"Ever since I can remember, I have always been a sucker for a well-told tale, and the more outlandish and outrageous, the better, as far as I was concerned," John Oliver Killens wrote in his autobiographical essay "The Half Ain't Never Been Told" in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. Killens credited his beloved paternal great-grandmother for his decision to become a writer. Seven years old when slavery was abolished, she had regaled Killens in his youth with memorable stories about those days: "Puffing on her corncob pipe, speaking in the mellifluous voice, enriched by age.... She seemed to encompass within herself all the wisdom of the ages. Sometimes at the end of each tale, she would shake her head, all white with age, the skin of her face unwrinkled and tight as a newborn baby's backside, stretched tautly over high cheekbones. And she'd say, `Aaah Lord, Honey, THE HALF AIN'T NEVER BEEN TOLD!'" And challenged to tell at least part of that untold half, Killens remarked, "I felt I owed that much to Granny."
Killens also indicated in his autobiographical essay that he had been a voracious reader as a child, taking his cherished library books to bed with him to read by flashlight. During his teenage years, his early dreams of becoming a physician were replaced with those of becoming a lawyer. Despite years of studying law by night and working by day at the National Labor Relations Board, he decided during a stint with the U.S. Army in the South Pacific that he would not return to law school, but would become a writer instead. "One evening in the early fifties or late forties, I gathered with seven others up above a store front on 125th Street in Harlem and, in a very trembly voice, read the first chapter of Youngblood," wrote Killens in his autobiographical essay. This early group of young, black, and soon-to-be prominent writers, formed the nucleus of the distinguished and prolific Harlem Writers Guild, and Killens's first book, Youngblood, was the first novel to be published from it.
Youngblood is about a Southern black family's struggle for survival. Through the characters of the parents and their two children, Killens "exposes his readers to what life was like for Afro-Americans living in the American South during the first third of this century," wrote William H. Wiggins, Jr., in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "The novel demonstrates how these four characters band together to overcome the economic, educational, social, and religious manifestations of Jim Crow life in their hometown of Crossroads, Georgia." Called a "fine novel, vivid, readable," by Ann Petry in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, Youngblood is described by Granville Hicks in the New York Times as "a record of petty, mean-spirited, wanton discrimination." And although Hicks found it "didactic" at times, he also found it to have "the power of the author's passion" and declared that "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."
Killens's second novel, And Then We Heard the Thunder, is based on his own experience with segregation and racism in the military during the Second World War. According to Martin Levin in the New York Times Book Review, the novel's black protagonist, who wishes only to be "the best damn soldier," is forced instead "to make common cause with his race rather than with his army." Although critics tended to fault the style of the novel, they nonetheless responded well to its message. While Nelson Algren suggested in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review that the book "lacked the passion of men at war," J. H. Griffin in the Saturday Review found the battle scenes, in particular, filled with "hallucinatory power," and declared that the reader who has not experienced racial discrimination, "living all the indignities of the Negro soldier, sees clearly how it looked from the other side of the color line." Griffin concludes that "this novel magnificently illumines the reasons why" the wounds remain despite discrimination having been eliminated from the armed forces.
Killens's 'Sippi "reflects his new militancy," wrote Wiggins, indicating that the title originates from a "civil rights protest joke" in which a black man informs his white landlord that he will no longer include mister or miss when addressing others, including the state of Mississippi. "It's just plain 'Sippi from now on!," he says. The novel concerns the struggles over voting rights during the 1960s, and Wiggins added that Killens "recounts in vivid detail the bombings, shootings, and other acts of terror and intimidation endured by the courageous students and local blacks who dare stand up and push for voter registration." Wiggins reported that there was a lack of a critical middle ground regarding the novel--critics either did or did not like it. Acknowledging in his autobiographical essay that the novel "was a critical bust," Killens added, "I heartily disagreed with the critics, naturally. Or else why would I have written it?"
Killens's The Cotillion; or One Good Bull Is Half the Herd is a satire about an annual ball held by an exclusive black women's club in Brooklyn. "Through hyperbole and cutting social and political commentary, Killens's novel becomes a biting didactic piece of Afro-American literature, written in the tradition of verbal contests known as the dozens to many Afro-Americans," explained Wiggins. "The object of the game is to unsettle one's verbal opponent with exaggerated statements of personal insults." Noting that "this is precisely the plot" of The Cotillion, Wiggins wrote that by the end of the novel, "Killens has reduced this sedate group of society matrons to a confused and disorganized group of babbling black women who have been verbally stripped of their veneer of white middle-class values and exposed for what they truly are: comically tragic Afro-Americans who are out of touch with their cultural heritage." Calling its language "Afro-Americanese," George Davis commented in Black World that The Cotillion "signifies and lies and intrudes on itself whenever it sees fit. It dances around while it is talking and comes all out of itself to make sure you get the point that it is making. It starts to exaggerate and keeps on exaggerating even though it knows that you know that the truth is being stretched out of shape." Leonard Fleischer observed in Saturday Review that "in a prose often buoyantly evocative and musical, Killens caricatures some of the more egregious foibles of black and white society." Moreover, continued Fleischer, while making use of stereotyped blacks to satirically reveal a "willing acceptance of the standards of white culture," Killens was simultaneously "mocking the rage for instant blackness."
"Killens's major themes evolve around social protest and cultural affirmation," wrote Wiggins, who held that Killens "fashioned his career in the protest mold of Richard Wright. For both of these writers the primary purpose of art is to attack and ultimately change society for the better." Although recognized and praised for his novels, Killens also achieved distinction for his essays on the quality of black life in America. Wiggins wrote that Killens's collection of political essays, Black Man's Burden, "demonstrates the shift in Killens's philosophy" away from the nonviolence espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr., and toward the more militant views of his friend, Malcolm X: "In the series of essays on such subjects as white paternalism, black manhood, unions, sit-ins, boycotts, religion, black nationalism, Africa, nonviolence, and the right of self-defense, Killens argued that passive acceptance of racial oppression only encourages more racial violence. Killens believed that the only way blacks could break the vicious cycle of racial violence would be to respond to white violence with black violence." In the Saturday Review, Frank M. Cordasco observed that Killens had assembled "a pastiche of perceptive, sharply delineated vignettes animated by the twin engines of hate and despair."
Killens's work is internationally known, having been translated into more than a dozen languages. In his autobiographical essay, he wrote that when he travelled to Africa in 1961 to do research for a British Broadcasting Corporation script, he viewed a screening of his own motion picture, Odds Against Tomorrow, with French subtitles. And when the author journeyed to China in 1973 with a group of writers and teachers, he learned that he and Ernest Hemingway were "two of the most widely read writers there." Killens's travels also took him to the Soviet Union. In 1968 and 1970, he attended a festival in the Soviet Union where "writers and artists [were] invited ... from all over the world to celebrate the life of Alexander Sergeievich Pushkin," the subject of a novel on which he had worked since the middle 1960s. That novel, The Great Black Russian: A Novel on the Life and Times of Alexander Pushkin, was published posthumously in 1989. The result of twelve years of research and writing, Killens's biography of the poet was one of the first to give weight to Pushkin's black lineage. Killens details Pushkin's history, tracing his descent from his grandfather, an African known as "the Negro of Peter the Great," through the emergence of the revolutionary writer and poet who, though much loved by the Russian people, was exiled by the Czar. Reviewer Zofia Smardz lauded Killens's "wildly erratic but somehow mesmerizing prose," and proclaimed in the New York Times Book Review that the work "capture[d] the essence of Pushkin's greatness." D. H. Stewart, commenting in Choice, noted: "Despite the racist emphasis on Pushkin's fractional blackness, Killens's narrative is informative and lively." Calvin Forbes stated in a review in the Washington Post Book World that the author "tells his story with suitable flair. Pushkin's adventures and troubled life ... are served up like a feast for us to enjoy."
Killens indicated in his autobiographical essay that he had also completed a comedic novel entitled The Minister Primarily, and a book about the art and craft of creative writing entitled Write On!: Notes from a Writers Workshop. As a prominent novelist, playwright, essayist, and teacher, Killens "strove in all his work to distill and express the black experience in this country," wrote Richard Pearson in the Washington Post. "In doing so he reached an audience that transcended boundaries of race or color to express common denominators in human nature."
Award(s): Afro Art Theatre Cultural Award, 1955; Literary Arts Award, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Brooklyn), 1957; Culture, Human Relations Award, Climbers Business Club; citation from Empire State Federation of Women; cultural award, New York State Fraternal Order of Elks; Charles Chesnutt Award, Brooklyn Association for the Study of Negro Life and History;
· And Then We Heard the Thunder was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, 1962; Rabinowitz Foundation grant, 1964; M
· The Cotillion; or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, 1971; Harlem Writers Guild award, 1978; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1980; Lifetime Achievement Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1986; elected to Black Filmmaker's Hall of Fame.
Career: Member of staff, National Labor Relations Board, 1936-42, and 1946; free-lance 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, Brandeis College (now Brandeis University), Springfield College, Western Michigan University, Savannah State College, and Trinity College. Co-founder and past chairperson, Harlem Writers Guild, 1952. Military service: U.S. Army, Pacific Amphibian Forces, 1942-45.
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
· Youngblood, Dial, 1954, published with foreword by Addison Gayle,
University of Georgia Press, 1982.
· (With Loften Mitchell) Ballad of the Winter Soldier, first produced
in Washington, DC, at Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center, September 28,
· (With Nelson Gidding) Odds Against Tomorrow, Belafonte Productions/United
WORK REPRESENTED IN ANTHOLOGIES
· David Boroff, The State of the Nation, Prentice-Hall, 1966.
· Black Man's Burden (essays), Trident Press, 1965.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
· Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 2, Gale, 1985.
· Atlantic, February, 1971. .
· Jet, November 16, 1987, p. 16.
Source: Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003.