Member Feature: Gary Phillips

MEMBER ESSAY: Gary Phillips

In honor of Black History Month, and inspired by the movie Hidden Figures, we asked Gary Phillips to tell us about a black writer, artist, scientist, journalist, or important figure that has been overlooked either historically or contemporarily. Read about pioneering aviator Hubert Fauntleroy Julian below.

I seem to recall, decades gone by now, I must have picked up his biography in the used bin at the Pickwick’s that used to be on Hollywood Boulevard or at a B. Dalton. The book, The Black Eagle, was originally published in hardback by Stein and Day in 1971 and written by John Peer Nugent. I bought it for $2.98, marked down from $6.95. It’s a bio of pioneering aviator Hubert Fauntleroy Julian sometimes also called the Black Eagle of Harlem. I’d never heard of him, the first black licensed pilot, even though by then I’d read several black history books. In fact, he was still alive when the book first came out.

Nugent wrote, “Julian seeks out stages to perform not so much because of the money—although to be sure, he won’t turn it down—but because of the demands his unique quest makes on him.”

Julian headed the Imperial Airforce for Haile Selassie in the ‘20s, held a patent or two, bodyguarded Amy Jacques-Garvey (wife of Marcus Garvey), challenged Hermann Göring to an air duel, ran guns to revolutionaries in Guatemala in the ‘50s, and in the early ‘60s in the red hot Congo, met with Patrice Lumumba to see about starting a school to train pilots.

His life sounds like a movie and reading his story before I was ever published inspired in me the belief that there were no limits to how I could portray dimensional characters on the page, particularly if they were people of color.

He was larger than life and a sure enough self-promoter, and his quixotic life and times deserve renewed attention. Maybe I ought to see about optioning the book…

Born under a bad sign, Gary Phillips must keep writing to forestall his appointment at the crossroads. His latest work includes a collection of his short stories Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers.