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John Oliver Killens:Founding Member of the Harlem Writer’s Guild

Updated: Feb 11, 2023

If you’ve ever used the phrase “Kicking ass and taking names,” you have John Oliver Killens to thank for putting your feelings into words. Killens wrote this famous phrase in his first novel, Youngblood, in 1954. The novel, set in Georgia, tells the story of the Youngbloods’ effort to live a dignified and self-determined life in the Jim Crow South rather than migrating to the North. Like all of his works, the novel drew from Killen’s own life experiences as a Black man navigating the turmoil of the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights Movement, and the times afterward.

John Oliver Killens was born in Georgia in 1916. As a young man, stories captivated him. His parents encouraged reading and he found himself deeply moved by his great-grandmother’s tales of slavery and Black folklore. Benefitting from the charity of the American Missionary Association, he had the privilege of attending its Ballard Normal School, one of the few high schools available to Black students in Macon County. He graduated in 1933 and set his sights on becoming a lawyer, attending several HBCUs in the 1930s. He realized during his college years that his passions lay elsewhere and he changed course, moving to New York City to study creative writing at Columbia University.

During WWII, Killens spent two years in the South Pacific and rose to the rank of master sergeant. He used his experiences of racism in the military as the backdrop for his second novel, And Then We Heard the Thunder (1962). The book portrays a Black man who interrupts his law school studies to serve in an all-Black military amphibious unit, where he endures both the horrors of war and the racism of White officers.

Aside from having educational opportunities that few Black men enjoyed, there was nothing particularly remarkable about John Oliver Killens before the 1950s. He’d endured racism and discrimination, but so had hundreds of thousands of others. It was upon his return to New York that Killens would find his voice and influence his times. His willingness to draw from his personal experiences would set him on a trajectory to make a significant social impact.

Wanting a sounding board for his work, Killens started to meet in the homes of three friends to polish their writings. Together, they formed the Harlem Writer’s Guild as a place where writers could present their works without censoring their experiences of being Black in America. Youngblood was the first novel to be published among the group’s works. The group soon grew in members and in voice. It set its mission to amplify the voices of its authors and by doing so, promoted desperately needed social change.

During the 1960s, the Harlem Writers Guild supported the messages of Malcolm X, the rights to independence for colonized African countries, and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. The group developed connections within the Civil Rights Movement and promoted marches, Freedom Rides and works that shone a light on the injustices that were and still are woven into every aspect of American society. The FBI predictably collected a file on him for decades.

Killen reached his widest audience when the New York Times Sunday Magazine published his essay Explanation of the "Black Psyche” in 1964. Excerpts from the essay include:

“..there is a “black” psyche in America and there is a “white” one, and the sooner we face up to this social and cultural reality the sooner the twain shall meet. Our emotional chemistry is different from yours in many instances. Your joy is very often our anger and your despair our fervent hope. Most of us came here in chains and most of you came here to escape your chains. Your freedom was our slavery, and therein lies the bitter difference in the way we look at life…. …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 main stream of American life, culturally, socially, psychologically, philosophically. We are not fighting for the right to be like you. We respect ourselves too much for that. When we fight for freedom, we mean freedom for us to be black, or brown, and you to be white and yet live together in a free and equal society. This is the only way that integration can mean dignity for both of us…

…All men react to life through man‐made symbols. Even our symbolic reactions are different from yours. To give a few examples:

In the center of a little Southern town near the border of Mississippi, there is a water tower atop which is a large white cross, illumined at night with a lovely (awesome to Negroes) neoned brightness. It can be seen for many miles away. To most white Americans who see it for the first time, it is a beacon light that symbolizes the Cross upon which Jesus died, and it gives them a warm feeling in the face and shoulders. But the same view puts an angry knot in the black man's belly. To him it symbolizes the very, very “Christian” K.K.K.

To the average white man, a courthouse, even in Mississippi, is a place where justice is dispensed. To me, the black man, it is a place where justice is dispensed with…

Killen’s third novel, ‘Sippi (1967), focused on the struggles of Black Americans during this era. Beginning with the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, his main character navigates the kind of racism that can be veiled, but not eliminated, through legal decisions. A fourth novel, The Cotillion, Or One Good Bull Is Half the Herd (1971), satirized and assessed intra-racial issues that Killen associated with the Black middle class. Through the eyes of his heroine, a Black militant, the book explored class divisions within the Black community.

Killen died in 1987; his life spanning most of a century that saw both dramatic change and persistent discrimination for Black Americans. In his work with the Guild and in all of his plays, essays, and novels, he bravely shared his own experiences to illuminate what most Whites could not or would not see: that the Negro is different, and his aim in America is not to be like the white man, but to be himself, to make his own contribution, in a free and equal society.

To learn more about John Oliver Killens, we recommend John Oliver Killens – A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard, and The Harlem Writer’s Guild

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