Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, was the first bestselling novel (and Book-of-the-Month Club selection) by an African-American writer. Native Son sold over 200,000 copies in the month after its publication. I’m generalizing a bit here, but most readers who have been introduced to African-American writers often started with writers of the Harlem Renaissance, despite a literary heritage that dates back to Phyllis Wheatley, a tradition that predates the United States. In September 2012 a graduate student discovered an unknown novel written by Claude McKay. In the late twentieth century, attention and honor have been bestowed upon numerous African-American writers: Ralph Ellison, August Wilson, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, to name but a few.
I’d like to draw attention to one forgotten writer of monumental importance: Nathan Cliff Heard (born November 7 1936; died March 14 2004).
Howard Street was the Christmas gift of 1968 that dropped out of the sky onto the literary scene, and cracked the pavement with its story of two brothers, Franchot and ‘Hip,’ the hooker Gypsy Pearl who gets in between them, and daily life on mean, unforgiving streets. Franchot (named after the actor Franchot Tone?) is the “square” trying to save his brother from heroin addiction and from the nihilistic hell that is Third Ward, Newark, New Jersey. Heard’s daughter recalls Central Ward before the 1967 riots.
Howard Street is a story about two disparate brothers is where the Of Mice and Men parallel ends like a pair of bad brakes screeching to a halt on a dead-end street. Both men are smart, capable of violence, and self-destructive. The pages turn with poetic descriptions, heart-breaking descriptions of poverty, and stinging dialogue. Fast-paced and with a cast of criminals with colorful names to rival Damon Runyon – this is not Blaxploitation in a book. Nathan Heard takes the reader on a slow car ride past murder, a brutal gang rape this side of Last Exit to Brooklyn, and paints by number a blistering portrait of addiction. The story is not simply Black vs. White racism, the Brother against the Man. There is even reverse racism in the character of Slim McNair, a short black cop with a Napoleon complex who reserves his worst violence for other black criminals. Heard fictionalized the life he lived and saw; and he spared nobody.
Context. 1968 was not a pleasant year. It was ironically the year that saw ‘Negro’ become ‘Black.’ Student riots. It was also an anarchistic year: The Weathermen Underground. The Chicago Convention. LBJ chose not to seek re-election after the Tet Offensive had failed. Most Americans, for or against Vietnam, had come to realize that they were being manipulated, misled, or outright lied to about southeast Asia from numerous sources: from the highest political office, the military, and the media. Trouble and unrest in 1968 had proven to be infectious, with demonstrations in several European cities. On paper, 1968 looked like 1848; and then there were the two assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr.; then, that of Robert F. Kennedy. Some say that optimism had died in 1963; other, that the heel had crushed the flower in 1968.
Heard wrote Howard Street while in prison doing a stretch for armed robbery, a crime he had committed. Self-taught in prison, Heard was a man of immense intellectual curiosity. Like Richard Wright, whom he read, Heard had not completed secondary school. Rather than watch television or allow himself other distractions, he read and read, wrote and wrote. Years after his release, even when he was teaching creative writing at Rutgers University and then Fresno State, without ever having earned a high-school diploma, he listed “Trenton State Prison” under Education on his résumé.
Heard read whatever he could get his hands on, from prison pornography to Beckett, Genet (why am I not surprised?), and Richard Wright. Heard admitted in an interview that he had read only two books before he was incarcerated: The Babe Ruth Story and The Lou Gehrig Story, because he had an interest in baseball. Howard Street and Heard had almost walked out of prison together. Publication and Heard’s release were one month apart. The book became a bestseller, earning critical praise for the unlikeliest corners from the literary establishment.
It is hard for White America to judge Howard Street. Like Native Son, it is a book that does display rage, but I fear that some people might lump it into the genre of ‘prison literature,’ which does the book an injustice. The controversial ‘Hurricane’ Carter was another individual imprisoned around the same time as Heard. Langston Hughes had criticized Native for making white people have reasons to fear and hate black people, men in particular, but I don’t think the same could be said for Howard Street. Sadly, the reason why is that most of the crime in the novel is black-on-black. Wright had dared to have his Biggers Thomas kill a white girl. Heard, in my opinion, points more at self-hatred and the economics of despair in an ethnically divided city. Unlike Wright, Heard is unflinching in his depiction of addiction; but to be fair to Wright, readers who think they have an inkling of injustice, go read up on Richard Wright’s life. Few writers in American literature have overcome so much to simply learn how to read and write, or had witnessed racial violence as Richard Wright had. I do not overstate the case, past or present.
In the years following the publication of Howard Street, American culture was inundated with film after film about Black culture, such as Shaft, Mandingo (Kyle Onstott novel, 1957), and Roots (Alex Haley novel, 1976), which, I think both educated and mesmerized, but also, in the end, desensitized audiences to the point that Black Pride became Tropic Thunder parody. My opinion. I fear, for example, that television viewers today will look upon ‘Michael’ on Good Times and interpret him as some laughable anachronism from another era; but there was a time when the outrage was real, visceral. Television shows, most of them from Norman Lear, appeared throughout the 1970s. Norman Lear and other producers did much to illustrate racial assimilation, progression and White America’s uneasy acceptance of Black concerns, families, and tribulations. All in the Family. Fat Albert. Good Times. The Jeffersons. What’s Happening! Amen. Fat Albert and The Cosby Show, but the darker side of rage was always between the pages, whether they were from Leroi Jones, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, Elridge Cleaver, Nikki Giovanni, Ntozake Shange, or others. Literary works may last because of their entertainment, but they also last because of their social commentary, their relevance, and because their authors create compelling characters, stories, often with poetic and provocative language. Howard Street is Chester Himes meets Raymond Chandler.
Howard Street (1968), To Reach A Dream (1972), A Cold Fire Burning (1974), When Shadows Fall (1977), and House Of Slammers (1983) are the works that Nathan C. Heard left us before he passed away from complications related to Parkinson’s Disease.
Howard Street and his other titles are available through Abebooks.
Howard Street is the only book by Nathan Heard on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
What a crime that it is out of print and so hard to come by even used at a reasonable price