John O. Killens


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(1916–1987), novelist, university professor, essayist, screenwriter, and editor.

John O. Killens was born 14 January 1916 in Macon, Georgia, the son of Charles Myles, Sr., and WillieLee (Coleman) Killens. He married Grace Ward Jones and was the father of two children: Jon Charles and Barbara Ellen Rivera. Killens's childhood and life experiences destined him to become a vital voice in African American literature. As a child he listened attentively to his great-grandmother tell outlandish and outrageous tales. He also read extensively. Killens's educational experiences included attending Edward Waters College, Morris-Brown College, Atlanta University, Howard University, Robert Law School, Columbia University, and New York University. After struggling with law school at night and working during the day, Killens emerged as a writer. His first draft of Youngblood was shared over a storefront in Harlem with seven other young African Americans who had dreams of becoming writers. They later formed the Harlem Writers Guild, which came to be known and respected by the African American literary world. Killens died of cancer 27 October 1987 in Brooklyn, New York. His contributions to the African American literary tradition began with his integrational approach and became a voice of blackness later with characters like Yoruba and Lumumba in The Cotillion. Killens's concern with racism, classism, assimilation, and hypocrisy is evident in the body of literature he produced.

As in many protest novels of the time, Killens attacks the institution of racism, oppressive economics, and other injustices in Youngblood. The novel was published in 1954, a time when the social and civil unrest of a country dominated print media. Although laws were being passed to end segregation, the South refused to accept this change, and Killens captures this struggle in the southern black family who is fighting for survival during these turbulent times. For those readers who possess some romantic view of the South, Youngblood exposes the cruel realities of African Americans who tried to remain tied to their southern roots and not flee to the North for better days. The novel, set in Crossroads, Georgia, explores the lives of four characters who collectively fight against the oppressive educational, social, and economic injustices of a Jim Crow existence.

Killens's voice rang loud and clear on the civil ills of America as demonstrated in his novel, ‘Sippi (1967), which addresses the struggles African Americans experienced during the 1960s. William H. Wiggins, Jr., in the Dictionary of Literary Biography states that the title originates from a “civil rights protest joke” in which a black man informs his white landlord that he will no longer include mister or miss when addressing others, including the state of Mississippi: “It's just plain Sippi from now on!” In the novel, Killens's realistic approach to many intimidating acts, such as bombings and shootings, divided critics. His response to this polarized group was that he wrote the book because he had to tell the story, not because he thought someone would respond as he had to his great-grandmother's stories.

In The Cotillion, or One Good Bull Is Half the Herd (1971), Killens moves away from his social protest novel and steps into a community of African Americans to explore its dark sides. This satirical novel attacks the classism and assimilation that dominated many African American communities. Killens's Lumumba represents that breed of African Americans who attempt to redefine themselves by separating themselves from their Eurocentric standards. In contrast to Lumumba's ideology, there exists a community of women who symbolize the vise-grip Eurocentrism has on the African American. Although most criticism of The Cotillion dealt with the theme of Afrocentricity versus Eurocentricity, the text also has a strong commentary on African American adolescence.


Subjects: Literature.

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