Sipping sweet mint tea in the sunroom of local author Horace Mungin, it's impossible not to think of middle school English class. That's not because Mungin looks like a wise English teacher, which he does, wearing pressed jeans, Nike running shoes, and a button-up tee with a pen in the breast pocket. Talking with Mungin is a forceful reminder of the most popular Langston Hughes poem in English curriculum, "Harlem." What happens to a dream deferred?
Despite his grandfatherly aura, Mungin is possibly the most impassioned local writer fighting police violence, furthering Black Lives Matter, and reforming America's racial climate. This fall, when he appears at downtown book fairs with his latest work, Or does it Explode?, some may misjudge Mungin as docile — that would be a mistake.
Activism through writing has been Mungin's life. His passion started at Public School 191 in Harlem, continued through a three-year deployment in Bamberg, 20 years as a New York Subway operator, and has only grown now that 75-year-old Mungin is retired in his home state of South Carolina. Last year, D.C.'s new National Museum of African American History admitted one of Mungin's early projects, Black Forum Magazine, into its archives. At the same time, he released a new murder-mystery targeting police violence, Or does it Explode?, his ninth published book. In between, Mungin has unceasingly written on behalf of black lives.
"The first book I did was a little saddle-stitched book of poetry [in the '60s] called Dope Hustler's Jazz, an anti-drug book," says Mungin. Incensed by the drug use ruining lives in his community, a younger Mungin took to the best outlet he knew: poetry.
Mungin remembers his New York City upbringing as story hours at County Cullen public library on 36th Street, nights sleeping on the fire escape of his building, and being sent to his grandmother's Hollywood, S.C. home for summers "to keep us out of trouble in the city."
Mungin's love of writing was born on 135th Street, an iconic avenue for the Harlem Renaissance where he also happened to attend Public School 191. "Us first-through third-graders were escorted over to the library where we sat on these small chairs and teachers read stories to us," he says. "That was magical for me."
Mungin always checked out the maximum number of books, recalling his favorite as an account of legendary black prize-fighter Joe Lewis. "In our house on 136th we had fire escapes on all the apartments. Kids would take a blanket and sleep out on the fire escape. When there was a Joe Lewis fight, everybody would have the radio on and it was like stereophonic radio on the fire escape," he says. "When he'd knock somebody out, the whole neighborhood would just erupt."
At age nine, Mungin got his first job — selling candy and comic books at Al and Ben's Luncheonette for a salary of seven dollars a week. "That's when I discovered Alfred Hitchcock novelettes ... they all had a sense of the grotesque and twist endings. In the last paragraph, last page, sometimes the last sentence — they'd just switch it. I thought that was wonderful. Whenever I had to go uptown, I'd make sure I had one of those magazines on me," he says. "It'd make the bus ride go by like that."
Until this year, when "the drive became a little too much for us," Mungin and his wife would revisit his childhood neighborhood for the Harlem Book Fair. They'd cart truckloads of Mungin's books to sell and a cooler of their garden's harvest to give to family.
"It's disorientating," he says of trips home to visit his 93-year-old mother, who won't move here because of "how the South is embedded into their soul." Mungin always speaks with a Santa-like twinkle, with this one exception. "It's not the New York that I grew up in. It's not the New York that I lived in. It's not the New York that I loved."
It was in New York — "in one of the first integrated bars on the Upper West Side, a fancy little bar with nice people who didn't mind mixing" — that Mungin turned to prose as a political outlet. TV producers he met at the bar convinced him to start writing prose, saying, "every black person I meet writes poetry. We need scripts," he recalls.
When deployment took Mungin to Bamberg for three years with the 82nd Airborne Division, he used writing to decry lingering segregation. This was after the official end of segregation in America, in 1963, when Mungin encountered "a form of American racism that wasn't perpetuated by the Germans but by Southern soldiers. It wasn't written; there was no law; but if a group of black soldiers went to a bar [in Bamberg] with white soldiers, they'd get beaten up and sent home." Mungin's account of that post-segregation racism in Germany resulted in his first rejection letter.
He tells the story like this: "Robert Ford and I were buying shoes, maybe around 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and went into a white bar." When the inevitable escalation came, Mungin describes the scene he wrote into an editorial for Ebony Magazine as chilling. "I'd never seen anything like this. Ford stood up, a big husky guy that played football from Alabama ... he stood up with the beer in his hand and squeezed until it broke in his hand and the blood was dripping down." Mungin wrote out the tale longhand in Germany, had his friend Margaret Moore type it on her typewriter — "God bless her soul, she's dead now" — and hand-delivered it to Ebony's New York City office when he returned home.
"A few months later I got my first rejection letter," he laughs. "I think I called it [the story] 'The Long Arm of Segregation' ... I still have that onion paper that Margaret Moore typed it up on. I looked at it later and thought, 'no wonder they didn't take this!'"
The New York Times gladly published Mungin, though. A story he wrote during his 20-year tenure as a city subway operator gave him his first big by-line.
"We had a little subway crisis that practically shut down the city," he says. "I wrote an essay [about it]...which was very controversial at the time. When I got home, [my wife] said someone from The New York Times called and you should call him back in the morning." Afraid for his job, Mungin wanted anonymity: "I needed the job; I had three kids and rent. But the editor convinced me, 'don't worry, if they get mad, you've got the power of the New York Times behind you.'" Mungin not only kept his job, but went on to write a book about it titled Subway: After the Irish.
Mungin may not be the most celebrated writer, but he is damn consistent. "Fifty dollars here, $75 there. I was just happy to get my works read," he says. By the time Mungin enrolled in Fordham University to continue his education at the age of 28, he had written a book of poetry, been rejected by Ebony, and been published in The New York Times.
Mungin has done anything but defer his dream of writing. From the first time he recalls seeing a black boy shot by police — when Mungin was around thirteen — he says he knew writing would be the outlet for his distress. Mungin's most recent book Or does it Explode? calls out for justice like a 67-years-delayed response to Hughes' eternal question.
I met Mungin in his sunroom on Juneteenth. That morning, police in Seattle fatally shot 30-year-old mother of four Charleena Lyles in her home. We watched the grumbling rain clouds roll closer as Mungin talked of his Boy Scout troop, tasting oranges in Cape Town, and the dedication in his newest book — "for Eleanor Bumpers, the emotionally disturbed black woman shot to death in 1984 by NYPD for being behind in her rent." Beneath every anecdote Mungin told, a whisper of Hughes' query seemed to stick in the thick air. Or does it explode?