John O. Killens created the Black Writer’s Conference (which has been hosted every few years at Medgar Evers College since 1986), was a Medgar Evers College professor and one of the most respected authors of his time. He died of cancer on October 27, 1987. He was 71 at the time of his death and lived in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York
Taken as a whole, the fiction of John Oliver Killens anticipates the drama of playwright August Wilson, who is approaching the conclusion of a cycle of 10 plays, each designed to illustrate African American life in one of the decades of the 20th century. Similarly, most of Killens's major works connect to a particular era and set of concerns in African American history. Unfortunately, most of his books are out of print. Great Gittin' Up Morning (1980) explores the antebellum period through the eyes of a fictionalized Denmark Vesey and his partners in a slave rebellion that occurred in South Carolina in 1822. (The story is geared primarily toward younger readers, but it packs a punch comparable to Black Thunder, Arna Bontemps's excellent 1936 novel about the Gabriel Prosser insurrection.) Killens's last published novel, Great Black Russian, imagines the life of Alexander Pushkin, who was a contemporary of Vesey on the world scene, but the crucial action and drama in the novel unfold in the decade or so following Vesey's death. A Man Ain't Nothin' but a Man, spun around the legend of John Henry, examines the struggle of African Americans--and the working class overall--in the 19th century, post Emancipation era.
Youngblood (1954) is a book about struggle on lira Crow terrain toward black self-determination and economic justice over the first third of the 20th century. And Then We Heard the Thunder (1963) is easily the best treatment we have in fiction of the African American military experience during World War II. 'Sippi (1967) dramatically chronicles developments from the onset of the modern Civil Rights Movement to the dawn of the Black Power Era. The Cotillion; or One Good Bull Is Half the Herd ((1971) depicts cultural politics in the post-Malcolm period before 1970. In addition to his novels, Killens wrote numerous short stories, plays and scripts; he was the first African American to receive solo screenplay credit for a Hollywood movie, the 1959 Odds Against Tomorrow.
Killens articulated African American heroism, particularly within a family or community context, and offered a set of values he felt was liberating. Black nationalism is always a feature of his work; the community-oriented activism and armed self defense in some of his portrayals make this clear. But ever present is transformation.
Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Margaret Walker were literary influences he always acknowledged. His students included novelists Tina McElroy Ansa, Bebe Moore Campbell, Arthur Flowers, Nikki Giovanni, Elizabeth Nunez and Terry McMillan. All re call a soft-spoken man who was generous with his time, praise and humor. He always talked about the need for artists to be politically engaged and responsible--both in their craft and their broader lives. His own life was a fine example.
In 1950, Killens became the founding chairman of the Harlem Writers Guild, a still-active workshop whose members have authored hundreds of books and sponsored numerous activities to promote African American literature. A couple of years later, he and close friend John Henrik Clarke assisted Malcolm X with the founding of the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Although Killens remained involved with various political efforts into the 1980s'the FBI kept a file on him for five decades'he devoted an increasing amount of time to his work as an educator and cultural organizer. He held appointments at the New School for Social Research, Fisk University, Columbia University, Howard University, Bronx Community College and Medgar Evers College in his home borough of Brooklyn. He generally insisted on running a writing workshop for the community in addition to his responsibilities to the students enrolled on campus.
Despite the great demand upon his time, Killens, naturally gregarious, loved to draw artists and intellectuals around him for discussions about literature and politics. In conjunction with his teaching appointments, he directed a series of writers' conferences between 1965 and 1986 that serve as milestones in African American literary history. That tradition continues with the biennial National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, which this year presented a tribute and symposium to Killens.
Killens was unwavering in his love for black people. We should continue to return that love with our remembrance.
Black Russian: A Novel on the Life and Times of Alexander Pushkin
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Hardcover: 391 pages
Publisher: Wayne State University Press; First Edition edition (May 1989)
Product Dimensions: 9 x 5.8 x 1.2 inches
Black intellectuals have long considered the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin to be one of their own. Disturbed that recent academic works have either ignored or downplayed Pushkin's African heritage (his great-grandfather was an Abyssinian prince at the court of Peter the Great), the late Killens ( And Then They Heard the Thunder ) sought to remedy this omission with a "fictionalized" biography.
The result is a somewhat racy, streamlined novelization of Pushkin's life. Killens contends that Pushkin considered himself to be African and that his liberal stance concerning the social issues of his day, and involvement with ill-fated radical groups such as the Decembrists, stemmed from his complicated feelings about his black heritage. Pushkin, according to Killens, was affected by his ancestry in other ways as well. His well-documented rejection by his parents, principally his mother, was due to his "African looks," and his prowess with women was attributable to his "hot African blood." Eschewing any kind of analysis of Pushkin's work, Killens focuses instead on the dramatic events in his life, culminating with Pushkin's tragic early death from wounds suffered in a duel. However lovingly conceived, the author's last work is a rather strident polemic, and suffers accordingly. Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Format: Paperback, 488pp.
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
Pub. Date: January 2000
Edition Desc: REISSUE
John Oliver Killens's landmark novel of social protest chronicles the lives of the Youngblood family and their friends in Crossroads, Georgia, from the turn of the century to the Great Depression. Its large cast of powerfully affecting characters includes Joe Youngblood, a tragic figure of heroic physical strength; Laurie Lee, his beautiful and strong-willed wife; Richard Myles, a young high school teacher from New York; and Robby, the Youngbloods' son, who takes the large risk of becoming involved in the labor movement.
And Then We Heard the Thunder
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Publisher: Howard University Press
Date Published: May 1984
I first came across this book a number of years ago through Quarterly Black Review when on their website was a category titled, "Books Every African-American Library Should Have" (its not there anymore). Before then, I had never heard of John O. Killens or And Then We Heard Thunder. I then came across a copy of it and set it aside for a long time. How stupid of me. The novel is wonderful. And Then We Heard Thunder is about Sol Sauders, a recently married, young black man in the early 1940s during World War II. The novel is of his encounters, the people he meets and of racism in the United States Army. An epic novel not to be forgotten.
Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism
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Publisher: University of Georgia Press (May 15, 2010)
Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.5 inches
John Oliver Killens's politically charged
novels And Then We Heard the Thunder and The Cotillion; or One
Good Bull Is Half the Herd, were nominated for the Pulitzer
Prize. His works of fiction and nonfiction, the most famous of
which is his novel Youngblood, have been translated into more
than a dozen languages. An influential novelist, essayist,
screenwriter, and teacher, he was the founding chair of the
Harlem Writers Guild and mentored a generation of black writers
at Fisk, Howard, Columbia, and elsewhere. Killens is recognized
as the spiritual father of the Black Arts Movement. In this
first major biography of Killens, Keith Gilyard examines the
life and career of the man who was perhaps the premier African
American writer-activist from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Gilyard extends his focus to the broad boundaries of Killens's times and literary achievement'from the Old Left to the Black Arts Movement and beyond. Figuring prominently in these pages are the many important African American artists and political figures connected to the author from the 1930s to the 1980s'W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Alphaeus Hunton, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Harry Belafonte, and Maya Angelou, among others.