An interview with Nathan Heard by Eric Beaumont:
When I finished reading Nathan C. Heard's novel Howard Street for the first time, I felt that I'd been living under a cultural rock for too long. I'd read Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, and other great black male "individualist" writers. I'd read about Howard Beach and Tawana Brawley and Crown Heights and listened to the warnings coming from Brixton, Brooklyn, Compton, Houston, and Kingston. I'd dug black culture from closer than the microscope can get. But--Caucasian boy that I am--I never had the role of outsider thrust upon me. good beats, fat basslines, dope rhymes, sweet buddha, and cool Red Stripe in a dangerous part of the city all taste different when you're a safe and quiet neighborhood to go home to. Reading Howard Street, an American tragedy of Shakespearean quality and dimension, made me realize that I hadn't begun to dig shit.
Had Los Angeles' Amok Books not reissued Howard Street (first published in 1968 by Dial), I might have continued to live under the American prejudice that New Jersey's only contributions to the culture have been gambling and Springsteen. With no disrespect to a once-great proletarian rock & roll singer and writer, Howard Street was a cultural revelation that steered me closer to the "straight and narrow way" that Bob Marley and the Wailing Rudeboy Wailers sang about than any book, record, article, slogan, commercial, or pair of platform shoes has done for too long. And learning about the life of the author, a high school dropout who spent eight years in prison, wrote his first novel on a borrowed typewriter, and shortly thereafter became a college lecturer (although he still doesn't have a high school degree), threw me.
Listening to the tapes of my interviews done during June and July of 1993 with Nathan C. Heard--author of the beautiful, desperate street tales Howard Street, To Reach a Dream, A Cold Fire Burning, When Shadows Fall, and House of Slammers--has also set me straight. His acidic, sophisticated wit, mixed with his gentle laugh, can be disarming, especially when you've seen nothing but the intimidating photos on the man's book jackets: Wearing tight, flashy threads in various eras, never without a menacing pair of shades, he looks like someone who just beat up the entire 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line. But his words come softly, deliberately, and precisely. Throughout my compelling mission to fly right, I never imagined such a strong, sensitive writer.
Beaumont: Where and when did you learn the most important elements of writing, the elements that shaped your style the most?
Heard: Well, while I was doing this nine-to-thirteen years in the State Prison in New Jersey.
Beaumont: Did you have access to a lot of literature in your incarceration?
Heard: Yeah, only limited by what kind. When a guy goes to prison, especially for being from my neighborhood, there's not shock of privation, of being lost. It's almost like going to homecoming, because everybody in the neighborhood's there already. So one of the things they do--because of the first few days you have to spend in quarantine--is start sending you all sorts of reading materials, usually sexual escapist stuff. And I got familiar with that. I just started reading to pass the time, mainly.
Beaumont: Did you read before you were in prison?
Heard: No. Before I went to prison, I had read two books in my life, The Babe Ruth Story and The Lou Gehrig Story, because I wanted to be a ballplayer. Those were the only two books I'd ever read voluntarily.
Beaumont: You read them when you wre quite young?
Beaumont: So what was the most important book--or were there several important books--that made you decide that you wanted to write, and/or that you could write?
Heard: Well, it was the lack of important books that made me decide. There was a guy in Fresno, California, named Sanford Aday. And he had a book publishing venture out there. And I had read somewhere that he paid a $2,000 advance for a manuscript. And I said, "Hell, if I'm sitting up in jail for 13 years and I didn't steal $200, let me try this, make some money this way." [Laughs.] And I proceeded to write the same kind of junk I had been reading, you know, just copycat stuff, stuff that used to belong only on 42nd Street, but it's now all over.
Beaumont: Was Sanford Aday an acquaintance of yours?
Heard: No. And it was ironic, because when I got out of prison and got a teaching position, it was in Fresno] [Laughs.]
Beaumont: Did you meet him?
Heard: No, no.
Beaumont: What role did he play in your formation? You were just inspired by the fact that he would pay $2,000 advances?
Heard: That's it, totally. Another thing that this brings up: I had done all this reading, but it wasn't all that critical. It was just eclectic. And to pick these things out of thin air, you know, you had to have something. I was, I guess, kind of writing my way out of a hole.
Upon its publication by Dial, Howard Street--a flavorful, morally powerful but prosaically pure and non-judgmental portrait of a stretch of black homes, clubs, and hangouts in Heard's hometown, Newark--was a knockout success with readers and critics. The book sold over half a million copies. Nikki Giovanni called it "a masterpiece" in Negro Digest. Claude Brown likened Heard to Richard Wright and William Faulkner. If you've read Howard Street, you know the story to be such a heart-stopping one and the author's style so hard and refined that you might be prompted by Mr. Brown's comparison to check out this Faulkner cat. Even the doubting and the envious, like The New York Times' Alan Cheuse, acknowledged the blunt wisdom of Heard's tale. I was knocked out by the passionate, meticulous characterizations and the amazing linguistic transitions from crude, evocative street slang to elegant, descriptive narration.
Beaumont: It's a very dramatic thing, to raise yourself to the literary level that you did for Howard Street.
Heard: The only thing that I believe was behind the creative instinct back then was that there were no televisions or radios or furloughs to distract you. Had they had television in the cells when I was in prison, I probably never would have been a writer. I'd have been like most of those guys there now, living from television show to television show--in my case, The Lucy Show, or something like that, you know. [Laughs.]
Beaumont: You mention, with some sarcasm, television and movies as "privileges" in House of Slammers [Heard's most recently published novel, released by Doubleday in 1983 and, like all of Heard's novels with the exception of Howard Street, now out of print!.
Heard: Yeah. Well, that's because they're really not privileges at all. They're self-destructive. Because, you know, they're like giant pacifiers that you suck on.
Beaumont: How did you change over from writing what you've described as the "sexual escapist" stuff?
Heard: I started reading about writers and writing, and it got serious. Suddenly I began to understand some of the thought processes, or the results of the thought processes, that some of these creative people went through. And what I literally had to do was get tired of that portion of my life, like an alcoholic or something. You get tired of that portion of your life, and so you try to change it. 'Cause my thing was sports and standin' around in the yard singin' do-wop songs, you know, waiting for the moment when I'd get out. When I stopped looking for that moment to get out and started looking for those shorter moments in time, then I could make use of myself in my cell.
But the real thing came--I think what you have in mind--when it surprised me to be able to understand what some of our most progressive thinkers were saying. You know, things were no longer surprising to me. I guess it's a sort of osmosis that creeps in if you do a lot of reading, because I read well over 2,000 books while I was in there.
Beaumont: Was prison your closest contact with the Nation of Islam?
Heard: Yeah, I guess so. On a daily basis, yes.
Beaumont: Did you ever have an audience with Elijah Muhammad?
heard: No. And the Muslims I knew were just inmates like me, mainly.
Beaumont: Were they as articulate as your character Mustafa in House of Slammers?
Heard: Yes, see, because they were the prime dispensers of knowledge at the time, like with books and stuff. They were trying to educate everybody, but to a cause rather than to a purpose. The purpose was what it did to guys like me. It made me think. The cause was...it hooked guys into it and made them start looking for mother-ships in the air.
Beaumont: So they were effective in gaining converts in prison.
Heard: Yeah, but if you got entangled in that web...you know, that's a different story. I was never convinced of that or any other religion--luckily, as far as I'm concerned. But the Muslims sure answered more legal and psychological questions than anybody else did. It was hard for guys growing up around violence to see a solution to violence in any other terms but violence.
Beaumont: Were the Muslims your primary sources of literature?
Heard: No, no, because I had grown up with those guys. I knew 'em before they changed their names to the Arabic. [Laughs.]
Beaumont: Were you able to plunder the prison libraries? Did you have friends on the outside who supplied you?
Heard: No, you bought your own books, or in my case you traded. My reading habits changed, because I stopped reading that 42nd Street pulp stuff and started getting into an idea. And then I started playing music and listening to jazz, which I had only a cursory knowledge of before, and it took me. And that connected me to wanting to know aspects of black history. Then there was the voice of Malcolm X all in the back of that, you know, shouting and challenging you in a way that you hadn't been challenged before.
Beaumont: Did serious writing give you a spiritual satisfaction you hadn't previously enjoyed?
Heard: Oh, yeah. It's like a long high, man, or what's that the poet said, "sexual pleasure infinitely prolonged"? [Laughs.]
Beaumont: Who said that?
Heard: I don't know. I think it was Shakespeare; I'm not sure. [Laughs.]
Beaumont: I assume Malcolm X influenced your writing.
Heard: I was listening to him and cheering him when we thought we were putting these white people in their place. He represented strong black manhood, while the other guys, the civil right-ers, seemed kind of shameful to a lot of guys, you know, street-level guys.
Beaumont: What do you feel the role of the Nation of Islam is today in uplifting people?
Heard: I don't assign roles to people, right? 'Cause I don't believe them, you know. I don't believe anything. I've got no faith, but I've got all the hope in the world.
Beaumont: An interesting distinction.
Heard: I have no faith in religion, in any manner, except in your own personal demeanor. It will never help you do anything because it makes you satisfied. This is why these coalitions of middle-class blacks always come together and are continually bombarding you with dumb ideas like, "Well, here we've got a neighborhood full of poverty. But if we can help just one, our mission won't be in vain." To me, that's a blatant lie. If your mission is to save thousands or hundreds, and you only save one, you're a damn failure. Your mission is a failure! They gave us the impression that "One can teach one," and that would be all right. But the point is, you'll never catch up to their extending lie, their lie of extending yourself. It is not enough to be satisfied to save one! That doesn't mean that you shouldn't "teach one," but it does not address the problem. The problem is how to get these people into some sort of cohesive force, not to be satisfied with some gains, and then to satisfy the other people by saying, "Well, we got one. Let's keep going." You'll never catch up.
Beaumont: You mentioned the last time we spoke that you're working on sort of an epic now. Are you able to disclose any of the themes that you're exploring?
Heard: Man's doubt, his self-frustration. If you take a guy that steps up to take a swing with the bat, you've got to find out if he'll swing at a ball or not.
Beaumont: Have you got a working title for the book?
Heard: Yeah, Summer's Fool.
Beaumont: I get the impression from hearing you talk briefly about your new book that you're definitely not completed with your mission.
Heard: I'm challenged now, and I want to challenge other people to an idea that becomes a reality, rather than a notion of some sacredness or some outside force making you better than you are. Most of us who are "better than we are" did it through work, and did it on a very personal level. People tell you that, you know, "If you join this organization, everything will be all right." It's like the Muslims or anybody else. And what's the other ploy? "Blacks don't stick together." Well, this is a diverse society! I mean, I don't have to think like you. But that's the demand of most people, that "you think like me or you're in the way." It's like watching one of those audiences react on Donahue or Oprah. You know exactly the point at which the crowd's going to clap hands, no matter what the program's about. And all these people who claim to be so damned different, they respond to the same thing; they laugh at the same jokes, cry at the same instants, and show how totally entrapped by our humanity we all are. And yet they try to stand back and look at the world through some God's-eye view. They can't tell you what a hiccup is, but they can tell you what the nature of God is. [Laughs.]
The hope is that we'll develop our brain power to use along with this coming technology, because the sharper technology gets, the dumber we get, you know. I mean, people can't program their own VCRs already, you know? How are we going to conquer these coming years with a masochistic dance into some fundamentalist religion, whether it be Christian or otherwise?
Beaumont: Do you take on some of these questions of technology in Summer's Fool?
Heard: Yeah, a little bit. Not very much. It's really about a guy who hasn't been able to get a hand up in his work because he's been enjoying that California life. But he doesn't enjoy what he's turning into. So when a New Jersey friend he grew up with sends him a letter saying, "Hey, man, come on back and we'll give you tenure to teach at our school," he returns. This friend, who develops into an adversary, is the local deacon/politician, a city councilman who's a deacon in his church--two institutions that he doesn't believe in but he's able to use, like so many of 'em are, you know.
The point is that this guy who's coming back has all the right connections. I mean, he gets prominent in church not because he's religious but because that's where most of his constituents are going to come from. It's the same thing with being elected. He can go out and make speeches, but it's still the same old-boy network--you know, that political game. And he bumps into that because he's coming back at this almost in a naive manner, like a purist, to do something. He's one of those people with a mission, or who feel that it's a mission. And he runs into everything that he's supposedly been striving for. You know, that leveling off, where the voice of some of the black leaders since King don't move you but just reinforce the status quo, which they're quite satisfied with, because it gets them into the Chamber of Commerce. It gets them into every aspect of life in the city, without, of course, giving them the economic means of solving their problems.
Beaumont: Is the novel contemporary?
Beaumont: Have you been working on this since House of Slammers? Or was there a period during which you didn't embark on any long projects?
Heard: I typed out a black private eye thing, simply to get me back to practice.
Beaumont: You did! Have you read Walter Mosley?
Heard: No, I haven't read him. I've heard of him.
Beaumont: I think you'd enjoy him very much. He writes detective novels set in South Central L.A. in the '40s and '50s.
Heard: Yeah, well, that's what this one I just did was, just to try to get it out there. I was willing to put it out under another name.
Beaumont: But it was never published?
Heard: No, I never sent it in. I knew it wasn't good. [Laughs.] And it was a strange novel.
Beaumont: What's the working title?
Heard: The Gapper Syndrome. A gapper is a get-over, a way to get over, you know. If a guy comes on and says, "Hey, man, gimme my gapper," if the two guys did a robbery, for instance, and one of you took the money, and the other one took the money some-where else. You'd meet him later and say, "Hey, man, where's my gapper?" But it also could have been a loan or a bargain. If you knew a guy had money, you'd walk up to him and say, "Hey, man gimme a gapper." You know, a gapper is a free gift. [Laughs.]
Beaumont: Do the people at Amok Press know that you have this book stashed away?
Heard: Yeah, but it's no good. First of all, it's a detective story that doesn't have a murder in it. [Laughs.]
Beaumont: Well, that's a new take on the genre.
Heard: It was something I kind of dashed out, almost as a challenge, and it didn't pan out. It's like the first manuscript I ever wrote; it's still there. I just need to work on it. I take a cue from Hemingway on that: No manuscript is good enough until you've finished it and can go back ten years later and it still excites you.
Beaumont: Well, I'm glad you haven't written if off completely.
Heard: No, it's just that the book I'm working on now seems much more what I want to do. It's coming from a more mature voice in me. I started it a couple of years ago, and I put it away. I had one of those blocks for a little while. Things weren't going well, so therefore the writing wasn't going well and I lost all interest. But I got it back. Suddenly I saw some questions that could be answered. And since I'm not a public speaker, I decided to write some things down, and before I knew it, I had started on a novel. It's almost, in that sense, autobiographical, because it starts with the idea of coming back to a community. The hero is a guy who achieves that sort of good life in California, where's he's married, he's got a house, he's got responsibility, he's been teaching in the English department. But he suddenly gets to feeling guilty because he sees that things in his community are not getting any better. He feels guilty enough to chump that life and come back to Newark and to get those skills that I talked about before and try to disperse them through his method, which is writing and teaching.
That pits him against the by-now-old guard of black politicians and civic leaders. So he's lost in a malaise that's really the same as it always was, because he's being controlled by forces that he can't really deal with, and yet he has to accept them, because these forces are black people. My whole idea in this is to say that, hey man, a black foot in your ass hurts just as much as a white one does.
So he runs up against this and gets into a personal challenge on his part. He's the kind of character who wants to get involved, not for the annual literati convention but because he sees something wrong and he wants to do something about it.
Beaumont: It sounds as though it's really got ahold of you.
Heard: Yeah, yeah. I hope I can sustain it, you know.
Beaumont: Have you shown the manuscript to anyone?
Heard: No, I haven't. And I've got about 500 pages. [Laughs.]
Beaumont: I want to get clear how much time you served in prison. You mentioned the sentence was nine-to-thirteen.
Heard: Yeah. I served six, and then I got out and was on parole, when, in the next eleven months, I was locked up again. [Laughs.]
Beaumont: Okay. So you served a total of ...
Heard: Eight years.
Beaumont: Were you published before the release of Howard Street?
Heard: Oh, no, no. Howard Street was the first real good manuscript I came up with. And that lay in my closet for years because I didn't know what I had. I had two other novels before, that I had finished before Howard Street, and never submitted any of them. the second novel out, To Reach a Dream, was ultimately the first novel that I wrote, really.
Beaumont: Who was it who let you know that Howard Street was good?
Heard: Well, my mother [Gladys Johnson, nee Pruitt] took it. Right after I got in jail, got in trouble again. She took it to a lawyer [Joel Steinberg of East Orange! and asked him to read it, 'cause she couldn't understand why--if I had all this talent for singing, for playing drums, for writing--I went around stickin' up people with a gun. This lawyer read the manuscript that my mother pushed on him, and he went directly to Paul Reynolds's agency in New York and got me an agent, because they had a saleable product, you know. That was in 1968. The book came out in November, a month before I did.
Beaumont: So you were a free man for good in December of '68.
Beaumont: Would you prefer not to talk about what landed you in jail?
Heard: I was the local tough guy, stickup, a thug--just not as acutely painless or without hurt, like the crime these new kids are creating, you know? Without any feeling.
Beaumont: In reading Howard Street, I'm struck by the moral force that your writing carries in some classically immoral scenarios. There's a sense that you're able to pull yourself completely away from the street and look at it from a purely moral perspective.
Heard: Well, I had to. That happened in prison. That's when writing really became interesting to me. I was reading about writers and reading about writing, and absorbing all of this, even if it was by osmosis. It changed my habits in jail, so that I didn't feel the same. There was no more fun in talking about which girls you're gonna get when you get out, or all that gang stuff, or singing those do-wop songs. All of that changed because I started to hear, I guess, a different challenge with the writing, even though I didn't know it.
Beaumont: It seems that you know a very eclectic selection of people that may have turned you on to different ways of thinking than the average person who might find himself in that situation.
Heard: No, I was turned on by a lot of guys after I started getting interested in reading and writing. My influences during that time were James Baldwin, Norman Mailer--lot of Norman Mailer--and Richard Wright. And then I was turned on to Chester Himes; then a whole network of books was passing through, you know. I read a hell of a lot of books before I came out at eight years, but I still didn't have anything practical. You know, I could write, but so what? I didn't know it, and nobody had ever told me it. And so I wrote the manuscript Howard Street as a challenge, because, you know, I said, "I can write stuff better than this."
BEaumont: It was a challenge to yourself.
Heard: The challenge to myself came later, because the books had hooked me, instead of me hooking onto the books. I became an inveterate reader. With my schedule, I'd read and write all night, and sleep all day.
Beaumont: How did it make you feel when the reviews came in? You must have had an inkling that you could write better than most of those clowns out there.
Heard: Yeah, well, I got a whole lot of interest, and I'm glad, but I can only attribute it to a sort of innocence. Had I been trying to write with, say, a message or a singular or tunnel-vision message, I probably would never have succeeded.
Beaumont: With Howard Street, speaking purely in terms of sales, you enjoyed a success that few writers have. Do you have any outstanding memories of that? Half a million people bought the book, and you must have been sort of a household name.
Heard: Yeah, for a while there. And it was a wrong turn to get so involved. I lost sight of what was really going on around me. The book got me noticed, but all the attention that stemmed from it made me less sensitive to a lot of people. So my literary friends are a very small circle. I've spent most of my time in bars and jails, and so I feel comfortable where I'm at, and I really don't miss those literature collectives. I know and like Amiri Baraka, I know and like Claude Brown, I knew and liked John O. Killens, and the same with Jimmy Baldwin. I'd see him once or twice, maybe, in a couple of years.
Beaumont: Were you able to share your success with your family?
Heard: Which success are you talking about?
Beaumont: Both the material and the artistic.
Heard: Oh, for me, yeah! And my folks, well, they're just happy for me. Their joy was in me doing something other than knockin' the damn walls down of every jail in the state.
To Reach a Dream, Heard's second novel for Dial, released in 1972, is a refinement of his first real manuscript. The story of a young, grade-B player's fast and furious descent from naivete into murderous con artistry, played out against the background of ostensibly twisted but essentially simple sexual/economic relationships (one with an older woman, the other with her daughter). To Reach a Dream failed to duplicate the commercial success of Howard Street but retained its gripping edge. Lean, economically written, and truly horrifying, the novel reads even more like Shakespeare than does its groundbreaking predecessor.
Beaumont: For me, the most disturbing aspect of To Reach a Dream is that the characters Bart and Qurell [the daughter] went to an evil means to secure a good end--their love. What was the inspiration for that story?
Heard: Just watching guys who were living that sort of life--not so much being companions, but being recipients of a sort of meal ticket. That's a very common thing, even now. You find a lot of women who take care of men.
Beaumont: I think an interesting theme in Howard Street is the contrast between the pimp-whore relationship and the husband-wife relationship. I guess other people like Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines may have dabbled in that, but I think your satire goes deeper and that your metaphors are more sophisticated.
Heard: I hope so.
Beaumont: Did you ever meet Iceberg Slim or Donald Goines?
Heard: No, I never met either of them. Quite frankly, I never thought that Pimp was really ... to me, it's pulp. I didn't like his work for any intellectual reason. It was just something else to read, something else to mash in there. You know, it's like devouring J. A. Rogers's books. I went through a lot of them.
Beaumont: Have people picked up on the pimp-whore relationship as a metaphor for male-female relationships?
Heard: That's what makes me, I think, a writer in that sense. I'm a realistic writer. I'm not practicing any style or experimenting with any style except the style that would get the most impact from the individual consciousness.
Beaumont: I want to talk more about your depiction of the pimp-whore relationship in Howard Street. There are parallels with the husband-wife relationship, or the boyfriend-girlfriend relationship. Are they that different? Aren't there still questions of ownership?
Heard: Well, there is difference in that the law of the pimp-hustler thing that was between those two [Lonnie "Hip" Ritchwood, a young, ruthless hustler, and Gypsy Pearl, a beautiful, deluded prostitute! was just a mutual agreement based on both of their weaknesses. His need for drugs fed into her need to mother him in some way. He wasn't a real pimp, he was a street hustlin' pimp, and it could have been any girl. The formal pimp thing, you know, the "gentleman of leisure" kind of pimp thing, were guys who were like peacocks. They strolled around being proud, saying, "Look what my woman bought me. Look what the bitch did for me." His whole life process is not to make any damned thing but to show that he has this something. It's sort of like the need in To Reach a Dream, my second novel, where the guy gains everything that he wanted. But what good is it if he can't go around, show it to his friends?
Beaumont: Are you optimistic about relations between men and women?
Heard: What else is there? [Laughs.]
Beaumont: I think one of the most interesting things about To Reach a Dream is how the narrative weaves in and out of the hipster jargon.
Heard: Yeah, dialogue can change according to the person. One day I can answer the phone and you'll never know that I'm black. Most white critics make the mistake of not giving more than one voice to these characters--they're just black or white, you know? And all the dialogue is oneway. But I write about people who say things differently. They have been living in the same neighborhood for years, but they come up with different words. And so, to me, that makes the dialogue live, because it's always of the people.
Beaumont: "Proper English," discussed briefly in House of Slammers, is an amusing question, especially when Mustafa, the Muslim, asks Beans if it makes him feel more black when he uses incorrect grammar. House of Slammers seems very much the most autobiographical of the books, although knowing very little about you, maybe that's presumptuous.
Heard: No, I don't think that it's presumptuous of you. And I don't think it's a big deal. As long as you're getting the things I want you to feel, it doesn't matter. What I try to hear is the person's character that I try to build. I try to make them real in my mind, and some of them talk in different voices, you know. That turns out to be a legitimate feeling, which a lot of critics don't understand, because they're so used to these characters speaking in one voice, usually down-South talk, you know. That's another thing I'm having to work with in the character that I'm building now, who's a writer, and talks with a different crowd of young kids. Maybe you have to develop another language altogether, at some point, to get to the dialogue, and make it real.
House of Slammers--in particular, its final scene--is a heartening indication that Heard's skills remain sharp. As with Howard Street 15 years earlier, Heard lifts the reader's emotions and finally lets them down hard. When the four prison strike leaders (protagonist Beans, Nation of Islam member Mustafa, Joe Valli, and Wally Allen) walk out into the courtyard with the shadow of death over them, the tragedy is just as pure and profound as when young Jimmy Johnson loses his shootout with the cops in Howard Street.
Beaumont: A lot of the language used in House of Slammers and To Reach a Dream--terms like fat, hype, nigga, punk, and the like--has been revived by a lot of hip-hop musicians. Are you hip to that culture at all?
Heard: I'm working at it, because some of the people in the new book are young gang members, and I want to get their dialogue and attitudes down correctly.
Beaumont: Have you bought any records in the last couple of years?
Heard: No, I listen to 'em on the street, here, outside my window!
Beaumont: I managed to rent Gordon's War [a fairly intelligent vigilante film made in 1973 starring Paul Winfield (with a cameo appearance by Grace Jones!), in which Heard has a brief cameo as Big Pink, a dangerous mack who wears a long, pink leather trenchcoat and wields a mean two-by-four!.
Heard: Oh, my goodness] [Laughs.]
Beaumont: Were you paid properly for your role?
Heard: I was paid minimum salary.
Beaumont: Have you acted in any other films?
Heard: No, and I didn't want to.
Beaumont: You did not enjoy the experience?
Beaumont: Let's talk about the academic world briefly. Where did you teach?
Heard: Fresno State College [where he taught creative writing and won the Most Distinguished Teacher Award! and three years at Livingston College here at Rutgers [where he taught writing and black literature as an assistant professor. While at Livingston he hosted a television talk show, New Jersey Speaks!.
Beaumont: What have you been doing since?
Heard: Well, Howard Street was very good to me. I lived off that for ten years. You know, royalties and the options that people had bought. It's been optioned about three or four times for a movie, but for some reason, it never pans out.
Beaumont: Since House of Slammers, you've been able to subsist on profits from Howard Street?
Heard: Yeah, just about. And, of course, I had jobs in between. During the CETA Administration, I worked for the mayor of Newark, Kenneth Gibson.
Beaumont: Having spent time in the academic world, what is your opinion of where their heads are at?
Heard: Well, I found out one thing when I went there. When I first started there, having only gone through the tenth grade myself, I had a tremendous amount of respect for people who had official status as educators and so forth. But I think what had the greatest impact was finding out that they don't have that many smart people in college, you know. Before that, I grew up thinking that anybody who went to college was smart.
Beaumont: Do you think academia insulates you from reality?
Heard: Only if you want to be insulated. No, anybody who chooses that is a liar. If you are not participating, and you don't want to, you ought to say so!
Beaumont: Do you teach now?
Heard: No, I wish I could get a job now.
Beaumont: Since reading your books, I've noticed the unique qualities of some of the popular figures that have come out of Newark and East Orange--for example, Shaquille O'Neal and yourself from Newark.
Heard: And Marvin Hagler.
Beaumont: From East Orange, Jimmy Scott, Queen Latifah, Naughty by Nature. Is there a common street sense among these people? Is there a quiet sophistication that brings them together? How would you summarize the best qualities of New Jersey culture?
Heard: To me there is no New Jersey culture. I'm a one-world guy. I understand your point, but I don't know how to explain that. Can you put that another way?
Beaumont: What makes your part of the world different? Is there anything that might inspire artists?
Heard: Normally I'd say no, 'cause a lot of these things, a lot of these feelings, and a lot of our talents come out of mere will. You know, I saw something and I wanted to be it. I saw a set of drums and wanted to be a drummer. I don't think that we're unconfined here. I could be chauvinistic and say, "This happened in Newark because we drink good water." Too many people are too successful all around the world for anybody to take claim on it just because it happened to them. That's sophistry, and that's dividing people. People don't think when they're watching television or hear jokes how similar they are, no matter what race. You know? They all laugh at the same jokes, they all have the same emotions, they all want the same things in life, and then they tell each other that they're different.
Beaumont: Is your editing process fairly rigorous?
Heard: No, I do the first draft in longhand. And I do the second by typing. And then I type it again to try to get out all the errors. I'm a one-two-three-step guy, you know. It's very simple.
Beaumont: You don't use a computer?
Heard: No, I haven't. I want to get one, but not in the middle of this book, you know.
Beaumont: What do you find to be your most enduring novel or your most interesting novel?
Heard: Oh, Howard Street is that, by far. That book allowed me ten years' good living. I had jobs because of it. You know, some teaching. So Howard Street had a good impact then. From the way newspapers are acting now, it's having another impact.
The Nathan Heard book about which no two people seem to agree is A Cold Fire Burning (published in 1974 by Simon & Schuster). It's a sexually explicit satire of ignorance in all walks of life. More ambitious and realistic than Spike Lee's film Jungle Fever in that its black male and white female--the novel's problematic couple--come into their relationship with equal helpings of prejudice and minimal stereotypical qualities. Neither of the two black women I've lent the book to have finished it. One, who enjoyed Heard's other novels, found the story "boring." The other, who had never read Heard's work, was astonished and appalled by the book's sexually explicit nature. Of all Heard's novels, A Cold Fire Burning still strikes me as best lending itself to a filmed adaptation. Not as bloody or linguistically charged as Heard's other novels, it's a quiet and wise little fucked-up love story.
Beaumont: How do you feel about A Cold Fire Burning now?
Heard: Well, that was almost like a political statement, all predicated on the fact that this guy--though he loved his woman and cared about her--couldn't really be with her. He couldn't ejaculate unless she was in a degraded position--mainly, you know, fellatio. And only that could satisfy him. I was speaking out of a certain relationship at that point. Because "things" just weren't going away, and I saw a lot of stuff happening that I thought was wrong. And there didn't seem to be anybody really stopping it. This was going into the depths of the Reagan era. When I think of all that black people suffered during those whole twelve years ...
Beaumont: A Cold Fire Burning was actually written during the Nixon era. Was the Reagan era any different from that?
Heard: No, I mean, it looked like a natural progression to me, to most of us. During the Nixon administration, I really got popular. And there were no complaints. So that was probably due to the malaise that came over me. Plus, I wanted to make a statement on certain things. Relationships could be achieved; everything didn't have to do with race.
Beaumont: The satire on the so-called political revolutionaries is some of your most biting.
Heard: Yeah. You know, here's a guy who has to learn that your commitment to your race does not come through the end of your penis.
Heard's fourth novel, When Shadows Fall, was published in 1977 by the short-lived, Chicago-based Playboy Press. If it weren't so precisely evocative of the impotent rock music scene preceding punk rock and rap, and the drug culture which continues to blunt rock's so-called "cutting edge," it would read just like a western. For his story of Joe Billy White, a coke-snorting, bell-bottomed jean-wearing, "up-and-coming" white rhythm-and-blues cliche reminiscent of Eric Clapton, Rick Derringer, or perhaps Roy Buchanan, Heard trims all the fat from the fast, dirty, and rather senseless story of personal corruption, corporate corruption, musical corruption, police corruption, and more corruption. It would be funny if it weren't utterly truthful.
Beaumont: It seems as if you almost approached When Shadows Fall like an experiment.
Heard: It was. You're very perceptive.
Beaumont: Were you commissioned to write that book?
Heard: It wasn't by commission, but it was for quick money.
Beaumont: Do you have any interesting inside thoughts on that book?
Heard: No, not very many.
Beaumont: [Laughs.] I notice it's your only book to include significant white characters.
Heard: Yeah, well, I changed Joe Billy on purpose. He was a black saxophone player, and I changed him to the white guitar player.
Beaumont: In Howard Street you have Franchot. In To Reach a Dream, there's Bart. You have the unnamed narrator in A Cold Fire Burning. You have Joe Billy White and Haines the cop in When Shadows Fall, and Beans in House of Slammers. Of all your protagonists, are there any that you identify most closely with?
Heard: Oh, probably with Beans.
Beaumont: I did notice that some of the things that occurred to Beans seem to parallel a few of the things that I know about your life. Did you undergo a similar crisis of where you stood?
Heard: On that rage and anger?
Heard: Yeah, I had to live through that, because, you know, I was one of those guys who didn't believe in that Martin Luther King philosophy. "You hit me, I'm gonna hit you back," you know, that was the school that I and most of my friends came from. And we were influenced by the Panthers, and especially Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and a few others. So that was an inner rage that was building up.
What influenced us was the intellectual challenge these guys presented. Malcolm was saying things that we hardly said among ourselves, you know? I mean, some of the most dynamic things he said challenged us as we were going through this sort of training process from half-ape to half-man. [Laughs.] Malcolm did influence us. The Panthers showed us that there was a methodology that we could get around. But there were no delusions, at least for me, that they would solve anything that wouldn't be solved on a personal level first. I mean, the Panthers had a methodology and that's all. Malcolm had a soul because, in the depth of all this here--prison and the feeling sorry for yourself--here was one guy who stood up and said, like the guy in Network, "I'm mad as hell, and I ain't gonna take it anymore."
Beaumont: Did you ever have to make a decision like Beans did, to take the risk of leading a worthy but potentially dangerous mission?
Heard: Yeah, I made that decision, except I dramatized it and made him get shot. I lost my chance at parole for what I did.
Beaumont: You led a strike in prison?
Beaumont: How much longer did you spend in prison as a result?
Heard: Probably two years. I hadn't gone up for parole yet, so I can't factually say.
Beaumont: Was this at Trenton?
Heard: Rahway. The next sentence happened at Trenton. Howard Street had been published, and I was so popular that they put me out of jail four months early. [Laughs.]
Beaumont: I'm intrigued by Beans's ability to speak to the prison psychologist in a sort of psychologist's language.
Heard: Yeah, on equal terms.
Beaumont: Exactly. And everyone in prison, down to the Nazi scumbag, is able to talk to him.
Heard: Yeah, well, that was a lot of me too. We had to talk to some Nazi guy, had to get him to see that, you know, "Your best interest's with us now."
Beaumont: How do you feel, having published five novels, about the question of censorship and hurtful speech and the many complicated things that surround it? What is your take on the First Amendment?
Heard: Nobody should bother with the First Amendment; someone having something negative or nasty to say about you wouldn't have a leg to stand on if you approached it with intelligence.
Beaumont: Do you feel that the First Amendment should be preserved?
Heard: By all means, rather than let some fool with an emotional problem go up and define the law for you.
Beaumont: Howard Street strikes me as a powerful statement about, on one hand, the true nature of a person's soul and, in a cultural sense, black soul. In a way, it's also about the death of soul. You see all these young people's lives being wasted.
Heard: Well, you see what that generation has brought forth here, in the kids we have today: killers. And what's much more amazing than that is that the hardness with which they talk about it seems to surprise so many people. I don't know why people are surprised. You got these so-called skills that the Civil Rights era took us through, and we got cities full of mayors, black mayors, black councilmen, and all that, and sometimes senators. And yet the condition is worse. That's because there were too many of us, myself included, who didn't do anything, or didn't prepare the Ice-Ts of the world for the structured living that we wanted. And so, now that they've turned callous and hard, we're surprised. I mean, dummies can't raise anything but dummies!
Beaumont: It seems that, since Howard Street, each novel you've written has become increasingly more idealistic.
Heard: Yeah, because I was trying to address problems and prepare solutions rather than write. I never knew Howard Street was going to get published, you know, so it was just something I did. There was no pressure to perform. There was no pressure to duplicate that experience or that time. And, more importantly, there was no real pressure to direct it, until I saw that black leaders were losing the audience to the advent of technology, mainly TV, from Sesame Street on. I mean, what teacher standing in front of a classroom could compare to these electronic whizzes and sounds and loudness that stimulate these kids today? You start to lose, automatically, what you've built.
We were supposed to get skills in those days and bring 'em back to this community and, in a way, free ourselves. But they came back as mayors, they came back as city councilmen and state officials, and they didn't change a damned thing. They jumped into the mainstream bourgeois waters--and never brought those skills back home. [Laughs.] We forgot our passion. We forgot a whole lot of things. We would make excuses for the failures that we had in the black community, teaching kids values or forgetting to tell them that they were worth anything. Damn, I'm having a problem here! I don't want this to seem like it's an insult to us, but in fact what we did to the generation of teens now was to harm them.
Beaumont: Yet your writing doesn't carry with it the bitterness of even, say, James Baldwin.
Beaumont: Sometimes I think your writing is not always as burning as that in Howard Street.
Heard: Right! Well, along the line somewhere, I guess maybe I was trying to live up to other expectations. You get didactic, you know. And you get so you're not writing; you're trying to teach. I think that sort of derived from all those damned black poets in the '60s who disappeared, you know. [Laughs.] To get back to Malcolm for a minute--I had my biggest joy when Malcolm was debating some black intellectual on TV. The guy had made some remark about his schooling, or to his degrees, and Malcolm looked at the guy and said, "Do you know what they call..."
Beaumont: "a black man with a Ph.D.?"
Heard: Uh huh. The guy said, "What?" Malcolm said, "A nigger." [Laughs.] That was Malcolm's comeback. And we felt that. Because we felt that, no matter what we did, we were never going to be good enough in this society. You know, like our music. We knew we had beautiful people in music and jazz and every sphere who couldn't make it in terms of crossing over, reaching that wider audience.
Beaumont: And in literature.
Heard: Yeah, of course.
Beaumont: How's your relationship with Amok Press?
Heard: Well, it was for these three books.
Beaumont: It's just for reissue.
Heard: Yeah, that's all it's for.
Beaumont: Besides Howard Street, they're going to reissue House of Slammers and A Cold Fire Burning. Is that right?
Beaumont: Why not the other two?
Heard: I don't know. You'll have to ask them. Maybe they feel, like I do, that they may be my two minor books. I don't know.
Beaumont: I wouldn't consider To Reach a Dream a minor book. I think it's ... well, enough of what I think.
Heard: No, I'm glad to hear that because, you know, I'm a writer. I can't always see what forest I'm in. [Laughs.]
Beaumont: It seems that Amok has done a pretty good job of distributing and publicizing the reissued Howard Street.
Heard: Yeah! As a matter of fact, I just had a book signing for Howard Street in Newark.
Beaumont: At what bookshop?
Beaumont: Is it an African-American shop?
Beaumont: Did you have a good time?
Heard: Oh, of course. This is still home. [Laughs.]
Beaumont: You mentioned that you sang and played the drums. Have you ever made any recordings that have been published?
Heard: No, I made a demo--well, it's really a taping of a couple of songs I had written way back there in the mid-'70s, I guess.
Beaumont: What style of music?
Heard: Well, I was trying for a hit, so I was trying to do the popular thing.
Beaumont: Like Barry White, Isaac Hayes-type stuff?
Heard: Well, yeah, along those lines, but that's not really my purpose. I'm really just a jazz drummer, you know.
Beaumont: That's your best instrument?
Heard: Yeah, that's my forte. But I've got a good singing voice.
Beaumont: Baritone, I imagine.
Heard: Yeah. Well, if you need anything, just call, 'cause I want Howard Street to be a success the second time around too, which is one of the songs I do. [Sings:] "Love is lovelier the second time around." [Laughs.]
Beaumont: A beautiful song! Does Jimmy Scott do that one?
Heard: I haven't heard him do that.
Beaumont: Have you heard his new CD?
Heard: Yeah, yeah, I've heard it. I like what he did on Sinatra's "All the Way." He's handling it this time, you know. Cutty Sark is not getting in his way. [Laughs.]
Beaumont: Did you see him when he was on Twin Peaks?
Heard: No, I saw him on some other TV show. Showtime.
Beaumont: Happy Independence Day, if you celebrate.
Heard: Oh, sure. I'll do that anyhow. [Laughs.]
Beaumont: Celebrate every day, right?
Just after I read Nathan Heard's beautiful but unsentimental remembrances of Jimmy Scott in Blue, a magazine of Newark, New Jersey, culture, and after I heard Heard speak with fondness about Little Jimmy Scott, the singer himself came to Milwaukee for a two-night stand at a small jazz club near my house. It felt like a powerful stroke of fortune. In preparation for the show, I reread Heard's piece, which recalled that one did not go to Jimmy Scott's engagements to meet women; one made sure he brought the finest woman he could find. So I bought a new pair of black shoes, called the finest women I'm still on speaking terms with, and got ready.
I wasn't ready to find Little Jimmy Scott sitting just inside the door. I was just as unprepared for the effusion of warmth from Jimmy when I introduced myself as an acquaintance of Nathan Heard. Jimmy shouted to a friend of his, much younger, that I was a friend of Nathan's, explaining in loud, proud tones about the author of Howard Street. I felt nothing but lucky at being able to dig these touching expressions of unabashed black pride. Jimmy sang standards like "Imagination" and "Unchained Melody" with heart-crushing tenderness, making them forever his, and illustrated each song of the ballad-heavy ten-o'clock set with strenuous, exaggerated gestures. The evening couldn't have been anything but a screaming success--all because Nathan Heard wrote a brilliant book that turned my world upside down. I can't recommend the experience enough.
Published in the African American Review, 1994.