(b. 1936–2004), novelist, lecturer musician, educator, television host, and actor.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, on 7 November 1936, to Nathan E. and Gladys Fruitt Heard (a blues singer), Nathan Cliff Heard was reared by his mother and maternal grandmother in Newark's inner city; he dropped out of school at fifteen, drifted into a life of crime, and spent the next seventeen years (1951–1968) in and out of New Jersey State Prison at Trenton where he served time for armed robbery.
While in prison Heard distinguished himself as a talented and award-winning athlete. It was not until fellow prisoner Harold Carrington introduced him to the masters—Langston Hughes, Samuel Beckett, James Baldwin, Jean Genet, Amiri Baraka, and others—that Heard began to write, at first about music and African history. In 1963, encouraged by his fellow inmates, he wrote the manuscript for To Reach a Dream. Although the novel did not sell, Heard continued to write and read books on writing. In 1968, he succeeded in publishing Howard Street shortly before his release from prison.
Heard is important in African American literature because of his unique ability to imbue his writing with a keen perception of his particular worlds. He infuses his fiction (especially his characters) with his own sense of the pain and hardship of the ghetto and the prison. For Heard, they are significant landscapes. Against these backgrounds, he created his fiction, one that illuminates the brutal realities, the hardships, and despair of these worlds he knew well. Heard's characters are denizens of one or both of these places. Howard Street (1968) is a gripping portrait of hustlers, pimps, prostitutes, and other “streeters,” and their lives in the ghetto. Just as Heard exposes the horrors of the urban wasteland, he reveals the brutal, violent experiences of the prison system. Heard's House of Slammers (1983) is a graphic exposé of prison life, important because it offers a wider canvas than most prison fiction. In this novel, Heard shows the raw, violent life in the American penal system, especially for the nonwhites who constitute the majority of America's prison population. H. Bruce Franklin, in his book Prison Literature in America (1989), tells us that “House of Slammers” is the most important novel yet published about the American prison.”
Richard Yarborough, in an article in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (1984), describes Heard as an urban realist. In fact, Heard can be regarded as a “latter-day Richard Wright.” For, like Wright, Heard exploits with unusual skill the harsh, mean realities of the black urban experience in America, drawing sharp, biting portraits of the ghetto and prison life he knows firsthand. His writing is unquestionably an authentic representation of black street life, especially his mastery of ghetto vernacular. Heard's literary reputation rests on his novels—Howard Street, To Reach a Dream (1972), A Cold Fire Burning (1974), When Shadows Fall (1977), and House of Slammers—and articles, which include “Boodie the Player” (in We Be Word Sorcerers: Twenty-five Stories by Black Americans, ed. Sonia Sanchez, 1973). In 1996 he was completing another novel, “A Time of Desperation”.