Jonathan Munby

Senior Lecturer in American Studies and Film Studies, Lancaster University


Fall 2010: Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow

Which Way Does the Blood River Run? Julian Mayfield and the Politics of Oblivion

Project Description

Which Way Does the Blood River Run? Julian Mayfield and the Politics of Oblivion

“Which Way Does the Blood River Run?” was the intended title of Julian Mayfield’s unpublished autobiography. The choice of a questioning line drawn from the blues murder ballad, “Crow Jane”, as a way to frame the story of his life reflected, perhaps, a disconsolate disposition born of a life defined by frustrated ambitions as a writer, journalist, actor, academic, and political activist. In a 1960 article, “Into the Mainstream and Oblivion”, Mayfield had warned fellow black American artists and intellectuals to avoid embracing a prevailing white standard, stating that “salvation lies in escaping the narrow national orbit—artistic, cultural and political—and soaring into the space of more universal experience”. True to his own edict, Mayfield travelled a path often at odds with the politics of black/ white integration, traversing the Atlantic and Caribbean with a mission to connect African American experience to a different common destiny. Yet, despite his own pronouncements and substantial contributions to the creative arts and political activism, it is Mayfield who has been condemned to oblivion.

Although he wrote three novels, numerous articles and tracts about the need for a black aesthetic (published in seminal contemporaneous anthologies edited by Addison Gayle Jr. and in major newspapers such as The New York Times), several plays and screenplays, and enjoyed a peripatetic career as a university lecturer on African American literature, Mayfield has received scant treatment in literary studies. Northeastern University Press republished two of his novels, The Hit (1957) and The Long Night (1958) in a single volume in 1989, supported by a foreword by Phillip M. Richards. As yet, however, this act of resuscitation has not led to any attempt to relate Mayfield’s fiction and theories of the black aesthetic to more general patterns in African American literature, let alone to other areas in which he made a significant impact, such as theatre, film, and political activism.

Drawing on archival resources, my project will elaborate on Mayfield’s contributions to African American arts and letters as a writer, academic, and actor—involved in projects as diverse as Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars (a Broadway musical version of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country), and Up Tight!, a 1968 Hollywood film he made with blacklisted director, Jules Dassin, that dealt with the problem of political impasse in the freedom struggle. Such creative endeavours will be linked to his more overt political activities at home and abroad.

One of the key “problems” associated with Mayfield is his nomadic tendency—not only as someone who roamed across the boundaries separating fiction and film, writing and acting, popular arts and academia, but as someone who traversed the Atlantic as a political activist and connected the domestic campaign against white racism in the United States to the dreams of postcolonial independence among sub-Saharan Africans. Only recently, however, has the significance of Mayfield as a key radical African American expatriate involved in the Nkrumah regime in Ghana been disclosed (by Kevin K. Gaines). Mayfield’s unique status as major aide and writer-in-residence to the first sub-Saharan independent African nation state and co-founder of the first overseas branch of Malcolm X’s Organization of African American Unity only intensifies questions about his absence from the established historical record on the struggle for civil rights.

To explain this oversight is to provoke questions about how the memory of Mayfield’s generation’s significance in the fight against racial discrimination has been shaped. For solutions to the matter of Mayfield’s marginalization or neglect depend precisely on overcoming an intertwined set of problematic legacies. A study of Mayfield’s life and work and the reasons for his “forgotten” status will contribute to cutting-edge work on reframing the meaning and periodization of Black Power within civil rights scholarship. Moreover, to engage Mayfield is also to confront the awkward and contradictory relationship between radical anti-discriminatory ideologies and the politics of entertainment. A writer of popular fiction and a willing contributor to commercial cinema, Mayfield seems to have been a guarded supporter of the counter-hegemonic possibilities of black entrepreneurialism. Variously, an internationalist leftist, a pan-African, Black Power sympathizer and creative artist-entertainer, Mayfield productively complicates many of the neat definitions that form the basis of conventional understandings of civil rights activism. In this sense, “remembering Mayfield” should enrich our understanding of how the past connects with the complex politics of the hip hop generation.

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