June 6, 1928
October 20, 1984
Actor, writer, and activist Julian Hudson Mayfield was born in Greer, South Carolina, and grew up in Washington, D.C. After graduating from Dunbar High School, he entered the army and served briefly in the Pacific theater before receiving a medical discharge. Mayfield then enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania but gave up his studies to move to New York City in 1949.
In New York Mayfield held many jobs to make ends meet—from washing dishes to writing for the leftist black newspaper Freedom. At the newspaper he met Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, and other black leftists—meetings that deeply influenced his intellectual formation. Mayfield soon became an actor, debuting on Broadway as Absalom, the juvenile lead in Lost in the Stars (1949), Kurt Weill's adaptation of Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948). In 1952 Mayfield coproduced Ossie Davis's first play, Alice in Wonder. While in New York he became a member of the Harlem Writers Guild, a cooperative enterprise in which members critiqued each other's work.
In 1954 Mayfield married Ana Livia Cordero, and the couple moved to Puerto Rico. Mayfield helped establish the first English-language radio station on the island and, in 1956, founded the Puerto Rico World Journal, a magazine about international affairs. While in Puerto Rico he wrote his first novel, The Hit (1957), based on 417, a oneact play he had written earlier about the numbers game in Harlem. The Long Night (1958) also centered on the numbers game but presented a much bleaker, less romantic view of Harlem than its predecessor.
By the time his third novel, The Grand Parade (1961), was published, Mayfield—who had met Malcolm X and W. E. B. Du Bois—had become a radical black nationalist. This was reflected in the novel, which focused on efforts to integrate a school in a "nowhere" city situated between the northern and southern United States. The novel's vision was deeply pessimistic and expressed his advocacy of "Blackist Marxism."
In 1960 Mayfield visited Cuba after Fidel Castro's revolution in the company of Le Roi Jones, Robert Williams, and others. In this period, he published many magazine articles on African-American affairs and was active in black nationalist circles. In 1961, after Williams was accused of kidnapping a white couple, Mayfield, who was with Williams at the time, was wanted for questioning by the FBI. Mayfield fled to Canada, then England, before arriving in Ghana in 1962.
In Ghana Mayfield served as a speechwriter and aide to President Kwame Nkrumah and founded and edited African Review. In keeping with his internationalism, Mayfield edited The World Without the Bomb (1963), the report of a conference on disarmament held in Ghana and attended mostly by third-world scientists. He was in Spain in 1966 when Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup. Mayfield moved to England for a while, then returned to the United States in 1968.
In 1968 Mayfield was given a fellowship at New York University. Two years later he became the first Distinguished W. E. B. Du Bois Fellow at Cornell University. That same year he edited Ten Times Black, a collection of stories by younger African-American authors. During this time he cowrote the screenplay for Uptight (1968), about life inside a black nationalist organization, in which he played the lead; this was his much acclaimed film debut. Mayfield also wrote the screenplays for The Hitch (1969), Children of Anger (1971), and, with Woodie King, The Long Night (1976).
In 1971 Mayfield moved to Guyana in South America as an adviser to the minister of information and later functioned as an assistant to Prime Minister Forbes Burnham. Mayfield returned to the United States in 1974 and taught for two years at the University of Maryland in College Park. He later served as a senior Fulbright-Hays Fellow, teaching in Europe and Tunisia. In 1977 he relocated to the University of Maryland, and the next year he accepted an appointment as writer-in-residence at Howard University, a position he maintained until his death of a heart ailment in Takoma Park, Maryland, in 1984.
Davis, Arthur P. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1981.
Forman, Robert. The Making of Black Revolutionaries. New York: Macmillan, 1972.
Mayfield, Julian. "Into the Mainstream and Oblivion." In The American Negro Writer and His Roots. New York: American Society of African Culture, 1960.
Richards, Phillip M. Foreword to The Hit and the Long Night. Boston: Northeastern University, 1989.
Williams, Robert. Negroes with Guns. New York: Marzani and Munsell, 1962.
peter schilling (1996)