John Oliver Killens
by Kira Alexander
“He was easygoing and generous, soft-spoken but gregarious. He was very serious about writing, community responsibility, and about mentoring young writers. And he had a great sense of humor, which I think informs his writing. He was a great storyteller in the tradition of black folk in the Southeast,” (“Re: Questions”).
-Keith Gilyard, author of John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism
John Oliver Killens, author of Youngblood, was an activist, war veteran, essayist, and screenwriter whose work analyzed the plight of African-Americans and whose friendships extended to many well-known figures in the civil rights movement.
John Oliver Killens was born in Macon, Georgia, on January 14, 1916 to Charles Myles Killens and Willie Lee Coleman Killens. His father’s people were a Christian family of educators as well as storytellers, and his mother’s family was involved with Steward Chapel, one of Macon’s most important African-American churches where John Oliver Killens spent Sunday mornings with his family. Killens’ earliest influences include Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and his great-grandmother Georgia Killens. Charles turned his son onto the works of Hughes, who would become Killens’ first real literary hero. Georgia Killens claimed John Oliver Killens as her favorite and filled his youthful imagination with tales of antebellum and Reconstruction life.
Killens’s early childhood was riddled with fear caused by white oppression. In one incident, when he was ten years old, two white men pulled up alongside him in a car and asked about the sexual services of an African-American girl. In another incident, Killens and his schoolmates passed the mansions of white families on their way to school and crossed paths with white children. A white male student verbally insulted Killens, which led to a physical scuffle between the two boys. In the aftermath of the fight, authorities rounded up several African-American children from Pleasant Hill School—Killens’s school—and they were taken to the courthouse. The children’s’ mothers were summoned to the Macon courthouse and were given two choices: beat their sons in front of the authorities or watch them be carried off to the reformatory. Killens later described the scene of all of the mothers whipping their sons as epitomizing Jim Crow’s goal of “grinding down black men bit by bit,” (Gilyard 13). The incident would remain with Killens long past his childhood and work its way into his novel Youngblood.
Killens transferred to Ballard Normal School in 1928 for eighth grade. Killens performed well at Ballard, where he noted the “sense of history as an Afro-American” that the school provided for its pupils (Gilyard 22). One of Killens’s teachers encouraged his explorations in language and even put him in charge of English hour from time to time. Killens discovered the talent for writing in ninth grade. An essay he wrote was selected to be read aloud in front of the class. Killens, who sat proudly in his seat, was hurt to learn that his writing was actually being used as an example of what not to do. Afterwards, he was accused by his teacher of plagiarism. Years later, he wrote that he understood the teacher’s skepticism as “the ultimate compliment” for his writing because it seemed to good to not be plagiarized (Brown 116).
At Ballard, Killens met Lewis Hendrix Mounts, the school’s white assistant principal. He inspired Killens with his demand for social service, and Killens referred to him as “a saintly truly Christian white man” (Gilyard 24). Mounts’ progressive rhetoric led Killens to the dream of becoming a labor attorney.
The Great Depression began during Killens’s time at Ballard. The economic crisis intensified Jim Crow policies in the South as employment opportunities started disappearing. In 1932, Killens also worked as a bellhop at the Dempsey Hotel and the Douglass Hotel in downtown Macon. At the Douglass Hotel Grill, Killens worked alongside his father, who kept a pistol underneath the counter to intimidate any hostile whites. As a bellhop at the Dempsey, Killens spent more time among white men and white women who stayed there. He was less willing to show defiance towards white men and exercised caution with white women who would answer doors while scantily clad or wearing no clothes altogether. Killens incorporated the experiences into this novel Youngblood when one of the main characters, Robby Youngblood, finds work at the Oglethorpe Hotel, the fictional counterpart of the Dempsey Hotel.
The next year, in 1933, Killens graduated from Ballard. In 1934, he enrolled at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida. He viewed Jacksonville as less tense than Macon, but he found Edward Waters College to be disappointing compared to Ballard. After two years at Edward Waters, Killens enrolled at Morris Brown—the only college in Georgia founded by African-Americans. By 1936, Killens was back in Macon, looking for a job that complimented his interests. At the age of twenty, Killens became the National Labor Relations Board’s first African-American employee in Washington.
In the summer of 1942, twenty-six-year-old Killens received an induction notice from the U.S. Army, becoming one of one million African-American soldiers to serve in World War II. His experiences in the military inspired his 1962 war novel And Then We Heard the Thunder.
On June 19, 1943, Killens married Grace Ward Jones, a sweetheart from his college days. Less than a year later, he was sent to California while his pregnant wife remained in New York. As he fought alongside the 813 Amphibian Truck Company, Killens learned of the birth of his son Jon Charles on March 4, 1944. He would not get to meet Jon for another two years.
Killens was released from the military as a sergeant on December 3, 1945. He returned to his wife and young son with the determination that he wanted to pursue a career as a professional writer. Though some friends and relatives tried to dissuade him, Grace voiced her support. On January 22, 1947, Barbara Ellen Killens was born—eight days after her father’s thirty-third birthday. Killens took to his role as a father, introducing his children to the works of Langston Hughes that he enjoyed in his youth.
By 1947, Killens completed a typed 642-page manuscript of Stony the Road We Trod, which resembled Youngblood enough to be thought of as an early draft. However, while Youngblood’s plot is driven by black-white interaction in the South, the action in Stony the Road We Trod mainly tackled labor issues. The novel opens with a shootout between white police officers and nineteen-year-old African-American Billy Johnson. The authorities are hunting Johnson after Johnson physically retaliates against a white man who assaulted Johnson for organizing black workers at his workplace for a protest. Johnson’s eventual execution is an early memory for the novel’s protagonist Rob Sweet, who inspires seven-year-old Bobby Travers. Bobby’s mother Laurie passes along a vision to her son in which blacks and whites fight side-by-side for the cause of freedom.
At the end of 1951, thirty-five-year-old Killens finalized a draft of what would become Youngblood. Killens drew from childhood memories to shape the novel. The Pleasant Grove neighborhood in the novel is the fictional counterpart of Pleasant Hill in Macon. Some characters, including Richard Myles, are derived from members of the Killens family. Recollections of Lewis Hendrix Mounts led to the creation of Oscar Jefferson to symbolize the role of whites in the racial struggle. The name of the central family—Youngblood—was a possible rejoinder to Trueblood of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. Youngblood was scheduled for release in May 1954—the same week the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Youngblood received widespread acclaim from critics who embraced Killens’ characters and was even considered by some to be a contender for the National Book Award.
That same year, Killens and his colleagues established the oldest organization of African-American writers—The Harlem Writers Guild—a forum where black writers could develop and share their work (“Harlem Writers Guild”). Killens served as the first chair. As 1955 drew to a close, Killens reached an activist crossroads. Though watched by the FBI, he remained a prominent member of the NAACP. In 1956, Killens sent Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a copy of Youngblood and wrote to him that the book “tries to deal with many of the issues you and your colleagues are presently dealing with so ably in real life,” (Gilyard 127). They met on several occasions and bonded over being Georgia natives. However, the two men disagreed on the subject of civil disobedience. Killens was reluctant to embrace nonviolent resistance to defeat white supremacy. Nevertheless, he called King “a beautiful human being” and was even invited to King’s residence in Montgomery (Gilyard 127).
Killens worked the streets in Brooklyn as a captain in the NAACP membership drive, aiming to recruit members. On June 15, New York bureau officials requested permission from J. Edgar Hoover’s office to conduct an interview with Killens about alleged past dealings with the Communist Party. Days later, however, suspicions about Killens’ ties with the Communist Party were dropped when no evidence was found.
On July 16, Killens’ family moved to the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where Killens would pursue a new career—screenwriting. In August, he received a letter from Alfred Duckett, the public relations representative for Harry Belafonte. Duckett read Youngblood and requested an autographed copy from Killens. Killens and Belafonte met for the first time in February after Belafonte hired him to do a screen treatment based on one of his favorite folk heroes—John Henry.
In the meantime, plans were being discussed to adapt Youngblood into a film. Killens heard from Charlie Katz, Belafonte’s associate, that the path to the screen ran through Broadway and that the novel would be fitting as a play. However, this project withered even after Killens and filmmaker Haskell Wexler discussed obtaining film rights. Killens mentored other authors and headed west to Hollywood, where he completed a 129-page screenplay. The script was a documentary that was largely faithful to the events of the Montgomery bus boycott.
By spring 1958, Killens drafted a play entitled Lower Than the Angels and was also working on a collection of short stories and a new novel. Towards the end of the year, Killens and several other members of the guild began to organize a two-day conference, “The American Negro Writer and His Roots.” The conference was to be hosted by the American Society of Society of African Culture (AMSAC). Killens did not trust AMSAC, but he was drawn to the idea of a literary gathering and chaired the Conference Planning Committee. The conference was held on February 28, 1959 with Killens opening before a crowd of several hundred. Killens suggested that the country was undergoing a crisis unparalleled since the Civil War. The U.S. was facing a question of whether the rights of all citizens would be suppressed by a prejudiced few.
Once the 1960s rolled in, Killens reflected that the 1950s had been “the most fruitful and important decade for African American writers,” (Gilyard 149). In early March 1961, Killens was applying finishing touches to another manuscript—a war story—when he received the opportunity to fulfill his long-held dream of visiting Africa. He was recruited to be part of an effort to create thirteen half-hour documentary films about West Africa. The series would cover topics that include Pan-Africanism, history, geography, religion, and the place of the white man in Africa. By the time his travels were over, Killens had logged more than one thousand miles in nearly a dozen nations.
When he returned to the United States, Killens resumed work on his war novel which would become And Then We Heard the Thunder. The novel represents his reevaluation of certain communist positions in the 1960s. While definitely a World War II story, And Then We Heard the Thunder branches out to other wars that include the U.S Civil War and the Cold War. Killens’ invocation of the Civil War is signaled by the title, which is derived from Harriet Tubman’s account of a Civil War battle. As spirituals served as the formal outline for Youngblood, Tubman’s text does the same for And Then We Hear the Thunder.
In January 1963, the Harlem Writers Guild sponsored a party to celebrate the publication of the novel, which drew in more than eight hundred attendees. Critics raved as Killens was termed a “thundering genius” and John Howard Griffin wrote in the Saturday Review that Killens “drags the reader into the fullness of the Negro’s desolating experience,” (Gilyard 175). Shortly after the publication of And Then We Heard the Thunder, Killens launched three new projects: a slavery-based screenplay, a nonfiction book entitled Black Man’s Burden, and a satirical novel, tentatively called “The Minister Primarily”.
Meanwhile, Killens sponsored and publicized “Salute to Southern Students,” a show at Carnegie Hall on February 1, the third anniversary of the student sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina. John and Grace Killens drove to Washington the day before an “on to Washington” rally. Just before the premarch press conference, however, news spread that W.E.B. DuBois—whom Killens called “Big Grand Daddy”—had died. Later that year, he attended a memorial service for the four girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. Also in attendance was Malcolm X, whom Killens shared reservations about nonviolence as a strategy.
On June 7, 1964, Killens reached his largest audience when his essay “Explanation of the ‘Black Psyche’” was published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The piece was controversial because he argued that America had both a black psyche and a white psyche. He writes, “the time has come for you (white America) and me (black America) to work this thing out once and for all, to examine and evaluate the differences between us and the differences inside of us.” Racist backlash poured in, objecting that blacks and white were equal in any way. Letters from more open-minded citizens also arrived as well as from fellow artists. Jolted by the attention “Explanation of the ‘Black Psyche’” was received, he spent the rest of 1964 producing five additional essays to be published in Black Man’s Burden.
Fisk University president Stephen J. Wright contacted Killens to convince him to spend a semester on campus as author in residence in 1965. Killens considered a family relocation to Nashville from New York. However, except for a few visits, Grace remained in Brooklyn as Barbara enrolled as a student at Fisk.
While in Nashville, Killens started planning for a writers’ conference to be held in spring of 1965 in honor of Lorraine Hansberry, who died earlier that year in January. Two more hard-hitting deaths would affect Killens that year. Nat King Cole, who had supported Killens since the publication of Youngblood, died in February. Malcolm X was shot less than a year later, leaving Killens in a deep depression. To make matters even more stressful, Killens’ son Chuck received a notice to report for an army physical as events escalated in Vietnam.
On March 25, the procession from Selma to Montgomery came to a close. Killens traveled to Montgomery soon afterwards to celebrate to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 alongside Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, and Ruby Dee. In April, Killens returned to New York for two cultural events: Paul Robeson’s sixty-seventh birthday and the writers’ conference at the New School for Social Research. In June, Killens resigned as chair of the Harlem Writers Guild.
Black Man’s Burden was finally published on New Year’s Day 1966, and Killens landed an appearance on the Today Show. He was also working on his next novel, ‘Sippi. Virtually a sequel to Youngblood, same of the material is taken from nearly two hundred pages of Youngblood’s original manuscript. The most prominent character, Charles “Chuck” Chaney, was similar in character to Rob Youngblood, and his parents share the traits of Laurie Lee and Joe. The primary difference between the two works is the nature of the political engagement of blacks. While Youngblood centers on the formation of labor unions, ‘Sippi’s characters strive to seize political power through the ballot and the call for Black Power.
In the fall of 1966, Boston University requested Killens’ help to establish the John Oliver Killens Collection in the library of the school. While Killens himself was preoccupied with pushing toward another writers’ conference at Fisk, Grace Killens submitted a selection of husband’s manuscripts, notes, and correspondence. Just after a conference in California, Killens received the somber news of Langston Hughes’s death on May 22, 1967. A silver lining, however, came on June 19—Killens’ twenty-fourth wedding anniversary—when a publication date was set for ‘Sippi.
For the spring semester of 1969, Killens taught a graduate seminar in black culture and a creative writing workshop at Columbia University. Years later, poet Askia M. Toure, recalled Killens as a teacher, saying that he “possessed a Dickensian sense of humor that was fabulous” and “would criticize you hard but rein you back in,” (Gilyard 244). In March, he had agreed to be considered for the position of John T. Dorrance Visiting Professor at Trinity College, where he again made a strong impression on students.
On May 6, the film adaption of Killens’ Slaves premiered in Baltimore. The movie was panned by critics and the novelization had fared little better. Meanwhile, family life brought blessings as Barbara gave birth to Killens’ first grandchild, Abiba, on July 31, 1969. The next year brought the start of another novel, The Cotillion. In January 1971, it was published and well-received by reviewers, becoming one of Killens’ most successful stories.
On June 8, 1972, Killens suffered from a stroke. Matters became worse when his father died in Illinois while Killens was hospitalized. By the end of the year, Killens recovered enough to return to Howard University.
The Howard University conference held November 8-10, 1974 remains the most significant in Killens’s career, “The Image of Black Folk in America Literature.” The conference included thirty-two writers, including Maya Angelou. April 20, 1975 marked the birth of Killens’ second granddaughter, Kutisa, as well as another novel—A Man Ain’t Nothing but a Man: The Adventures of John Henry.
The 1970s progressed with more honors as well as tragedies. A party was thrown by the Institute of Arts and Humanities on January 14, 1976 to celebrate Killens’ sixtieth birthday. He was also presented with a plaque in recognition of his services to the institute.
Killens had completed another book by the end of the year entitled Great Black Russian: A Novel on the Life and Times of Alexander Pushkin. In January 1977, Killens embarked on a lengthy string of Pushkin-related appearances in order to generate interest in his new book. During the summer of 1977, Killens retreated to Saratoga Springs to further develop his projects including the Pushkin manuscript and a new story: “Run Like Hell and Holler Fire!”
Later that fall, Killens returned to Georgia for a conference at Georgia Southwestern College on “Black Politics in Georgia: New Responsibilities, New Challenges.” The Fourth National Conference of Afro-American Writers conference took place at Howard University with Killens joining the panel during his final academic year at Howard before relocating to Bronx Community College.
In March 1982, Killens had abdominal surgery. After he recuperated, he worked on several shorter works for the duration of the year. By October, Killens was frail and underweight at an autograph party in Harlem’s Studio Museum. Though Killens began to travel less, he remained active in some ways. In March 1984, the Killens family held a reception to support the election delegates committed to Jesse Jackson.
In September, Killens took part in an event to honor Louise Thompson Patterson’s eighty-third birthday. Killens became ill at the event and soon diagnosed with a tumor in his colon. Undeterred, Killens moved forward and conducted a workshop at the Washington Library on his seventieth birthday in 1986.
Despite his efforts, Killens’ Great Black Russian was not officially on the road to publication until the last year of Killens’s life. On October 27, 1987, John Oliver Killens died at the age of seventy-one in Brooklyn.
Brown, Titus. Faithful, Firm, and True: African-American Education in the South. Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 2002. Print.
Gilyard, Keith. John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism. Athens: U of Georgia, 2010. Print.
Gilyard, Keith. “Re: Questions about John Oliver Killens.” Message to the author. 16 Oct 2015. E-mail.
“Harlem Writers Guild.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlem_Writers_Guild>.
Killens, John Oliver. “Explanation of the ‘Black Psyche’.” The New York Times. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/1964/06/07/explanation-of-the-black-psyche.html?_r=0>.