When I was notified by the Black Writers Conference that I was among the honorees at this year’s ceremony, I was as excited as I was surprised. That stunning announcement became even more astounding that the award I was to receive was named for the great author and activist John Oliver Killens. In effect, the moment brought me full circle back to 1986 when as a reporter for the Amsterdam News I covered the inaugural event of the conference founded by Killens. I had just returned to New York City and Harlem in 1985 and learned that my girlfriend, Elza, was working with Killens on a book project and this was the conduit that brought me closer to a writer I deeply admired for his books, most significantly for me, “And Then We Heard the Thunder” (1962). I didn’t get a chance to interview him at that first Black writers conference at Medgar Evers College, and a year later he was no longer with us, passing on to glory in 1987. Upon learning of the award, I began a search through my archives to find the obit I wrote of his passing and found a clipped version of it tucked in the pages of “Youngblood,” his remarkable novel of life in the South and emerging Civil Rights Movement.
All of this sent me on another one of my reveries that my most ardent readers are aware of, and back to a conversation I had with Dr. John Henrik Clarke, one of many we shared. One thing that continues to resonate from those sessions was the information he delivered that he and John Oliver had worked to complete the constitution or bylaws of Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity. “We did it on my kitchen table,” Clarke said.
That moment was exemplary of Killens’ expansive versatility, his ability to function with insight and vision on whatever project he undertook, and he undertook nearly every literary genre and political format within his boundless bailiwick.
Beyond my own memories of John and what bits of info he distilled in his writings, there is his collection housed at the Library of Congress and the biography published in the New Georgia Encyclopedia. He was born on Jan. 14, 1916, in Macon, Georgia to Charles Myles Killens Sr. and Willie Lee Coleman, both of whom were well-read and, along with his grandparents, instilled him with a sense of African American history and achievements. John graduated from Ballard Normal School in Macon in 1933; it was one of the few secondary schools for Blacks in Georgia. Subsequently, he did graduate work at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Fla. with an aim to become a lawyer, a quest that continued at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, and Howard University.
He was attending the Robert H. Terrell Law School in D.C. when he changed his ambitions and enrolled at Columbia University to study creative writing. During these pursuits he experienced stints in the military, worked at the National Labor Relations Board, and married Grace Jones. His tenure in service from 1942 to 1945, obviously provided him with some of the background that resonates so realistically in his novel about the trials and tribulations of African American soldiers in the South Pacific.
At the very start of his literary journey with “Youngblood” (1954), John, through the book’s protagonist Joe Youngblood, declared his credo that marked his social and political path. “How do you live in a white man’s world? Do you live on your knees—do you live with your shoulders bent and your hat in your hand? Or do you live like a man is supposed to live—with your head straight up?” When asked about his artistic outlook, he often stated, “There is no such thing as art for art’s sake. All art is propaganda, although there is much propaganda that is not art.”
True to his belief, John’s essays, short stories, reviews, lectures, and classroom teaching were never without venues to express commitment to Black culture and maintaining his political integrity. This desire emanated most consequentially as a founder of the Harlem Writers Guild and as the spiritual father of Black Arts Movement of the 1960. And certainly found traction when he was at the forefront of the Black Writers Conference in Brooklyn at Medgar Evers College that has been dutifully continued and expanded by Dr. Brenda Greene.
To list his books is to review a generation of literary and cultural events, including “Sippi” (1967); “Slaves” (1969); “The Cotillion” (1971); “The Great Black Russian: A Novel on the Life and Times of Alexander Pushkin” (1989), published posthumously, and several nonfiction books, such as “Great Gittin’ Up Morning: A Biography of Denmark Vesey” (1972). Interestingly, John’s name was also used as the screenwriter in place of the blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky in “Odds Against Tomorrow,” a film starring Harry Belafonte, though it was widely presumed that Killens could have done this himself.