FEATURE HERBERT SIMMONS
early 40 years ago. young black writer Herbert Simmons thrust the world ofjunkie deals. club speak and pool halls into the limelight with his prize-winning debut novel Corner Boy. The book spelled out much more than literary success. To the rhythm of a jazz beat. Simmons had produced a Tyson-hard social novel that delved deep into the segregated race and class injustices of the 505.
Simmons took another five years to complete its successor Man Walking On Eggshells. inspired by St Louis friend Miles Davis. Then nothing until a decade later when he re- emerged in a bibliography of black writers sporting a new name. Tariq Adib Muhammad. There were promises of a new book. but nothing manifested. As far as his New York publishers were concerned. Simmons had disappeared. and was presumed dead.
It has taken the imagination ofa Scottish publishing house to resurrect the author. From the quaintly cobbled environs of Canongate‘s Edinburgh office. Corner Boy is being republished as part of the publisher’s Payback Press imprint. along with other Afro-American writers Chester Himes. Iceberg Slim. Clarence Cooper Jr and Charles Perry.
The brainchild of Canongate’s joint managing director Jamie Byng. Payback Press puts neglected Afro-American writing up in lights. But the resurrection of Simmons has been more literal than expected — the author has been alive and kicking since his ‘disappearance‘.
“There was a blind assumption on the part of the New York publishers that if Simmons wasn’t on view and coming to them with a new book. then he must be some recluse in a backwood of Wyoming,’ says Byng. ‘In fact. he’s obviously been really busy.’
Indeed. the St Louis graduatejournalist never stopped writing over the decades. Numerous articles. editorials. book reviews. forewards and introductions came tumbling out. TV and film screenplays beckoned in the form of a Martin Luther King book and The Law And Mr Jones series. There were awards garnered from his time as English professor at California State University — he retired in 1993 — and an insertion in Who 's Who In America. One of the most important posts he now holds is founder and president of Watts 13 Foundation. a charitable educational organisation founded in 1968 ‘for the purpose of exemplifying for the
10 The List 17-30 May 1996
Black author Herbert Simmons was the darling of American literary society until his hard—
hitting writing proved too tough
for some to swallow. He speaks to
Ann Donald as his award—winning debut novel Corner Boy is
resurrected by a Scottish publisher.
‘I am not an angry Afro-American. lam not a segregationist and I would like people to know this.’
world-at~large contributions of black people to American culture‘.
Simmons sighs. partly due to the early Los Angeles morning hour and partly due to belated frustration as he explains exactly why he was thought to be New York‘s literary Lazarus. ‘1 had a big problem with my publishers back in
1961.‘ he says. It appears the subject matter of
Eggs/tells. an ambitious multi-generational story set on the wrong side of St Louis tracks. lit a few racial fuses — the terms ‘militant' and ‘black‘ were deployed within close proximity by Simmons. ‘The whole social structure at that time was pretty rough on Afro-Americans with segregation and stuff still going on.‘ he
explains. ‘There were those of us who were against that and as an author I wrote about that situation and what I thought needed to be done.‘
Simmons‘s ‘upstart militancy' and tone of writing. rather than the subject matter. was not appreciated either by the power establishment or elements within the black community. ‘After that book I was cut off financially by my publishers. and told that l was rocking the boat by certain blacks. all of which created problems for me.‘ he says.
In short. Simmons believes he was before his time. ‘lt wasn't until 1967 that the militant negro became hot stuff media-wise.‘ he says. ‘The Panther Party were really just corner boys who became militant. They were doing the things l was talking about in lz'ggshel/s. No one believed the idea that we might fight. and fight to win. or we could actually be so angered by the situation of the time that we would riot. In the past it had been whites rioting against blacks. but here were blacks actually burning down their own area — the pertinent point being that they did not own their property.‘
According to Byng. Simmons‘s case was typical of many black creative artists of the time. ‘lt‘s like that George Clinton quote: “America eats its young".‘ he says before explaining the arrangement he has come to with New York publisher W. W. Naughton. whose aims are similar to Payback. ‘Their Old School imprint focuses solely on reclaiming lost black American authors like Simmons who have been overlooked since they were first published in the 50s or (i()s. There is a sort of parallel here with the music re-issucs coming out because all this literature was also underground. inﬂuential and very much ahead of its time.‘
Forty years after his debut novel and on the
cusp of witnessing re~prints in Europe and America of (‘orner Boy and possibly Man ll’a/king ()n lz'ggshells. Simmons feels the time is right for a new generation of readers to comprehend his work. But he is equally at pains to point out his evolving philosophy on racism and oppression in light of a change in atmosphere in 1990s America. ‘I am not an angry Afro-American] he states. ‘I am not a segregationist and I would like people to know this.‘ (‘orner Boy by H erber! Simmons is published by Payback Press at £5.99. Simmons will read a! John Smith 3‘, 252 Byres Road. Glasgow on 'l‘hursday 23 May and at Fopp, 55 Cockbarn Street. Edinburgh on Friday 24 May. See Book events.