Book Review: John Oliver Killens: A Life Of Black Literary Activism

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by Keith Gilyard

Publication Date: May 15, 2010
List Price: $45.95
Format: Hardcover, 456 pages
Classification: Nonfiction
ISBN13: 9780820335131
Imprint: University of Georgia Press
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
Parent Company: University of Georgia

Read a Description of John Oliver Killens: A Life Of Black Literary Activism

Book Reviewed by Thumper

I was looking forward to reading Keith Gilyard’s biography, John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism. John Oliver Killens is one of my favorite authors, period! He wrote one of my favorite books, And Then We Heard the Thunder. To say that I could not wait to get my hands on this biography is putting it mildly. Killens is an author who does not receive the attention he deserves. Any author or book that strives to remedy this shortcoming is a welcome sight to see. John Oliver Killens is a considerate, remarkable, not terribly exciting biography that brings this amazing author from obscurity to his rightful place in the sun. I loved it.

John Oliver Killens begins with the birth of the author on January 16, 1916 in Macon, Georgia and follows him through his early schooling to his college years. Killens started his college years wanting to become a lawyer before switching to writing. He always possessed a passion for activism, starting with his work with labor unions. Killens merged his two passions, fighting for the rights of black folks and writing. He married his wife Grace when he was young and the couple had two children. The Killenses stayed married for the rest of his life. He pursued a writing career and the life of an activist while supporting and raising a family. Killens juggled these three balls successfully. In my neck of the woods, Killens was a MAN, in the realest, truest form of the word. Killens was one of the founders of The Harlem Writers Guild. He worked with, mentored, and inspired black writers from Maya Angelou, Alice Childress, Paule Marshall to Terry McMillan, Elizabeth Nunez and Arthur Flowers. As if all of these contributions were not enough, Killens produced the definitive novel of black soldiers during World War II with And Then We Heard the Thunder, as well as the excellent satirical novel, The Cotillion or One Good Bull Is Half the Herd.

The biography John Oliver Killens is a good, enjoyable read. Gilyard does a wonderful job. The time and care Gilyard invested in obtaining the details of Killens life and that he has a real affection for the author is apparent. In addition, Gilyard was objective, which could not have been an easy street to walk.

As much as I loved the treatment Killens received, I hate to state that there were a couple of portions of the biography that were flat. I’m not blaming Gilyard. There were parts in the book that all Gilyard was able to do was relay that Killens ran here for this meeting, then he traveled to Atlanta for this conference, before going back to New York for this other meeting. I understand and appreciate the need for accuracy, but I could care less about Killens’s travel itinerary from here to there and everywhere.

Side note: I find it strange that some of the same problems Killens faced being a published black author back in the day, black authors are still facing. Killens was an author who wanted his books to be bestsellers. He encountered the hurdle of white publishers not marketing books written by black authors. Why haven’t we, black folks in publishing, climbed and conquered that marketing hill yet? Maybe, its time we should.

John Oliver Killens is an excellent biography of an extraordinary man. Gilyard does a wonderful job in bringing Killens to life. The problem the book suffers from is the fact that Killens lead a life not filled with drama, not one that would make a person who does not know anything about Killens pick up this biography and read it or attempt to locate any of Killens’s novels and read them. I can’t fault Killens for leading an upstanding life. He’s a model for how it’s done: discover and live your passion, find and love your soul mate and live your life with no regrets. It’s a winning combination. It just doesn’t make for an incredible, paging turning biography, no matter how well written it is.

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