John Oliver Killens Bio

John Oliver Killens Bio


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



In 1948, Killens moved to New York and attended writing classes at Columbia

University and New York University. He met such influential figures

as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. Du Bois.



Books by and about John Oliver Killens


Youngblood  /  And Then We Heard the Thunder  /  The Cotillion  /  The Great Black Russian

A Man-Aint-Nothin But A Man Adventures of John Henry  /  Slaves  / Sippi A Novel Black-SouthernVoices: An Anthology 

Great-Gittin-Up-Morning: A Biography of Denmark Vesey

Keith Gilyard, Liberation Memories: The Rhetoric and Poetics of John Oliver Killens (2003)

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John Oliver Killens (1916-1987)

Novelist, Harlem Guild Writer


Published originally on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954, Youngblood marked the beginning of a new era in African American literature, for it broke starkly with the Wright school and opened a path for those novelists, poets, and playwrights who comprised the Neo-Black Arts Movement–a movement that recognized John Oliver Killens as its spiritual father.”

–Toni Cade Bambara

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John Oliver Killens’s landmark novel of social protest of a Georgia family from the turn of the century to the Great Depression 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.

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John Oliver Killens (January 14,1916–October 27, 1987), born in Macon, Georgia, to Charles Myles, Sr., and Willie Lee (Coleman) Killens. John Killens credits his relatives with fostering in him cultural pride and literary values. His father Charles encouraged him to read a weekly column by Langston Hughes; his mother Willie Lee, president of the Dunbar Literary Club, introduced him to poetry; and his great-grandmother filled his boyhood with the hardships and tales of slavery.

These early exposures to criticism, art, and folklore are evident in Killens’ fiction, which depicts accurately social classes, engaging narratives, and successful layering of African-American history, legends, songs, and jokes.

Killens planned to be a lawyer. He attended Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida (1934-1935) and Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia (1935-1936). He moved to Washington, D.C. and became a staff member of the National labor Relations Board (NLRB) and completed his B.A. through evening classes at Howard University. He studied at the Robert Terrel Law School from 1939 until 1942, but he completed only two-thirds of the program before he joined the army. 

His second novel And Then We Heard the Thunder  (1963), which concerned racism in the military and the growth of racial identity and consciousness, was based on his service in the South Pacific. This novel, which deals also with a race riot, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1946, Killens returned briefly to his job at the NLRB. In 1947-1948, he organized black and white workers for the Congress of industrial Organization (CIO) and was an active member of the Progressive Party. He soon became convinced that leading intellectuals, the white working class, and the U.S. government were not committed to an inclusive society.

In 1948, Killens moved to New York and attended writing classes at Columbia University and New York University. He met such influential figures as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. Du Bois. While working on his fiction, he wrote regular articles for the leftist newspaper Freedom (1951-1955). During this period Killens developed definitive views on the purpose of the novel. He thus attacked Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as a “decadent mixture . . . a vicious distortion of Negro life.” Killens believed that literature should be created to improve society. “Art is functional. A Black work of art helps the liberation or hinders it.”

Killens found other young writers with a similar perspective. With Rosa Guy, John Henrik Clarke, and Walter Christmas, Killens founded the Harlem Writers Guild in the early 1950s. Youngblood (1954) was the fist novel published by a guild member. The novels treats the struggles of a southern black family in early twentieth-century Georgia. With critical praise of the work, Killens toured to speak on subjects concerning African Americans. Some of the better known members and alumnae of the Guild include Maya Angelou, Ossie Davis, Audrey Lorde, Terry McMillan, Lon Elder III, Paule Marshal and Walter Dean Myers.

In 1955, Killens went to Alabama to research for a screenplay on the Montgomery bus Boycott and to visit with the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He also became close friends close friends with Malcolm X and with him in 1964 founded the organization for Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Black Man’s Burden (1965), a collection of political essays, documents his combination of socialist and nationalist sentiments. 

Below: John Oliver Killens with poet and critic Sterling Brown    

Killens’ major subject is the violence and racism of American society, how it hinders manhood and family. ‘Sippi (1967) is about a struggle over voting rights.  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 1975 in New York City. Killens’ 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 (1972) and A man Ain’t Nothing but a man: The Adventures of John Henry (1975).

By the mid-1960s, Killens had already started a string of positions as a writer-in-residence: at 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). Other 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 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

Source: Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History (Vol. 3)

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John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism

By Keith Gilyard

“I congratulate Keith Gilyard for bringing to life, in the pages of this absorbing book, a figure of genuine importance who certainly deserves a full-scale biography.”—Arnold Rampersad, author of Ralph Ellison: A Biography

John Oliver Killens is a genius of the South, and Keith Gilyard has honored this youngblood, civil rights and union activist, novelist, dramatist, and screenwriter in a superb biography. Gilyard’s engaging written voice draws us into a dramatic and important life, and his deep commitment to the highest standards of research inspires our trust and admiration. John Oliver Killens ably documents and brings to life the yearnings and accomplishments of a major figure in our national literature.—Rudolph P. Byrd, Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies, Emory University

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John Henrik Clarke—A Great and Mighty Walk

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#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

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#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 12 June 2008




Home John Oliver Killens Table 

Related files:  Lest We Forget Killens (by Rivera) Killens, Fort Bliss, & Korea    Coal, Charcoal, and Chocolate Comedy    Killens and the Black Man’s Burden  DownSouth, UpSouth     Reviews     Interview with Keith Gilyard   

Killens Literary Heroes   Globalizing the South

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