The author left Ghana three weeks before the military coup which overthrew Nkrumah's government in February 1966, partly because he had become estranged from his wife and partly to work on a book project, “The Living Ghana,” which he had started in collaboration with another African-American expatriate Leslie Alexander Lacy. The book was never completed.

After Ghana, Mayfield settled in Spain where he began work on a new book that would put the Nkrumah legacy and the new situation in Ghana into perspective. The coup regime had confiscated his papers and imprisoned his wife before deporting her peremptorily with their two children. With the help of his New York agent and his former Ghana associate, the historian Conor Cruise O'Brien, he secured a one-year grant from the Rabinowitz Foundation to complete the manuscript. “The Lonely Warrior” was rejected by several publishers because it lacked, they said, the solid documentation his papers would have provided. A rewriting of the book was completed in 1967 and was rejected for similar reasons. Mayfield was convinced for his part that his balanced accounting of the Nkrumah era was the chief reason behind the rejections, especially since more hastily written and poorly researched accounts were hungrily sought out by publishers. Meanwhile he completed a play, Fount of the Nation, based on his experience in Ghana, which he described as a “dramatic portrayal of power as it works in many underdeveloped countries where principles, morality and high idealism are often sacrificed to the demands of harsh economic and political reality.” The play received favorable comments and criticism from Paul Mann and from Howard Stein, a professor of drama at Yale University, but was not produced until ten years later when it opened for the first time at the Arena Playhouse in Baltimore, Maryland.

Among the many reasons for his return to the United States in 1967, Mayfield listed the failure of the Nkrumah government, the persistence of a neo-colonial mentality among many of Africa's new rulers, the rise of the Black Power movement in the United States, and his own continuing search for revolution. While in Spain, he had applied for and was granted a Junior Post-Doctoral Fellowship for the 1967-68 academic year by the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University, with a waiver of the Ph.D. requirement. The fellowship granted a $10,000 stipend for the nine-month assignment and called for the equivalent of one unit of teaching per term. Mayfield submitted a proposal for a series of lectures on “Negro Goals as Reflected in Negro Writings,” arguing that a study of representative African-American writers over a given period of time could provide the answer or answers to the question “What Does the Negro Want?” In a later autobiographical sketch, he recalled his association on campus with the black students who led an armed occupation of the Cornell administrative building in 1968. He was also active in support work for SNCC and the Black Panther Party.

The following academic year, Mayfield accepted an appointment in the Albert Schweitzer Program in the Humanities at New York University, with a requirement for teaching two undergraduate courses and a graduate seminar. Conor Cruise O'Brien, the director of the program, had approached the author for this assignment in late 1966 and was instrumental in his appointment the previous year at Cornell. Mayfield's course “The Black Writer in America” attracted more than 100 students over a two-semester period, and provided a provocative assessment of the relationship of the black writer with the black revolution. His other undergraduate course, “Contemporary Writing in Africa,” looked at the impact of colonialism on African writers, the problems of African writers since independence and the role of literature in the struggle for liberation in Southern Africa. Additionally, he developed a graduate seminar, “Crime and Punishment in the United States,” to explore various theories of justice and how they affected communities of color, immigrants and the poor in general.

In 1970-71, Mayfield returned to Cornell as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow in the Africana Studies and Research Program. He taught two courses, “Black American Writing and Politics” and “Black Techniques of Survival,” which he developed as a special two-week seminar for other colleges and universities. He also helped design a Distinguished Africana Lecture Series to attract prestigious black scholars from other institutions for brief lecture series in the Africana Studies and Research Center.

Meanwhile, Mayfield continued experimenting in an expanding number of genres. He had completed an African suspense novel, Death at Karamu, before leaving Spain. His articles and essays during that period include “Literary Lions and Values” ( Negro Digest, Jan. 1968), “New Mainstream” ( Nation, May 1968); “Crisis or Crusade,” an article-review of Harold Cruse's Crisis of the Negro Intellectual ( Negro Digest, June 1968); “Legitimacy of the Black Revolution” ( Nation, April 1968); “The Negro Writer and the Stickup” ( Boston University Journal, 1969), and “You Touch My Black Aesthetic and I'll Touch Yours” ( The Black Aesthetic, edited by Addison Gayle, 1970). He also lectured frequently on Black Power and the theme of black revolution and was interviewed on several radio and television programs, including the popular Black Journal (1969). In line with Black Power orthodoxy, he believed, in 1969, that violent confrontation was the only means to structural change in the United States.

In early 1968, Mayfield accepted a contract to coauthor the screenplay for an adaptation of the 1935 film The Informer about the 1916-19 Irish uprising against British rule. Jules Dassin, who had returned to the U.S. after a twenty-year exile in Europe, had persuaded Paramount Films to recast the story with an all black cast and mirror it after the recent black uprisings in the United States. He not only hired Mayfield to co-write the screenplay with himself and Ruby Dee, he convinced the author to accept the lead role of Tank, a confused unemployed steel worker who betrays a group of black militants after they had robbed a gun and ammunition warehouse the night of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. Mayfield's only other movie credits prior to Uptight were small roles in Virgin Isles (1958) and Band Leader (1959), starring Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes, respectively. His last film appearance, several years later, was in the Public Broadcasting System adaptation of William Forde's play Transition, along with Ruby Dee and Alice Childress.

Seeking tranquility and a secluded place to write, Mayfield had purchased a farm in Spencer, New York in 1968, a short distance from the Cornell campus where he was teaching. Shortly afterward, in partnership with his friend Robert Slater, he launched Chaka Productions to market black plays and novels for stage and screen adaptations. Their greatest success was in the production of Black Hands, a montage of black poetry and music originally presented at Carnegie Hall. The show consisted of poems and songs by Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, H. Rap Brown, Nikki Giovanni, Larry Neal and others, joined together by a narrative written by Mayfield. Chaka Productions enlarged the original performance and presented it at schools and colleges around the country.

Mayfield's other writing projects after his return from Ghana included an anthology of ten short stories by black authors published by Bantam Books in 1971 and a three-book series, The Black Abolitionists, The Black Man in the Civil War and The Black Man in the Reconstruction, for the Juvenile Division at Random House which was never published. He also wrote several screenplays for television and for educational audiovisual programs, including: The Odyssey of W.E.B. DuBois, a two-part film strip for the high school level (1970); An Introduction to Edgar Allen Poe written for Educational Audio-Visual Inc.; and The History of the Black Man in the United States, a widely distributed eight-part sound and film strip produced for high school students in 1969. Under the pseudonym of Gerald Orsini, he wrote a segment “Viva Paco!” for the National Broadcasting Company's dramatic television series Johnny Stacatto. He also wrote and appeared in a segment for the Columbia University-WCBS-TV series Black Heritage, and completed an original screenplay Children of Anger for a documentary film on mental health produced by Irving Jacoby in 1970. At the same time, he had also begun work on a collection of stories, “Tales of the Lido,” centered around a popular night club in Accra frequented in the 1960s by African-American expatriates in Ghana.

In the wake of his well-publicized appearance in Uptight, 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.” By his own account, the author knew or was associated with many of the black men and women who represented “important points in contemporary black history” on two continents. The book remained unpublished although a revised draft was due for publication the year of his death under a new title, “Send Me My Grandmother.”

The expatriate dream of a life free of racial discrimination reclaimed Mayfield in 1971. Inspired by a letter from his friend, the artist Tom Feelings, who had recently relocated as a planning officer in the Ministry of Education in Guyana, Mayfield traveled there to meet with Prime-Minister Forbes Burnham who offered him a post as a special adviser in his Ministry of Information. Mayfield accepted, “not for any great philosophical reason,” he wrote to Feelings, but, in addition to the contributions he thought he could make, “because I'd like to get away from certain people here.” His decision was also influenced by financial difficulties due to the shortcomings of the film Uptight at the box office and the failure of Chaka Productions as a business venture, and also by the frustration of not having any of his major works published since his return from Ghana. Putting his farm up for sale, the author departed for Guyana in November 1971.

In Guyana, Mayfield first worked in the Ministry of Education and Culture as editorial consultant and adviser to the minister, Elvin McDavid, and later as a special adviser for political affairs to the Prime Minister. His work involved designing a six-week training seminar for new information officers, participation in the Social, Political and Economic Council, an elite group within the ruling party, and publication of New Nation International, a special edition of the government-sponsored New Nation newspaper, for overseas distribution. Mayfield also served as a speech writer for McDavid and Burnham and prepared a selection of Burnham quotations and speeches for publication. His most important contribution, however, was his participation in a commission appointed by Burnham to design the country's National Service, a compulsory program designed to combat the exodus of Guyanese youth to Europe and the United States by enrolling them in development programs. The program lost most of its impact when Burnham consented under pressure from the opposition to abandon its compulsory requirement.

Mayfield married his second wife, Joan Cambridge, a Guyanese writer and colleague in the Ministry of Information and Culture, in 1973. Their salaries as government officials were adequate for the couple's local needs but afforded little else, considering the low rate of exchange of the local currency. He sought unsuccessfully to hire himself out as a foreign correspondent to the magazine Black World and other U.S. publications. In collaboration with his new wife, Mayfield also began work on “Murder on the East Bank,” a new novel “with enough violence and sex for anyone.” At the same time he was preparing a film script based on the life of King Henri Christophe of Haiti, in collaboration with William Marshall as producer and lead actor.

Mayfield's other major writing project in Guyana was a biography of Burnham for Howard University Press. The author envisioned his new project as a candid effort to tell the story of Guyana to African-American readers. Initially entitled “Stamping Berbice with Burnham” and conceived as a primer, the book was based on his own observations and on several lengthy conversations with Burnham. Paula Giddings, his editor, requested a fuller discussion of the country's physical landscape and political culture. A second draft under the title “Burnham of Guyana” was also found unsatisfactory because it did not convincingly make the case of Guyana as an important country or of Burnham as a significant Third World leader. The author seemed to have abandoned the project after his return to the United States.

It is not clear from the collection why Mayfield left Guyana in September 1974. The reason cited in correspondence with Guyanese officials is medical: a doctor's certificate issued in New York referred to “a moderately severe form of hypertension which will require his absence from work for a period of several weeks during which time extensive tests will have to be performed at major institutions in the United States.” Yet months before his departure he had communicated to friends in New York his longing for a “black community in the arts” that was lacking in Guyana. “I had done my work in Guyana,” he wrote some years later, “at least all the important work that was likely to come my way.” Still, in an undated letter from Washington to Burnham, he pleaded for a six-month leave of absence in order to reactivate his writing and teaching careers and earn enough U.S. dollars to purchase a farm in Guyana.

Readjustment in the United States was difficult and slow. He applied for a position or a consultancy with the District of Columbia's Bicentennial Commission. By the fall of 1975, he had secured an appointment as Lecturer in the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Maryland in College Park. Meanwhile his novel The Hit was released as a motion picture by the African-American director and producer Woodie King. King had also bought the rights to his second novel, The Long Night, and had contracted Mayfield to write the screenplay in 1973. Although there had been an earlier screenplay written by Robert Sharpe, Mayfield felt there was a need to update the storyline in light of the black rebellions of the 1960s and the new market for black films.

Completed in 1975, The Long Night was the only American film featured at the New Directors series at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976. Meanwhile Mayfield had also begun work on two new screenplays: The Times That Made Men Mad and Jessie Mae. He also submitted another screenplay entitled Sammy to a Hollywood agent in 1976, although there is no evidence of this title as an original work among his papers. Meanwhile he continued lecturing on college campuses and at black writers' conferences on such topics as the U.S. Bicentennial, the need for a black critical movement, and the impact of Africa on American culture. He was also the subject of several feature articles, including “The Goal of Julian Mayfield: Fusing Art and Politics” ( The Washington Post, July 7, 1975).

Mayfield had applied for and was awarded a Senior Fulbright-Hays Fellowship to teach American studies in Germany for the academic year 1976-77. (His initial choice of country had been Nigeria, Kenya or Brazil.) His assignment was at Gesamthochschule Paderborn, a comprehensive university in a small conservative city. His teaching requirements consisted of two seminars on “Post-World War I American Literature” and “Black American Literature and Politics,” and a lecture series on twentieth century black writers. Writing from Paderborn in November 1976, he reported with satisfaction that he was keeping his contacts with students and faculty to a minimum, and that he now had enough time and serenity to concentrate on his writing. His agreement with the Fulbright Commission also included a European and North African lecture tour under the auspices of the U.S. Information Service and local universities. Mayfield traveled to Berlin, Copenhagen, Vienna, Ankara, Athens and Tunis, and lectured on such topics as African-American historiography, American culture, contemporary black fiction and the social responsibility of writers and artists.

At the end of his Fulbright year, the author returned to the University of Maryland at College Park to a joint appointment between the Afro-American Studies Program and the English Department. He developed several new courses in the two departments, including “The Business of the Arts” for students interested in publishing, advertising and the visual arts; “Significant Black Voices in Modern American Literature;” and a seminar on the life and work of W.E.B. DuBois. He also initiated a newsletter to publicize the activities of faculty members in the Afro-American Studies Program and launched the Frederick Douglass-Paul Robeson Union, an elite organization for students interested in public affairs, in order to stimulate black intellectual activity on campus. The insecurity of short-term nontenured positions created a longing throughout the remainder of his life for a financial breakthrough that would enable him to write full time. Prestigious though it was, the Fulbright fellowship, with the travel and other expenses it occasioned, had only added to his financial woes. In November 1977, he filed for bankruptcy, the second time in less than ten years, in order to alleviate his accumulated debts.

From the Fall of 1978 to the time of his death, Mayfield was Writer-in-Residence and graduate associate professor in the English Department at Howard University. He sought the position even though it carried a full teaching load presumably because it paid more than the joint appointment at the University of Maryland. Some of the courses he taught include “American Negro Literature,” “Technical Writings”, “Twentieth Century American Literature”, “Introduction to Drama,” and a creative writing workshop. He was also required to participate in other classes within his areas of expertise, including communications, American literature and the works of W.E.B. DuBois. In addition, he served on dissertation committees for several graduate students, and was a faculty adviser for the Howard University broadcasting system. Mayfield also lectured and delivered papers at various conferences at Howard and other universities, including a conference on Negritude held at Hampshire College in September 1978 and a symposium organized by Rosa Guy and Claudia Tate in 1983 on “Recent Themes in Black Women's Writings.” His paper “An Approach to the Dangers of Afro-American Extermination,” delivered at the Fourth National Conference of Afro-American Writers at Howard University in 1978, reverberated in the media for its uncompromising assessment that genocide remained a major threat to black lives in the post-civil rights era.

By the early 1980s, the liabilities of a full-time teaching job had become a serious impediment to Mayfield's writing career. Random House had rejected two different drafts of his autobiography, and he clearly lacked the time or the concentration needed for the major rewriting suggested by his editor. His memoir on African-American expatriates in Ghana required an extended stay in West Africa, but neither Howard University nor the various funding sources he queried would honor his grant requests. Meanwhile he became the Washington Bureau Chief of Time Capsule Inc., the nonprofit publisher of Inside Out, a magazine of prison literature. He also joined the editorial staff of the Washington North Star, a biweekly newspaper launched in 1981, for which he wrote a regular column, “Potomac Reflexions.” In a more mundane vein, he started a ghost-writing venture, “J&J Productions,” which offered his writing skills for hire to businessmen, graduate students and Ph.D. candidates.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the author had been trying to develop his own formula for a best-selling novel, a mix between the mystery and romance genres. His first effort in this vein was a conventional detective novel. The two unfinished drafts that have survived are titled “The College Park Murders” and “a Quiet Rage at College Park.” His last unpublished completed novel, “The Gang in Suite 16,” (1981) is an erotic tale of four white coeds and their adventures at an imaginary university in upstate New York. Another attempt begun in 1982 featured an African-American veteran, Brewster Champion, and a thirty-year-old assistant professor, Dormita Christy, in a Washington, D.C. college setting. These three works were to be published under a pseudonym by Second Chance at Love, a division of Jove Publications.

In another effort to extricate himself from the Howard University environment, which he found stifling, Mayfield applied for a teaching job in Nigeria in 1980. A return to West Africa “would be an emotional and intellectual tonic which would release the great creative energy within,” wrote a colleague at Howard in recommending him. His application to Bayero University in the northern Nigerian city of Kano was not accepted, however. Later, in 1982, he returned to South Carolina for the funeral of an uncle, and decided to retire to the area near Greer or in the Sea Islands. In his latter years, the author had been suffering from hypertension and was hospitalized in February 1984. Hospitalized again in early October 1984 in the Coronary Unit at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Maryland, Julian Mayfield died of cardiac arrest on the twentieth of that month. He was 56 years old.

Julian Mayfield's career as an essayist and creative writer began in the 1950s in the tradition of black intellectuals like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison who sought to combat social oppression through realistic portrayals of black lives. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the twin impact of the civil rights movement and his experiences abroad as a “witness to power” brought on a new urge to define a black esthetic to replace “the old programs... that have failed us” and a growing fascination with the manipulation of power by blacks “who could make decisions over their own lives.” By the late 1970s, with the failure of the “Black Revolution” and the emergence of a more conservative mood in the United States, he became concerned with the economic “obsolescence” of African-Americans and the possibility of a genocide against them.

From the guide to the Julian Mayfield papers, 1949-1984, (The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.)

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Subjects:

  • African American authors
  • African Americans--North Carolina--Monroe
  • African American dramatists
  • Black power--United States
  • Black power
  • Heads of state--Ghana--Biography
  • Heads of state--Caribbean Area--Biography
  • African Americans
  • African American motion picture actors and actresses
  • Civil rights
  • African Americans in the performing arts
  • American literature--African American authors
  • Civil rights--North Carolina--Monroe
  • Heads of state--Biography
  • Black arts movement
  • African Americans in literature
  • Heads of state--Africa--Biography
  • African American novelists
  • Fulbright scholars
  • Heads of state--Guyana--Biography
  • African Americans--Intellectual life
  • African Americans--Political activity

Occupations:

not available for this record

Places:

  • Caribbean Area (as recorded)
  • Ghana (as recorded)
  • Guyana (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Haiti (as recorded)
  • Guyana (as recorded)
  • North Carolina--Monroe (as recorded)
  • Africa (as recorded)
  • Ghana (as recorded)
  • Haiti (as recorded)
  • Cuba (as recorded)
  • Cuba (as recorded)