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Poor, Black and in Real Trouble: The Baltimore Noir of Jerome Dyson Wright


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Back in the 1980s, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke declared the town “the city that reads.” While that phrase was hyperbolic at best, Baltimore has always been a city that produced, adopted, inspired and aided many excellent writers. A few favorites include detective/ horror pioneer Edgar Allan Poe, essayist/Black Mask founder H. L. Mencken, novelist Laura Lippman, Harlem expat Barry Michael Cooper (who penned the script for New Jack City in the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library), screenwriter Barry Levinson, essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates and former Baltimore Sun journalist/The Wire creator David Simon.

However, one name that was always missing from the list of B-More scribes was late novelist Jerome Dyson Wright, an urban fiction/street lit pioneer and lifelong resident of the gritty city who died on August 22, 2020 at the age of 82. The author of three novels featuring protagonist Phillip Avery, the most famous being Wright’s 1976 debut Poor Black and in Real Trouble, which he followed-up with Second Chance (1986) and Snowball’s Chance in Hell (1991). Wright’s work captured the beautiful and ugly of the city’s Black community as well the motives of corrupt police and the brutality behind penitentiary walls.

Poor Black and in Real Trouble was originally self-published through the infamous Vantage Press. Later reprinted by Holloway House, the same company that published Iceberg Slim (Pimp), Donald Goines (Dopefiend) and Joseph Nazel (The Iceman series), the texts depicted in their paperbacks were ghetto street life scenarios that included pimping, drugging, robbing, killing and, if the anti-hero protagonist lived until the end, redemption.

Holloway House books were part of an era that gave the world funk music, Blaxploitation films (Superfly, The Mack), Soul Train and Players magazine, a Black version of Playboy that Holloway also published. Writers were the forefathers of so-called “ghetto lit” authors (Sister Soulja, Teri Woods, Shannon Holmes) who became popular in late-1990s and aughts. None of Holloway books made the New York Times best-sellers list, but those joints sold well in hoods across America where they were sold in record shops, gas stations, candy stores and other non-traditional outlets that had nothing to do with bookstores.

Written while Jerome Wright, who was born in 1938,  was in prison, Poor Black and in Real Trouble was a semi-autobiographical and took place on the streets of Baltimore, especially Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. “The Ave,” as most locals called it, was where the action was, be it shooting loaded dice, buying stolen clothes from the boaster girls or making sweet love in some hooker’s hide-a-way. It was where the players played and grandstanded in their fresh fashions.

The main character Phillip Avery was a young smart boy who excelled in school, but his family’s problems (poverty, father in jail) soon came crashing down on him. Embarrassed by a lack of food and tattered clothes, which Phillip compared to Huckleberry Finn’s, he saw himself as an outcast. Broken by the system, his mother became sick and soon died. The boys were sent to live with their aunt, who cared for them the best she could without many resources.

As a youngster Phil was happy and did well in school. He got along with most of his classmates and loved his teacher Miss Bell. It was in kindergarten where he met Vickie, the girl who became the love of his life through the three books. Describing Phillip’s first impression of her, Wright wrote, “Evenly cut bangs skilled the smooth brown skin of her forehead…her angel’s eyes made me think that she was the daughter of Mary, who mother said was a holy woman. I always wondered what Lena Horne looked like as a girl—now I had a pretty good idea.”

The book’s title came from Phillip’s bougie classmate who quoted her doctor daddy. Hazel, a very light skinned girl with red hair, insulted a darker skinned kid who asked to play with her. When Phillip defended the boy, Hazel countered with, “My father always says when you’re poor and black, you’re in real trouble.” In the days before integration, it was common for upper-middle-class and poor kids to attend the same schools.

Click to view slideshow.

From an early age, Phillip was exposed to class divisions and colorism. Back when African-Americans were either “Negro” or “colored,” being called “Black” often led to arguments and fights. Phillip’s descent into vice began when he got kicked out his honors class in sixth grade after fighting with some boys with more social standing and lighter skin. Afterward, the light skin principal bluntly told him, “It’s your kind that starts trouble.”

Although younger brother Donald rose above the plight and neighborhood blight through education, with the endgame being escape, Phillip felt “the pull of the Ave” and dropped out of school. While there were thriving businesses on Pennsylvania Avenue that included hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, movie theaters, the Sphinx Club and the much loved Royal Theatre, the Apollo of Baltimore where Phil’s “love” Lena Horne performed (her classic “Stormy Weather” was his favorite song), there were also that aforementioned criminal element whose flashy lifestyles easily tempted the weak and hungry.

Before he turned to crime, Phil got a gig working at a local supermarket bagging and helping women carry their sacks home. One afternoon he had an encounter with a group of Italian kids who beat and robbed him while a white policeman watched. Phil became bitter and angry. Days later, he met a neighborhood goon named Gumbo who changed his life, making him more streetwise when he became part of a crew of juvenile delinquents.

After Gumbo helped him extract revenge on the white guys who robbed him, the teens became lifetime buddies and comrades in devilment. “They say ministers have a ‘call,’” Wright wrote. “I too had a ‘call,’ but mine was from below.” But, even stick-up kids get the blues, and Phillip sometimes felt guilty about robbing and stealing.

***

Novelist Eisa Nefertari Ulen, author of Crystelle Mourning, who was raised in Baltimore, can remember reading Poor Black and in Real Trouble when she was a student at Western High School, a gift from her educator mother. “She had given me Grapes of Wrath and Invisible Man, but I guess she wanted to give me something that elevated the discourse. Poor Black and in Real Trouble was a book that centered on people who, back then, didn’t often have their stories told. Many of the characters had limited options, but Wright made it clear that these people also had choices, and sometimes they made bad ones. Wright gave us a window into Baltimore before the city got really crazy.”

Although Poor Black and in Real Trouble was a proto-hood novel, it doesn’t celebrate the vice. The book was filled with characters who tried to direct Phillip towards a different path, including doctors, lawyers and his own younger brother. There were times when Phillip knew what he was doing wrong, but he just couldn’t help himself.

The same was true for writer Jerome Wright. According to a 2001 Baltimore Sun feature, “He started running numbers and robbing small shops to cover payment when numbers hit. In 1959, police picked him up at a gambling raid and two witnesses identified him from an armed robbery. Even to this day, Wright claims he never admitted that specific holdup, but acknowledges that ‘the law of compensation’ caught up with him.”

WMAR-TV documentary from 1968 called “The Soul of Baltimore”

Two years after the release of Poor Black and in Real Trouble, I moved to Baltimore from New York City and lived within walking distance of Pennsylvania Avenue. However, “the ave” that Wright described was set in another time and, by 1978, the vice remained, but the glamour was long gone. The 1968 riots after Martin Luther King was killed was the last gasp for that community, which was already struggling. Meanwhile, Vietnam vets returned to the city mentally wounded, and many addicted to drugs or drink. As I noted in my 2014 essay “Mahogany and Me,” those once vibrant blocks became a bleak no-man’s land that was best to stay away from:

“In the late-seventies, the once bustling Avenue looked like a wounded freedom fighter content to lie in a gutter and die. Seeing the old drunks stumbling down the sidewalk or sloughed on the decaying steps of abandoned houses, I tried to imagine those fallen brothers when they were cleanly shaved, wearing polished shoes and colorful suits and stepping out of shiny cars with fine women on their arms.”

A talented writer, Wright was compared by one Amazon reviewer to Claude Brown, author of Manchild in the Promised Land, though I was also reminded of the juvenile delinquent fictions by Hal Ellson (Duke), Warren Miller (The Cool World), Harlan Ellison (Web of the City) and Evan Hunter (Blackboard Jungle). However, even amongst Holloway House and urban crime fiction aficionados, Poor Black and in Real Trouble is a book that few fans of the genre have heard of; I was schooled about it from my friend Gregory Grant, and then spent years tracking it down.

Writer Mary Rizzo, author of Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and The Wire (2020), a book on cultural representations in Baltimore, discovered Wright’s novel while she was working on a chapter about B-More writers. “Growing up in West Baltimore in the 1950s, Avery understood that to be poor and black is to be in real trouble or locked in a system that is designed to keep black people disenfranchised psychologically, socially and economically,” Rizzo wrote.

It was while doing research that she first came across a review of Wright’s novel. “There was Black themed literary/poetry magazine called Chicory that I discovered in Enoch Pratt Free Library,” Rizzo explained to me. “There was an issue published in March, 1981 that featured Wright on the cover (shot by Kenneth S. Walker) as well as a review of the book. In Come and Be Shocked, I wrote about artists and writers that represented the city, but I didn’t want white people to be the entire story. I wanted a different perspective other than Anne Tyler.”

Though it was late in the process of writing the book that Rizzo discovered Wright’s work, it was a blessing that she found him at all. The Chicory review was written by frequent contributor Hasan Mobutu Ngozi (a pen name for E. Adam Jackson) and stated, “The story of Phillip Avery is a familiar one, because it is the same story for a million Afro-American youth throughout the country. It is a story of disadvantage, injustice, and discrimination.”

As I later learned in the follow-up Second Chance, the first book was written and edited while he was still serving time, a 30-year sentence in the Maryland Penitentiary that was later reduced. In the Baltimore Sun article, it was reported that Wright, “…rented a decrepit pick-up truck and drove to Vantage Press in New York to get the first 1,000 copies of his book to sell. When the truck broke down in the Lincoln Tunnel on the way home, he decided to start peddling copies to stalled motorists.

“Back in Baltimore, he went directly to his friends on Pennsylvania Avenue and to every store where he’d once fenced stolen property and hawked his novel. ‘The negative spots I used to hang out at,’ he said, ‘I turned into positive spots for selling my book.’ While he plowed the profits back into the publication of more books – he estimates he has sold more than 15,000 copies by hand over the years.”

That D.I.Y. approach to publishing and distribution would later become the norm for new jack street lit publishers. Although there isn’t a documented explanation of how Wright the attention Holloway House editors, writer Mary Rizzo speculates that he might’ve simply mailed them a copy of his self-published book. “He hustled,” Rizzo said. “He sold books on the street and he was trying to raise money through investors so he could adapt Poor, Black and in Real Trouble into a film.”

Newark native E. Adam Jackson was a student at Morgan State University when he read Poor Black and in Real Trouble in the early 1980s. Later, while working for a city agency on Lanvale Avenue he realized that his job was just a few blocks from where Wright ran both his halfway house and publishing (J.W. Productions) company. “I would hang-out with him at the halfway house, and we’d talked for hours,” Jackson said. “Jerome was in his 40s, and he had a very cool demeanor. There was a timbre to his voice that was very calm and unassuming. But, like Malcolm X, he had gone through the prison system and came out a better man. He learned from that experience, and went from criminal to mindful to pillar of the community.”

When Jackson was hired to be the editor of Chicory he made sure that attention was paid to Poor Black and in Real Trouble and its author. “Jerome didn’t dress slick or sport fancy jewels, but he had a ‘been there, done that’ confidence. He just tried to help people and was on a mission to enlighten them.”

With Wright’s eye for detail and pacing of the scenes, one can detect his love for cinema. There was paper movie vividness in his style, a kind of pulp cinéma vérité that brought the text to life. There was richness in his descriptions of the street corners and poolrooms, church sermons and NAACP meetings, unfair courtrooms and modern day slave plantations that some called penitentiaries.

Like a few of my favorite writers (Jean Genet, Chester Himes, Edward Bunker), Wright started writing in prison. Though his formal education only went as far as eighth grade, in jail Wright “developed a hunger for words and ideas.” He read books and got cozy with a multi-racial crew of intellectuals who rapped daily about politics, race, class and jazz—he loved music. Music, especially the voices of Nancy Wilson and Carmen McRae, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, was his passion. Wright also worked Baltimore native jazz singer Ethel Ennis into a nightclub scene.

Wright channeled all of that into his writing as well as the civil rights movement and a deep devotion to the city. “Baltimore was a character that lived and breathed—good, bad and ugly,” Ulen said. “Wright wrote about the landscape from such an authentic place.”

***

In 1976, when Wright’s first book was published, the city’s most famous living writer was John Barth, whose experimental “metafiction” style made him a darling in the literary world. Still, Barth meant nothing to most of the city’s Black population. Yet, besides poet Lucille Clifton, the journalists at the Afro-American newspaper and feature writers at the Black owned monthly Metropolitan, there weren’t writers of color representing. Today there are many more Black journalists, novelists, essayists, screenwriters and poets living and working there.

“As a young, aspiring writer Poor, Black and in Real Trouble opened up the rim of possibilities for me,” said Ulen. “It made me realize there was a place on the shelf for young Black authors. Most of the characters are Black, but there was a commitment to the diversity of each one.”

Ten years after Wright’s debut novel, writer Barry Michael Cooper published the brilliant Spin magazine article “In Cold Blood: The Baltimore Teen Murders,” which documented the senseless violence that in the Pennsylvania Avenue area during the crack era. The characters in Wright’s book could’ve been the daddies and uncles to the bad boys in Cooper’s story and the Grandpas to the crews (and the junkies and police) on The Wire.

As with most Holloway House books, the sexual politics in Poor, Black and in Real Trouble were wonky and sexist in that Melvin Van Pebbles super stud way. Phillip, who was told that he had sexual magnetism that would bring the freak out of women, suffered from a Sweetback complex, and slept with many women, and even loved a few, but not as much as he did Vickie. Early in the story his sexual prowess was acknowledged by a world weary hooker named Sadie and later his strange relationship with Dr. McKay, the brilliant, beautiful psychiatrist/civil rights activist who became his lover, sugar mama and best friend, renting Phillip a wonderful apartment, bought him fine threads and made love with him often. His “mack” was so strong he even seduced a lesbian and convinced her to become straight.

In Jerome Wright’s real life, after his release from prison, he spent years working as a councilor for former convicts and, in later years, could be seen on the streets of Baltimore selling other writer’s books (Terry McMillian, Tupac Shakur) as well as his own. As for the sequels, Second Chance was a good follow-up, but Wright should’ve stopped there. Instead, he wrote a slight third book that lacked the edge, insight and craft of the first two.

By the time I bought the paperbacks from a brother man by the name of Gilliam in 2018, who was selling used paperbacks and vintage Ebony/Jet magazines from a table inside Lexington Market, Jerome Dyson Wright was eighty-years-old and living out his last days in a Baltimore nursing home. Gilliam assured me that he’d be able to connect us for an interview, which never happened. The number Gilliam gave me simply rang, but no one ever answered. Two years later, Wright died.

***

Wright’s version of Baltimore can be seen in the beautiful photographs of I. Henry Phillips, who documented the city in pictures in the city from 1946 when he became the chief photographer at the Baltimore Afro-American weekly newspaper.

The tough town depicted in Wright’s novel was mild compared with current day hard times, of drugs, police brutality, the ghost of Freddie Gray, civil uprisings and a outrageous murder rate. The city that reads has become the city that bleeds. The town has so much to offer once you move pass the sensationalism and shell casings. A year before he died, Prince wrote a supportive tribute simply titled “Baltimore.”

Baltimore photographer I. Henry Phillips Sr.

Forty-five years after Poor Black and in Real Trouble, the novel is still one of the most honest and compelling fictional narratives about crime, punishment and the many things in-between. Still, the book was more than a pulp story propelled by delinquency and sex, because Wright went deep into the complicated life, damaged psyche and bad times of Every(main)man Phillip Avery, who strived, survived and simply tried to get through one more day without killing someone or losing his mind.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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