Fields, Julia 1938–
Julia Fields 1938–
Coming of age during the explosion of African-American creativity that accompanied the cultural ferment of the 1960s, writer Julia Fields stood somewhat aside from the concerns of many of her contemporaries. Fields was a loner by temperament, and her work, though influenced by her mentor Langston Hughes among other writers, had a style that was hers alone. One of the few black writers of the time who spent a substantial part of her creative life in the South, Fields traveled outside of America’s literary center—New York City—but over time attracted attention as a major twentieth-century poet.
Julia Fields was born into a large farm family in rural Perry County, Alabama, on January 21, 1938. As a child she herded sheep and chopped wood, but she also wrote poetry that she recited in school and in the family’s Baptist church. That church forbade its members to listen to secular music on the radio, and the verbal beauty of preaching and hymns suffused Fields’ life. It was during her farm upbringing in Alabama, Fields wrote in the jacket copy of her children’s book The Green Lion of Zion Street, “that her great and abiding respect for the earth and for the spiritual elements of existence developed.”
In high school Fields worked in a factory, sold vegetables, and waited tables, but she kept on writing poetry. Later, as a teacher, she would encourage her students to mix creative and practical tasks. One of the poems Fields wrote in high school, “The Horizon,” was published in a newspaper in Montgomery, Alabama. It described a view of six hills near her home, on the slopes of one of which rested the graves of her ancestors.
Fields majored in English at Knoxville College in Tennessee, a school associated with the Presbyterian church. She participated in dramatic productions there and also wrote a play, All Day Tomorrow, that was later staged in Knoxville. After she graduated in 1961, Fields decided on a career as a poet. Two of her poems appeared in 1962 in an anthology called Beyond the Blues, and its editor, Rosey E. Pool, suggested that she send them on to Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance literary figure who was the dean of living African-American poets. Hughes responded with encouragement and published the poems once again in his own anthology New Negro Poets (1964).
Teaching high school in Birmingham, Alabama, and devoting her summers to further study, Fields traveled to the Bread Loaf writers’ school at Vermont’s Middle-bury College in 1962 (returning there to complete a master’s degree ten years later) and to Scotland to take classes at the University of Edinburgh in 1963. After Hughes championed her work, Fields had poems published in various small but nationally distributed journals, most often Negro Digest. She lived in New York for a short time but returned to Alabama and took a teaching job at Miles College near Birmingham in 1968. That year, Fields also published her first book of poetry, entitled Poems, and received a financial grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. She was on her way as a writer.
At a Glance…
Born January 21, 1938, in Perry County, AL; daughter of Winston Fields (a preacher and farmer) and Maggie Fields; two daughters. Education: Knoxville College, Knoxville, TN, bachelor’s degree, 1961; studied at University of Edinburgh, Scotland, 1963; Bread Loaf School of English, Middlebury, VT, MA, 1972. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Poet and short story writer; Birmingham, AL, public schools, teacher, early 1960s; poet-in-residence or instructor, at Miles College, Hampton Institute, St. Augustine College, East Carolina University, Howard University, North Carolina State University, and University of the District of Columbia.
Selected awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1967; Conrad Kent Rivers Memorial Fund award, 1973.
Address: Home — 3636 16th St. NW, £B-647, Washington, DC 20010.
Fields enjoyed teaching and worked in various places as a lecturer or poet-in-residence in the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to Miles College, these included the Hampton Institute, St. Augustine’s College, East Carolina University, North Carolina State University, Howard University, and the University of the District of Columbia. But the academic environment didn’t really suit Fields’ country-girl tastes; in one poem quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, she complained about “soul-begging pseudo-scholars, prim intellectuals,” some of whom exploited the memories of figures from black history. After living in Scotland Neck, North Carolina, for several years, Fields moved for good to Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s. She raised two daughters there.
Three more books of Fields’ poetry appeared in the 1970s and 1980s: East of Moonlight (1973), A Summoning, A Shining (1976), and Slow Coins (1981). She also published several short stories, including the widely reprinted “Not Your Singing Dancing Spade.” In an age when much African-American poetry had a sharp edge or militant tone, Fields’ work was low-key, often humorous, and generally oriented toward the roots of black culture. Her vivid portraits of black rural Southerners bear comparison with those of Zora Neale Hurston; “Mr. Tut’s House: A Recollection” (1979) juxtaposes images of the home of a Uniontown gravestone maker with the timeless representations of the ancient Egyptian King Tut that were exhibited in Washington in 1977.
Fields’ sense of humor came through in “High on the Hog,” a poem that Fields originally wrote in 1969 and once read on national television. Poking fun at extravagant praise of African-American cuisine, Fields wrote, “Take my share of Soul Food… I want caviar // Shrimp souffle // Sherry // Champagne // And not because // These are the // Whites’ domain // But just because // I’m entitled…” In the words of Sara Andrews Johnston, writing in Contemporary Poets, Dramatists, Essayists, and Novelists of the South, “there are poems of protest [in Fields’ output], but they are usually made delightful by a twist of wit or sensitivity.”
Many of Fields’ poems had women as their central figures, while others focused on the natural world. She used black folklore in her works, wrote about the relationship between Southern and Northern black cultures, and evoked unusual individuals such as a woman who ate rain. Her poems were extremely diverse in subject matter, tone, and technique. As a review quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography put it, “Ms. Fields is not Julia one-note; she has many themes.” Tying all her efforts together, however, was an attempt to define African-American experience and identity in all their multifaceted variety.
Fields turned to a new type of literature for her most recent work, the children’s book The Green Lion of Zion Street (1988). With illustrations by Jerry Pinkney, the book filled a void in the marketplace for children’s books featuring black characters, and it was widely praised. Loosely rhymed, The Green Lion of Zion Street brought to life the imaginations of a group of schoolchildren who encounter a green stone lion—“Fierce. Mighty. Proud. Fierce. Smirky. Vain.”—in a neighborhood park. With a keen ear for black speech and a constant series of verbal surprises, the book seemed very much of a piece with the earlier work of one of modern African-American literature’s true individualists.
I Heard a Young Man Saying (single poem), Broadside Press, 1967.
Poems, Poets’ Press, 1968.
East of Moonlight, Red Clay Books, 1973.
A Summoning, A Shining, 1976.
Slow Coins, Three Continents Press, 1981.
The Green Lion of Zion Street (for children), Macmillan, 1988.
Bain, Robert, et al., eds., Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary, Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Bain, Robert, and Joseph M. Flora, eds., Contemporary Poets, Dramatists, Essayists, and Novelists of the South, Greenwood, 1994.
“Julia Fields,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 41, Afro-American Poets Since 1955, Gale, 1985.
“Julia Fields,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (April 7, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
"Fields, Julia 1938–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/fields-julia-1938
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