Killens, John O.

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John O. Killens



The social-protest novels of John O. Killens were widely reviewed in mainstream American publications at a time when few black writers achieved such recognition outside of African-American-oriented publications. Two of Killens' novels earned Pulitzer Prize nominations in 1962 and 1971, and the college writing teacher and workshop leader was a mentor to an entire generation of black American fiction writers before his death in 1987. A Black Issues Book Review article by Keith Gilyard compared Killens to the playwright August Wilson for their deft portrayals of African-American life across the span of twentieth-century history. "Killens was unwavering in his love for black people," Gilyard asserted. "We should continue to return that love with our remembrance."

Killens was born on January 14, 1916, in Macon, Georgia. He grew up in a literature-loving household, with his mother serving as the president of the local chapter of the Dunbar Literary Club, which was devoted to works of the first noted African-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. He was an avid reader as a child, and as he entered adulthood he considered becoming a doctor, but was drawn into the labor-union movement instead. He took college courses at a number of institutions, including Morris Brown College, Howard University, and Columbia University, but never earned a degree. By 1936 he was working for the National Labor Relations Board while taking law-school courses at night in Washington, D.C., at the Robert H. Terrell Law School.

Founded Harlem Writers Guild

During World War II, Killens enlisted in the U.S. Army and served with its Pacific Amphibian Forces from 1942 to 1945. After the war's end, he settled in New York City and focused on forging a literary career. He co-founded a writer's group that became the Harlem Writers Guild, and at one of its first meetings he read aloud from what would become his debut novel, Youngblood. Published by Dial in 1954, it was the first novel associated with the Harlem Writers Group to appear in print.

Youngblood recounted the saga of a fictional black Georgia family of the same name that was loosely based on Killens' own family. The setting is the deeply segregated world represented by their hometown of Crossroads, Georgia, from the early 1900s to the 1930s. The father, Joe, becomes active in the labor-union movement, a dangerous activity for a black man in the South in the era before there were laws that protected all workers' rights to organize. Reviews of the book were mixed. A critic for the New York Times, Granville Hicks, called it "rather crudely written, in a vernacular style that is often tiring," though he did concede that such prose "has the power of the author's passion." Yet the reviewer also commended Killens' work for its place in contemporary American fiction because of its scathing expose of racism in the American South. "The novel of social protest, which survives precariously today, justifies itself when it is as moving as 'Youngblood' and deals with so gross an evil," Hicks asserted.

Two noted black authors of Killens' day, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, served to inspire his literary career. Yet his great-grandmother was also a source of stories that spurred his desire to chronicle African-American life in prose. His father's grandmother had been seven years old when the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the South during the American Civil War, and as a child Killens had often listened to her stories about what life was like during those first years of freedom and hardship. The great-grandmother usually ended her tales with the cautionary phrase, "The half ain't never been told!" That other half, Killens later said, was what he tried to re-create in his fiction.

It took another eight years for Killens to produce his second novel, but he was active in journalism as a freelancer for magazines and in the civil rights movement as well. He participated in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama that effectively launched the movement in earnest, and with fellow writer John Henrik Clarke he worked with Harlem activist Malcolm X to found the Organization of Afro-American Unity. His second novel did not reflect these contemporary events, however, but instead dealt with his wartime experiences, when the U.S. armed forces were segregated by race into units. And Then We Heard the Thunder, which was issued by Knopf in 1962, was the saga of four black soldiers in an amphibious unit fighting the Japanese in the Pacific theater. Primary among them is Solly Saunders, who has quit law school to serve his country, and turns his back on a promising career to fight for his beliefs that black soldiers fighting fascism abroad must also fight for equal rights within the U.S. military as well.

Nominated for Pulitzer Prize

And Then We Heard the Thunder was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and boosted Killens' profile in American letters immensely. He was a regular contributor to publications that ranged from Ebony to Saturday Evening Post, the latter one of the most widely read magazines of the 1960s, and penned such essays as "Explanation of the Black Psyche" for the New York Times Magazine in 1964 and "Hollywood in Black and White" for a 1965 issue of The Nation. His next novel, 'Sippi, was the first to deal with relatively contemporary events in its chronicle of the often-violent civil rights battles that took place in the cities of the American South during the early 1960s. In particular, it focuses on a group of black college students who banded together to challenge the discriminatory laws and practices designed to discourage or altogether prevent blacks from voting before the United States Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 'Sippi earned mixed reviews, even in the black press, and Killens later said he did not consider it on par with his first two novels.

At a Glance …

Born January 14, 1916, in Macon, GA; died of cancer, October 27, 1987, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Charles Myles, Sr., and Willie Lee (Coleman) Killens; married Grace Ward Jones; children: Jon Charles, Barbara Ellen Rivera. Education: Attended Edward Waters College, Morris Brown College, Atlanta University, Howard University, Robert H. Terrell Law School, Columbia University, and New York University. Military Service: U.S. Army, Pacific Amphibian Forces, 1942-45.


National Labor Relations Board, staff member, 1936-42, and 1946; freelance writer, 1954-87. Writer in residence, Fisk University, 1965-68, Columbia University, 1970-73, Howard University, 1971-72, Bronx Community College, 1979-81, and Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, 1981-87. Former lecturer and teacher of creative writing at New School for Social Research, and lecturer at several other colleges and universities, including Southern University, Cornell University, Rutgers University, University of California, Los Angeles, Tufts University, Springfield College, Western Michigan University, Savannah State College, and Trinity College. Cofounder and past chairperson, Harlem Writers Guild, 1952.


PEN; American Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists; Black Academy of Arts and Letters; National Center of Afro-American Artists.


Harlem Writers Guild award, 1978; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1980; Before Columbus Foundation, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1986; elected to Black Filmmaker's Hall of Fame.

The Cotillion; or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd, earned its author his second Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1971. The battleground here is a middle-class black enclave in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, and the debutante ball that a prestigious women's club stages annually for the sons and daughters of the black bourgeoisie. The action takes place in the 1960s as the black power movement emerges full-force, and it pits Yoruba Evelyn Lovejoy and her family—particularly her West Indian immigrant mother, who is a member of the women's club—against her boyfriend, a Vietnam veteran who comes home with a new name, Ben Ali Lumumba, and a determination to raise the political consciousness of the middle-class black community. James R. Frakes, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted that its characters were boldly drawn, almost to the point of caricature, and when the action lets loose, Frakes asserted, "much more than whitey is demolished: cotton patches, bourgeois aspirations, black intraracial caste snobbery [and] hustlers of black nationalism."

Killens wrote across several genres during his long career. He co-authored a screenplay with Nelson Gidding, an Academy-Award nominated screenwriter, titled Odds Against Tomorrow, which was made into a 1959 film that starred Harry Belafonte as a gambler drawn into a bank-heist scheme with a racist ex-convict as his partner in crime. Killens also published a collection of essays in 1965, Black Man's Burden, and wrote two stage plays, Ballad of the Winter Soldier and Lower Than the Angels. The Cotillion was adapted for the stage with music written by Motown star Smokey Robinson. Shortened to Cotillion, the work was produced at New Federal Theatre in New York City in 1975. Killens also wrote for younger readers, with his 1972 book Great Gittin' Up Morning: A Biography of Denmark Vesey, that profiled the life of Vesey, who led an 1822 slave rebellion in South Carolina. A Man Ain't Nothin' but a Man: The Adventures of John Henry, which was published in 1975, was Killens' recounting of the folktales of John Henry, a mythical hero of superhuman strength in African-American ballads of the nineteenth century.

Intrigued by African-Russian Hero

Many of Killens' works were widely translated, even in China, and he visited that country in the early 1970s as part of a delegation of writers and educators. He had also visited the Soviet Union on a similar expedition, and was intrigued by the story of Alexander Pushkin, considered one of the Russian language's greatest writers. Pushkin had African blood, for his maternal great-grandfather had been an Ethiopian slave sent as a gift to Tsar Peter I. The forward-thinking ruler was impressed by the African émigré, who became known as Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal, and adopted him as a godchild and made him his Engineer-General. This heritage was highlighted in Killens' final work, The Great Black Russian: A Novel on the Life and Times of Alexander Pushkin, which was published posthumously.

Killens taught for many years at several colleges and universities, including Columbia University and the Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York. His students included Nikki Giovanni, Terry McMillan, Tina McElroy Ansa, and Bebe Moore Campbell, all of whom followed poet Maya Angelou, whose early career had been nurtured by Killens and other founders of the Harlem Writers Group a generation earlier. He established an annual conference of black writers in the mid-1960s that became the National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn; that group's 2004 event was a tribute to and symposium on Killens' work. He was also the subject of 2003 book, Liberation Memories: The Rhetoric and Poetics of John Oliver Killens, but his name is not very well known outside of scholarly circles and many of his titles are now out of print. The Cotillion is one exception, with a 2002 reissue that was reviewed in Black Issues Book Review by Herb Boyd. "Readers will be amazed to discover Lumumba's rapping prowess that precedes hip-hop culture by some ten years," Boyd enthused. "In this way, and in so many others, Killens forged an alternative style, a new way of distilling black culture, and making it resonate with flesh vigor and integrity."

Selected writings


Youngblood, Dial, 1954; published with foreword by Addison Gayle, University of Georgia Press, 1982.

And Then We Heard the Thunder, Knopf, 1962.

'Sippi, Trident Press, 1967.

Slaves, Pyramid, 1969.

The Cotillion; or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd, Trident Press, 1971; reissued, 2002.


(With Loften Mitchell) Ballad of the Winter Soldier, produced at Lincoln Center, Washington, DC, 1964.

Lower Than the Angels, produced at American Place Theatre, New York City, 1965.

Cotillion (based on Killens' novel of same title, with music by Smokey Robinson and Willie Hutch), first produced at New Federal Theatre, New York City, 1975.

Young adult

Great Gittin' Up Morning: A Biography of Denmark Vesey, Doubleday, 1972.

A Man Ain't Nothin' but a Man: The Adventures of John Henry, Little, Brown, 1975.


(With Nelson Gidding) Odds Against Tomorrow (screenplay), Belafonte Productions/United Artists, 1959.

Black Man's Burden (essays), Trident Press, 1965.

The Great Black Russian: A Novel on the Life and Times of Alexander Pushkin, Wayne State University Press, 1989.

(Editor with Jerry W. Ward) Black Southern Voices: An Anthology of Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction, and Critical Essays, NAL/Meridian, 1992.

Contributor to periodicals, including Ebony, Black World, Library Journal, Nation, Saturday Evening Post, Black Scholar, and Redbook.



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris, eds., Gale, 1984.

Gilyard, Keith, Liberation Memories: The Rhetoric and Poetics of John Oliver Killens, Wayne State University Press, 2003.

Lehman, Paul R., The Development of the Black Psyche in the Writings of John Oliver Killens, 1916-1987, Edwin Mellen Press, 2003.


Black Issues Book Review, November-December 2002, p. 28; July-August 2004, p. 56.

Ebony, October 1989, p. 22; July 2003, p. 22.

New York Times, June 65, 1954, p. BR24; January 17, 1971, p. BR4.


"John Oliver Killens," Biography Resource Center, (June 7, 2005).

—Carol Brennan