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Meet John Oliver Killens, One of the Five Founders of the Harlem Writers Guild

Meet John Oliver Killens, One of the Five Founders of the Harlem Writers Guild

He’s considered the godfather of the Black Arts Movement!

John Oliver Killens was born on January 14, 1916 in Macon, Georgia, Harlem World Magazine reports. It was his mother, Willie Lee Killens, President of the Dunbar Literary Club, who first sparked his passion for poetry. His father, Charles Myles Killens, Sr. would also foster his interest in literature, encouraging him to read the writings of Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Meanwhile, his great-grandmother’s regular stories about life during the times of slavery were responsible for igniting his interest in Black folklore. 

John Oliver Killens Harlem Writers Guild BOTWC
All of these things were the perfect recipe for a lifelong love of literature, something Killens fostered while attending the Ballard Normal School, a private institution in Macon. He graduated in 1933, going on to attend HBCUs Morris Brown and Howard University with hopes of becoming a lawyer. In 1939, during his final year at Robert H. Terrell Law School in Washington, D.C., he left to pursue a creative writing degree at Columbia University in New York. 

From 1942 to 1945, Killens served in the United States Army during World War II, rising to the rank of Master Sergeant. He married on Juneteenth, 1943 to Grace Ward Jones, and the couple had two children. In 1948, he relocated to Harlem, continuing writing classes at Columbia University while looking to establish a full-fledged career as a writer. He was very active in the community, becoming a member of a number of organizations including the National Labor Relations Board where he served as a union representative, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In 1950, he partnered with writer Rosa Guy, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Willard Moore, and Walter Christmas to form the Harlem Writers Guild

The organization became a key pillar of the Black Arts Movement, promoting and amplifying the voice of Black writers and stories at the time. Killens’ first novel, Youngblood (1954) was developed and read at several organizational meetings. Killens won favor with other prominent Black influencers including Langston Hughes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Maya Angelou. He also developed a close friendship with actor Harry Belafonte. When Belafonte’s production company HarBel was in the process of adapting a crime novel into a film, his chosen screenwriter was blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Killens stepped in to act as a front so the film could get made. It wasn’t until 1996 that the Writers Guild of America restored crest and full rights to Polonsky for the film. 

Killens released his second novel, And Then We Heard the Thunder, in 1962, detailing the experiences of Black soldiers during World War II and the obstacles they faced serving in a segregated army. The book received a number of accolades, with critic Noel Perrin ranking it as one of five major works of fiction about World War II. He released his third novel a few years later in 1967, Sippi, centering the story of African-American voting rights during the Civil Rights Movement. Another historical novel, Slaves, was released in 1969, with Killens writing an accompanying film screenplay for its release. 

His work explored the realities of life for African-Americans in real time, with books like The Cotillion or One Good Bull Is Half the Herd (1971) chronicling life for upper-class African-Americans in society. His plays, short stories, articles, and novels were all critical to accurately documenting the stories of Black Americans, and Killens was published nationally in The New York Times, Ebony, The Black Scholar, and Negro Digest

The Harlem Writers Guild was honored by the United Nations Society of Writers in 1977. By 1986, Killens purported that members of the organization had produced more than 300 works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, and screenplays. Past and present members of the Guild include Audre Lorde, Terry McMillan, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Lonnie Elder III, Lorraine Hansberry, Walter Dean Myers, and Louise Meriwether — just to name a few. 

In addition to Killens’ work as a writer, he also took the time to teach, serving as a professor of creative writing programs at Columbia University, Fisk University, Howard University, and Medgar Evers College. In 1986, Killens founded the Black Writers Conference, which was held at Medgar Evers. He passed away in 1987 at the age of 71 years old. 

Today, Killens’ legacy is alive and well and the Harlem Writers Guild remains “the oldest, continuously operating African-American Writers Guild in the world.”

And Then We Heard the Thunder by John Oliver Killens BOTWC

“In our 70+ year history, the Harlem Writers Guild has been about affirming the Black experience. An experience that is often willfully misunderstood, the African-American experience in this country has left countless cultural, social and political imprints on our society and influenced those in the African Diaspora as well.

In this pivotal moment in our nation's history, the Guild will continue to promote the literary work of Black writers. Expressions of Black life and culture have often been the target of erasure. One of our aims is to ensure that our history will not be distorted, devalued, or denigrated,” wrote writer Marc W. Polite in a statement on the site. 

Last year, nearly three decades after his death, a new novel from Killens emerged, The New York Times reports. While three of his novels were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, Killens is still not a household name, despite his profound influence at the time. His work and his activism were so impactful that the F.B.I. ran surveillance on the writer for almost forty years, starting in 1941. An unpublished manuscript was found in his papers, and his daughter, Barbara Killens Rivera, agreed to its publishing, dedicating the book to her great-great-grandmother, Georgia Killens. 

The posthumous release from Killens, “The Minister Primarily,” continues with his theme of profiling Black life, this time telling the story of two heroes in the independent make-believe African nation of Guanaya. The novel follows the nation’s minister of defense as he entertains an invitation from the U.S. government, uncovering a plot to overthrow the prime minister just before he leaves for the trip. What follows is a wildly imaginative indictment of America and its truths, as seen through the eyes of Black people.

“Killens’ Africa is a caricature that might, in other circumstances, be irritating. But ‘The Minister Primarily’ isn’t a book about Africa. It’s about America, and the author has a lot to say about his homeland, starting with “Jimmy Johnson’s Poop Sheet for Jungle Travel,” which the fake prime minister writes up the night before the Washington visit and hands out to the half-cabinet that will be traveling with him. In “The Land of the Thief and the home of the slave,” he writes (borrowing from W. E. B. Du Bois), white Americans are “citizens.” Black Americans are “subjects.” A white man who drives a Cadillac is “affluent,” a Black one is a “conspicuous consumer, uncouth, stupid, loud, etc., etc,” reads a quote from a NY Times article about the new release. 

While many of his writings were made to spark discourse, this one approaches it from a lighthearted standpoint, exploring both the pride of African-Americans and the dangers of race and politics. If you have never delved into Killens’ work, now is as good a time as any to start. 

Thank you for everything Mr. Killens. Because of you, we can. 

Meet John Oliver Killens, one of the founders of the Harlem Writers Guild. Photo Courtesy of Carl Van Vechten/New York Times/Harold Michael Harvey