Killens, John Oliver

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Killens, John Oliver

January 14, 1916
October 27, 1987

The novelist John Oliver Killens was born in Macon, Georgia, to Charles Myles Sr. and Willie Lee (Coleman) Killens. He credits his relatives with fostering in him cultural pride and literary valueshis father had him read a weekly column by Langston Hughes; his mother, president of the Dunbar Literary Club, introduced him to poetry; and his great-grandmother filled his boyhood with the hardships and tales of slavery. Such early exposure to criticism, art, and folklore is evident in his fiction, which is noted for its accurate depictions of social classes, its engaging narratives, and its successful layering of African-American history, legends, songs, and jokes.

Killens originally planned to be a lawyer. After attending Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida (1934-1935) and Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia (c. 1935-1936), he moved to Washington, D.C., became a staff member of the National Labor Relations Board, and completed his B.A. through evening classes at Howard University. He studied at the Robert Terrel Law School from 1939 until 1942, when he abandoned his pursuit of a degree and joined the army. His second novel, And Then We Heard the Thunder (1963), which deals with racism in the military, is based on his service in the South Pacific. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1946 Killens returned briefly to his office job at the National Labor Relations Board. In 1947-1948 he organized black and white workers for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and was an active member of the Progressive Party. But he soon became convinced that leading intellectuals, the white working class, and the U.S. government were not truly committed to creating a more inclusive society.

In 1948 Killens moved to New York, where he attended writing classes at Columbia University and New York University and met such influential figures as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and W. E. B. Du Bois. While working on his fiction, he wrote regularly for the leftist newspaper Freedom (19511955). His views at the time, closely aligned with those of the Communist Party, were evident in his 1952 review of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man. He attacked the novel as a "decadent mixture a vicious distortion of Negro life." Killens believed that literature should be judged on its potential for improving society: "Art is functional. A Black work of art helps the liberation or hinders it."

Fortunately, Killens had already found some young writers, many with close ties to left-wing or black nationalist organizations, committed to the idea of writing as a vehicle of social protest. With Rosa Guy, John Henrik Clarke, and Walter Christmas, he founded a workshop that became known as the Harlem Writers Guild in the early 1950s.

Killens's Youngblood (1954), the first novel published by a guild member, chronicles the struggles of a southern black family in early twentieth-century Georgia. Following the critical praise of this book, Killens toured the country to speak on subjects important to African Americans. In 1955 he went to Alabama to research a screenplay on the Montgomery Bus Boycott and to visit with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Killens also became close friends with Malcolm X, with whom he founded the Organization for Afro-American Unity in 1964. Black Man's Burden, a 1965 collection of political essays, documents his shift from a socialist philosophy to one promoting black nationalism.

Killens's major subject is the violence and racism of American society, and how it hinders black manhood and family. 'Sippi (1967) is a protest novel about struggle over voting rights in the 1960s. The Cotillion; or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd, published in 1971 and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, satirizes middle-class African-American values and was the basis for Cotillion, a play produced in New York City in 1975. Killens's other plays include Ballad of the Winter Soldiers (1964, with Loften Mitchell) and Lower Than the Angels (1965). He wrote two screenplays, Odds Against Tomorrow (1959, with Nelson Gidding) and Slaves (1969, with Herbert J. Biberman and Alida Sherman). He also edited The Trial Record of Denmark Vesey (1970) and authored two juvenile novels, Great Gittin' Up Morning: A Biography of Denmark Vesey (1972) and A Man Ain't Nothin' but a Man: The Adventures of John Henry (1975).

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Killens served as a writer-in-residence at a number of institutions, including Fisk University (1965-1968), Columbia University (1970-1973), Howard University (1971-1972), Bronx Community College (1979-1981), and Medgar Evers College in the City University of New York (1981-1987). He received numerous awards, included a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1980) and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Before Columbus Foundation (1986). Until his death, Killens continued to contribute articles to leading magazines such as Ebony, Black World, The Black Aesthetic, and African Forum. The Great Black Russian: a Novel on the Life and Times of Alexander Pushkin was published posthumously in 1988.

See also Clarke, John Henrik; Ellison, Ralph; Harlem Writers Guild; Hughes, Langston; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Literature of the United States; Malcolm X


Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: Morrrow, 1967. Reprint, New York: New York Review of Books, 2005.

Gayle, Addison, Jr. The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1975.

Obituary. American Visions 3 (February 1988): 10.

Obituary. New York Times, October 30, 1987.

Wiggins, William H., Jr. "John Oliver Killens." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 33, Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984.

dekker dare (1996)
Updated bibliography