John Oliver Killens

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John Oliver Killens, 1954

John Oliver Killens (January 14, 1916 – October 27, 1987) was an American fiction writer whose novels of African-American life received two Pulitzer Prize nominations. He once stated: "My fight is not to be a white man in a black skin, but to inject some black blood, some black intelligence into the pallid mainstream of American life, culturally, socially, psychologically, philosophically."[1] He also believed: "There is no such thing as art for art's sake. All art is propaganda, although there is much propaganda that is not art. We must join a crusade to decolonize the minds of black people. No one else will do this work, so we must."[1][2]


Early life and education[edit]

Killens was born in Macon, Georgia, to Charles Myles Killens, Sr, and Willie Lee Killens.[2] His father encouraged him to read Langston Hughes's writings, and his mother, who was president of Dunbar Literary Club, introduced him to poetry. Killens was an enthusiastic reader as a child and was inspired by writers such as Hughes and Richard Wright. His great-grandmother’s tales of slavery were another important factor in his gaining knowledge of traditional black mythology and folklore, which later appeared in his writings.

Killens graduated in 1933 from Ballard Normal School, in Macon, a private institution run by the American Missionary Association and at the time one of the few secondary schools for blacks in Georgia.[2] Planning to be a lawyer, he attended Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida, Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Howard University in Washington DC, and in 1939 the Robert H. Terrell Law School in Washington, D.C.,[2] but left in his final year in order to study creative writing at Columbia University in New York.

He joined the army during World War II, serving as a member of the Pacific amphibious forces from 1942 to 1945. He spent more than two years in the South Pacific, and rose to the rank of master sergeant.[2]

Literary career[edit]

In 1948, Killens moved to New York and focused on establishing a literary career. He attended writing classes at Columbia University and New York University. He was an active member of many organizations, including the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Around 1950, Killens co-founded with Rosa Guy and others a writers' group that became the Harlem Writers Guild (HWG).[3]

His first novel Youngblood (1954), dealing with a fictional black Georgia family in the early 1900s, was read and developed at HWG meetings in members' homes.[1] His second novel, And Then We Heard the Thunder (1962), was about the treatment of the black soldiers in the military; it was named by critic Noel Perrin as one of five major works of fiction of World War II.[1] His third novel, Sippi (1967), focused on the voting rights during the 1960s. Two of his novels earned Pulitzer Prize nominations: And Then We Heard the Thunder (1962) and The Cotillion; or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd[4] (1971). In addition to novels, Killens also wrote plays, screenplays, and many articles and short stories that appeared in publications as diverse as Black Scholar, the New York Times, Ebony and Redbook.

He taught creative-writing programs at Fisk University, Howard University, Columbia University and Medgar Evers College.[1] In 1986, he founded the National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College.

Personal life[edit]

In 1943 Killens married Grace Ward Jones, with whom he had two children: a son, John Charles, and a daughter, Barbara.[2]

In 1987, Killens died of cancer in Brooklyn, NY, aged 71.



  • Youngblood (1954), novel
  • And Then We Heard the Thunder (1962), novel
  • Black Man's Burden (1965), essays
  • Sippi (1967), novel
  • The Cotillion; or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd (1971), novel
  • Great Gittin' Up Morning: A Biography of Denmark Vesey (1972)
  • A Man Ain't Nothin' But a Man: The Adventures of John Henry (1975)
  • The Great Black Russian: The Life and Times of Alexander Pushkin (1989)

As editor[edit]

  • Black Southern Voices: an anthology of fiction, poetry, drama, nonfiction, and critical essays (Meridian, 1992)

Further reading[edit]

  • Adam, William, Afro-American Authors. Houghton Mifflin, 1972
  • Bloom, Harold, Modern Black American Fiction Writers. Chelsea House Publishers, 1995
  • Bolden, Tonya, Strong Men Keep Coming: the book of African American men. J. Wiley and Sons, 1999
  • Gilyard, Keith, John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism. University of Georgia Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0820340319.
  • Gilyard, Keith, Liberation Memories: The Rhetoric and Politics of John Oliver Killens. Wayne State University Press, 2003.


External links[edit]