John Oliver Killens:
Life is a short walk. There is so little time and so much living to achieve.
Integration begins the day after the minds of the people are desegregated.
The Negro was invented in America.
What a tiresome place America would be if freedom meant we all had to think alike or be the same color or wear that same gray flannel suit! That road leads to the conformity of the graveyard . . .
The Negro loves America enough to criticize her fundamentally. Most white Americans simply can't be bothered.
Published Sources for Quotations Above:
F: In "Famous Black Quotations," ed. Janet Cheatham Bell, 1995.
R: Beyond the Angry Black, 1966.
A: In "Famous Black Quotations," ed. Janet Cheatham Bell, 1995.
N: The Black Psyche, c. 1966.
K: The Black Psyche, c. 1966.
Lest We Forget
(January 14, 1916 -- October 27, 1987)
By Louis Reyes Rivera
I was never a friend of John Oliver Killens. Don't get me wrong, now. I didn't say that I was never a friend to John, but that I was never one of his friends, not like Margaret Walker or Harry Belafonte, John Henrik Clarke or Mari Evans, Sidney Poitier, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, the two Paul Robesons (Jr., and Sr.), Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Nina Simone, Alice Childress, Rosa Guy, Louise Meriwether, Loften Mitchell, Maya Angelou-- like Sam Yette was his friend. He and I didn't go through all those special changes over how many years friends of choice endure: struggling together through the same difficult periods and phases; sometimes conspiring against common foes; other times confiding in each other about things that no one else is permitted to know; or studying together under the lucid guise of common cause.
No, we were not friends in the sense of two who meet of their own accord to establish the parameters of their acquaintance, taking to each other while agreeing upon and/or arguing about politics, sex and supervisors; or collaborating to raise children, causes and views, and sharing in those little things that friends know they can share with one another --borrowing and lending, learning to respect those sensitive lines they draw between themselves and others, and continuing to depend upon and help one another like good friends do.
I was never one of his students. But don't get me wrong on that one, either. I didn't say that I didn't learn from him. It's just that I was never one of those who tracked him down to workshop with him, like Piri Thomas, Ntozake Shange, Doris Jean Austin, BJ Ashanti, Askia Muhammad Toure, Mervyn Taylor, Elizabeth Nunez Harrell, Nicholasa Mohr, Richard Perry, Thulani Davis, Charles Russell, Sarah E. Wright, Brenda Connor-Bey, Fatisha, Brenda Wilkerson, like Arthur Flowers will tell you he was his student --and all of them soaking up that expertise, wisdom and warmth he so willingly shared.
I had never enrolled in one of his classes at Fisk, Howard or Columbia University, Bronx Community or Medgar Evers colleges to get that bursared critique, nor did I join the Harlem Writers Guild while he presided therein to add that credit onto my literary vitae. No. I cannot say that I had actually studied my craft under the tutelage of John Oliver Killens.
Our relationship was not initiated through any form of mutual selection. It began as one of life's impositions. He was the father of the woman I wanted to marry; I was the male child his daughter wanted him to meet and get along with. We met inside the parameters of a choice she and I had made --without selection on his part, beyond the one of necessary adjustment. As I was neither friend nor student, blood kin or foe, I was placed inside a different category --that of the son-in-law-- a totally separate set of conditions with which we both had to contend.
He had to check me out in ways that he was not required to do with others. He had to test my 'tudes, my ways of being and doing, how I worked and behaved with and toward his daughter and his two grandchildren from a previous relationship.
As well, I was a poet, not a fiction writer. At the time that we met, no, I didn't have a job. I was finishing up at City College, preparing to abandon my training in journalism to take up the banner of poetry --which should have made me look even more dangerous, since poets are viewed as among those who don't work, don't wanna work, don't look for work, and can't make any real money from the work they do as poets. From any father's standpoint in such a position and in this society, the normal questions to raise would include the possibility that maybe I was moving in to pimp. Try to live off his rep, off his daughter, under the guise of a struggling poet --or at least, that's part of the image our illiterate country would foster upon us when it comes to the crazy anarchist called poet.
And if you buy into all the cheap stories you read in the daily tabloids, any person would have to ask about this business of stepfather, too, since the assumption is that those relationships just don't work! Men, or so we are constantly told, don't raise other men's children the same way they would their own. The standard proscription is that child abuse will come into the picture at some point, and that children shouldn't be mixed like that, anyway, because somebody always pays when there are children from different fathers, and the usual given is that the ones from the first marriage are those who pay most dearly.
In this social order of tribal contradiction and sexual hangup, all of what these questions imply become the legitimate concerns a father would have for his daughter --and obviously more so for any father whose daughter had already gone through a relationship that hadn't worked out, that had proven to be more painful than whatever pleasure or happiness it might have claimed. Certainly, if his daughter was happy about this new husband, or fairly certain that the union could work, at the very least he could go along with it. But he'd be naive to accept it without some reservations busily at work --that is, until such time as each of his concerns would prove themselves unwarranted. Yet, despite the potential this extra baggage bore, John Oliver Killens and Louis Reyes Rivera grew to accept, respect and love each other, even while we both must have known that he had to check me out in such a way as he would never do any of his students, and with a suspicion that he would never harbor towards any of his friends. It wasn't easy but we did it.
Now it is over a decade since his death in October 1987, and I find facing me the greatest irony with regard to this man, John Oliver Killens. The principles he stood for in the person that he was have gone largely ignored. This is not to take anything away from his contemporary, James Baldwin, who also lived and wrote and died within the same span of time, but simply to point to the fact that immediately upon Baldwin's death, Quincy Troupe, who was also influenced by Killens, initiated a collection of essays, published in book form (1988), and for the record, on behalf of Baldwin, but no one has done anything on behalf of Killens. And the fact remains that while Baldwin went into self-imposed exile (a la Richard Wright), Killens stayed right here, in the midst of this struggle, directly influencing at least three generations of African American writers.
In and of itself, the factor that makes this ironic is the condition we refer to as racism. Baldwin, for the most part, wrote to a socalled white audience; consequently, he was more acceptable to and absorbable by European-American publishers who relish their control over what all the rest of us are permitted to read. Killens, however, spoke and wrote more directly to African Americans (i.e., standing on his own human terms). This one factor is racistically reason enough for mainstream publishers and critics of an American canon to want his contributions buried with him, as they refuse to even try to exhibit their capacity to judge him on those same human terms.
What makes this part of the great irony facing me is that the rest of us, our own dear own, quietly and quiescently ignore the challenge that this condition raises up. Those of us who have the juice and props to do something about it have put it to the side of lost memory as if they too agree that he was never here. And I say this, despite a handful here and there who pay the man quick lipservice through an allusive call-out of his name, but only when it is deemed politically convenient (like at those National Black Writers conferences at Medgar Evers College, which he initiated, but which have yet to feature an even-keeled panel discussion on the substance of the man and his work --thus, dissing him with trite).
But the core of the irony facing me goes deeper. On the one side, his friends and students are the ones who should be raising him up, as they knew him like few others could. On the other side, what is basically a political question can also be dismissed as a matter of mere personalism, simply because it's his son-in-law who dares to raise the question in unfettered tones. But it must be said and in the manner of poet that, here in this country, John Oliver Killens is practically, almost totally a forgotten phenomenon. There is no Africana Studies or English literature or sociology class that teaches his work; there are extremely few professors who bother to include any of his published novels and essays on their suggested readings lists, and hardly, if at all, as required text for understanding the true range of North American literature.
Yet there was a time when even psychology courses would use his essays to help guide the exploration of an African American psyche. Except for the usual obituaries that follow immediately after death and burial, or here and there an unpublished thesis written by a die-hard researcher, the overwhelming majority of our own African American writers and lecturers who had read his books have obviously chosen to offer neither article nor analysis of the man, his work and his times, in spite of the fact that from 1954 thru 1987 he was one of the most influential living African American writers around. Yet, he's become as obscure, as unknown to the present generation of our youth as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois have remained understudied, even while those who knew him also knew the extent of his influence and contributions. There's been no lasting tribute, no demand, no move made by our own literati to place his work where it truly belongs; no mention has come from the many people he had warmly befriended and graced. Not even a short critique.
It's bad enough that our literature and our creative giants go largely ignored inside this socalled "white" social order; badder still, to accept as a matter of course the unnatural given that the reason we get whited out and sidelined is understood as the result of racism; worse is when we ourselves do it to our own. For when we don't make the Frederick Douglass demand for the most minimal concession (that our literature be taught honestly and to all students) from those in Black/white power, our inaction becomes criminal.
And so I make this fuss over John Oliver Killens because he was both a powerful novelist and a great teacher --very subtle, very encouraging and careful not to impose his will upon the need for his students to develop their own sense of strong will. Oftentimes, he'd share an experience or tell a story to make his point.
Among his favorites was an incident that had taken place while he was at Howard University. He had just begun talking about Paul Robeson, when one of his students, in a reactive mood, asked him, "Who's this Paul Robeson dude, some kind of uncle tom or something?"
And John, with that controlled passion of is, that certain calm for which he was known, replied, "I want you to leave this classroom right now, go to the library and find out all you can about him. But don't come back without at least 40 pages on Brother Paul."
The student did as he was told and came back a few weeks later with the assignment as ordered and with complete awe over what he'd learned. Paul Robeson. Son of slaves. All-American football player. Valedictorian of his class at Rutgers University. Lawyer. Actor. Singer Extraordinaire. Multilinguist. Socialist. Activist. Beacon of his times. "The tallest tree in our forest," DuBois called him. Principled. Committed. Concerned. And for that, he had been whiteballed, cheated, conspired against, harassed, jailed, exiled into his own home. Yet all man. Black man. Never bowing or acquiescing to the enemies of that one truth every human is supposed to understand: naked we come, naked we go; in between our birth and death the struggle of life, the war against abuse, where no one can ever permit an other to be greater than any other --not male or female, not through class position or military force standing over us, the worker-miner-peasant-farmer -- and where the misery of the vast majority must be confronted and eliminated or allowed to grow in conflagration.
John, by the way, would often paraphrase Robeson's definition of artist: to wit, "the artist must elect to stand for freedom or slavery. I have taken my stand. I had no other choice."
But that's just Killens as teacher, like every teacher is supposed to be. There is also the novelist, and in this case, one whose books are not an integral part of standard curricula, which disgrace has nothing to do with quality, but with the dishonest manner in which excellent and truly American literature is excluded from this country's schools.
Unlike Baldwin, Killens wasn't interested in appeasing a white conscience. He aimed his work directly at and for an African American national literature. His writings carried an insistence that we each learn to read between the lines, think for ourselves, and thus face the social contradiction squarely: all men (finally now women) are (supposedly) created equal, and yet a bloody history of slavery based on color, gender and age continues even today, 200 plus years since those words were allegedly made to manifest in government and law.
His work and his life were qualitatively consistent, morally principled and highly conscious of a duty to craft. Like Robeson, he too suffered the contradiction of being a major internationally recognized figure, among that handful of writers whose very name conjures up respect. Yet, his status and impact in American letters have been largely ignored in his own country since 1972, the year that the conglomerate publishers had slammed the doors shut on good and honest Black writing; the year that (in John's words) marked the end of "the honeymoon between Black writer and white publisher"; the year that also marked a renewed, clearly insistent rise of small alternative publishers concerned with what is generally termed, "serious literature," but which really means, "work that is reflective of the social reality," work that tries to balance craft and content and intent within the need to confront the truth of our real human selves --like it lay-- fully engaging the struggle for perspective.
Perspective. The way we see things. The basis for understanding how and why to do, to live with a direction in mind, to contribute to our earthly human cause, to love life. We are all born hungry and willing, but how can we each develop our own peculiar perspective without learning, reading, knowing, growing, facing up to the truth of past and present, to find the way and the will to give shape to our future (and like John used to say), to our children's children's children's future, with our very own hands? How do we get there equitably when the books promoted for mass consumption (check that out!) deny our place in knowledge, negate our own sense of definition, contribution, struggle?
John's perspective was focused. Whenever he went to work at the typewriter, he'd say, he went with the intention of changing the world. The heavy that that is becomes heavier when we consider one who actually believes that a story, a novel, an article-essay, the imagination of one unique voice has the capacity, the power to actually change the world!
In history/literature/revolution, this attitude is referred to as encompassing or being reflective of the romantic or poetic spirit. As with Otto Rene Castillo, Jose Marti, Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Ida B. Wells, Julia de Burgos, Sojourner Truth: people who think that the word is that powerful have, they say, the poet's soul in them; but it is really no more than what we all mean when we say human, humanity, searching a way, and grappling with truth. For good writers, good speakers, genuine activists are distinguishable as much for their sincerity as for their senses of nuance. They will lure you to think deeply about love-life-struggle, to think about all that you and I comprise, about making that urge we feel to help change things a real, practical, necessary option. They will induce us to believe that you and I both matter enough to actually realize our potential to do, to contribute to life itself. This, in spite of the fact that we live in what poet Zizwe Ngafua tersely refers to as a white man's country --a condition that speaks for itself as clarifying the nature of our battles here: existing, surviving, struggling in a place where the amount of melanin your own skin requires or the gender you have come to manifest is the first measurement against your humanity. Anyone who is not a socalled white man (according to proscription) is not bound to be respected for the humans that we are. As one of John's closer associates, Malcolm X, once said, "When he says he's white, he means he's boss."
John's books testify against that notion, that belief, that perspective of "white" equals "boss": Youngblood; And Then We Heard The Thunder; Black Man's Burden; 'Sippi; Slaves; The Cotillion; Great Gittin' Up Mornin'; A Man Ain't Nothin' But A Man; Great Black Russian; Black Southern Voices; The Minister Primarily; Write On! (like that).
But this is not merely a riffing of titles, like what appears in a resume designed to make a quick impression. The novelist at work here is well grounded in communal perspective. And if we were to put aside, just for the sake of this discussion, the social essays in Black Man's Burden, the anthology of African American writers comprising Black Southern Voices (which he co-edited with critic Jerry Ward, and which was published after his death), and the short essays on craft and intent that make up Write On! (still unpublished), in order to concentrate on the novels, what unfolds is a detailed history lesson spanning from roughly 1700AD straight through to the 1980s, recreated from the perspective of an African caught and reared in the American contradiction.
Great Black Russian: the life and times of Alexander Pushkin (1989) is not just a biography of a major 19th century poet. It is a testament to the width and breadth of our African diaspora, taking us back to 1700, when the slave trade out of Africa and into every port on the planet was at its fullest bloom, and carries us up through the mid-1830s, when the U.S. abolitionist movement had begun to take its cue from the Haitian and Latin American revolutions, which later culminated in the U.S. Civil War. We gain this information through the eyes of the great Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, the acknowledged father of Russian literature, who himself was of African descent. [His great-grandfather had been kidnapped out of African, sold to Moslem Turks and secreted into Russia, where he served Peter the Great, eventually as a military engineer.] Pushkin's legacies in both literature and social consciousness were so impactive that when I visited Leningrad in 1990, I found more statues of Pushkin than of Lenin himself (now all of Lenin's statues are gone).
As poet and social critic, Pushkin's writings served as a major source of inspiration for the Decembrist Revolt of 1824, the eventual abolition of Russian serfdom in 1861, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. He insisted that the Russian literati cultivate its own language into a national literary idiom (before Pushkin, the Russian elite wrote in French, English or German, thus thoroughly separating themselves from their own people). Obviously, he inspired Killens in his own drive to continue the cultivation of an African American literary tradition that would help shape the substance of our liberation here.
In this particular novel, Killens also gives us solid insight into both the Russian nobility and its peasants, so much so that even though they're Russian (and therefore somehow "different" from us), we can't help but to condemn the privileged few and feel right along and beside the oppressed many.
Great Gittin' Up Mornin': the story of Denmark Vesey (1973) is another biographical novel that traces the life of Denmark Vesey (circa 1770s thru 1822), from a free child in Africa to an enslaved cabin boy traversing the Caribbean on slave ships, and into Charleston, South Carolina, where, as a freedman, he eventually gathered together a group of conspirators to forge an army of 9,000 men and women prepared to take destiny into their own hands and free every slave in the districts surrounding and including the city of Charleston.
Inside this story, we meet such historical personages as Bishop Morris Brown (after whom a college is named), and such legendary figures as the eminent conjureman, Gullah Jack. Based on The Trial Record of Denmark Vesey (edited by Killens and published as an accompanying text), we gain detailed insight into both the condition of slavery as practiced here and the prerequisites for revolution. Equally insightful is the attention that Killens pays to every one of the several lead conspirators; not just the usual absolute focus on the individual that we too often get, but on the many droplets and streams that make the river possible.
Slaves (1969) began as a screenplay (John had previously written the screenplay for another movie, Odds Against Tomorrow), then turned into a novel to accompany the release of the movie. While changes in his original script were made by the producers, we still find underneath the layers of Hollywood hype a discerning and imaginative eye peering into the state of antebellum slavery (circa 1850s); Killens bears a clearly sensitive understanding of the way women are objectified as primary targets in the control of a people enslaved.
A Man Ain't Nothin' But A Man: the story of John Henry (1975) targets an adolescent audience in this novelization of the folk hero who epitomized the underclass of every civilization. The story of John Henry, the post-slavery steel-driving man attempting to compete against the machine that is soon to make him obsolete, is a lot of sad fun. Underneath this irony, however, is an exploration into the conditions of life that accompany empire building. True credit for the real work is always displaced when given solely to planners, architects and financiers at the direct expense of the countless nameless many who cleared the land, paved the roads and laid the traintracks that manifested both their demise and what we flippantly refer to as progress. And yet the real hero emerges, though only as legend.
Youngblood (1954), Killens' first novel, is a truly engaging saga that spans from the 1890s through the 1930s, unveiling a southern Black family's struggle to define and nurture its own sense of human dignity in the face of Jim Crowism (or as one critic put it, in the face of "petty, mean-spirited, wanton discrimination"). Through the Youngblood family, Killens details the racism with which southern African Americans had to contend and explores the various ways through which they circumvented, confronted and diffused its effects, while fully maintaining their dignity. This is not a protest novel pleading, but a revealing and passionate document concerning the real ways African Americans garner that inner strength in order to combat the social, economic, educational and religious dictates fully against them. Sexism, racism and class privilege is equally confronted here, as is the offered principle that organized alliances comprise the response needed to eradicate every condition.
And Then We Heard The Thunder (1962) is Killens' second epic. It involves the period during World War II, focusing on the tribulations of African Americans webbed into a segregated, racist military, from basic training in Georgia to battlefields throughout the South Pacific. Included in plot and theme is what columnist Drew Pearson called, "the worst kept secret of World War II," an actual three-day bloody confrontation between white and Black American soldiers in Australia.
With broad brushstrokes, Killens details a number of interconnected subthemes in his panoramic view of racist indignities. The novelist offers us a series of depictions here that explores human difference and narrow provincialisms --from suave New York hopefuls to gutbucket southern racists, from American segregationists to benignly tolerant Australians, from callous Jim Crowers to resentful inducted Black servicemen who actually urge Tojo's kamikaze pilots even in the midst of battle against them --the comparatives are there.
Solly Saunders, the novel's main protagonist, like several of the stronger side characters, undergoes a striking metamorphosis -- from wanting to be "the best damn soldier" in Uncle Sam's army to relinquishing his illusions in favor of making "common cause with his race"; from an accommodationist who "wanted to be accepted in the world of white folks" to a blossoming Black Nationalist willing to risk his life on behalf of his people's humanity.
'Sippi (1967), Killens' third epic, takes up where ...Thunder leaves off, covering the social struggles that had culminated into the Civil Rights period, from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s. The central metaphor, the African American refusal to bend any further to Jim Crow laws, as manifested in the book's title (from Miss-issippi to 'Sippi), serves as guidepost to the development of what Alain Locke called the New Negro (circa 1920s). Previously explored by Langston Hughes in his 1924 essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," the thesis is given further emphasis here as Black 'Sippians engage the local struggle for Human Rights. Killens uses the novel to document many of his own experiences growing up in Georgia, and thus produces what many critics view as a more realistic exploration into the lives of African Americans than any other novelist had previously attempted.
In the same breath, and through the character of the local plantation satrap, Charles James Richard Wakefield, Killens offers further insight into the progressive thinking of a changing "white" South that attempts to catch up with 20th Century thought. Inside of this scenario, he further outlines the pitfalls of reformist politics, where the semblance of progress, like Northern tokenism (i.e., just enough room for one at a time) is offered to African Americans (i.e., from colonialism to neocolonialism as seen through the character of Chuck Chaney), without the essential substance of human rights intended to be changed at all. In the midst of bombings, beatings, lynchings and other forms of indiscriminate murder, African Americans move to insist upon their voting rights as the least bloody method of gaining control over their own lives. Eventually, white aggression against Black rights forces a revolutionary outbreak as proper climax, but from Killens' view, not so much out of vengeance but as baptism to the transformation toward a more humane world.
The Cotillion: or one good bull is half the herd (1971) changes venue from the southern African American experience to a late 1960s northern one, New York City, Manhattan and Brooklyn, in which latter borough Killens had resided since the mid-1940s. Underneath this compelling comedy of misplaced values is a most serious sociological study of delusion as Killens successfully outlines the problem of a people engaged in life's struggles without an ideological frame from which to measure the engagement. The middle-class skin game among African Americans in their attempt to emulate white society is explored as metaphor to the need for self-definition. Similarly, the Afro version of a debutante's ball (the cotillion) serves as metaphor to the European yardstick that's been absorbed by African Americans while engaging that search for their own point of reference. The process of Africanizing the cotillion calls into question the validity of adopting someone else's rites of passage.
The Minister Primarily (unpublished) is actually Killens' last novel. The plot involves a comedy of errors in which an African American goes back to the motherland and returns to the States, New York, Washington, Mississippi, as a double for the Prime Minister of a small theretofore unknown nation, both of which (nation and Prime Minister) are targets of international intrigues and counterplots. Here he engages the search for a Pan-African self while exploring the pitfalls of our American lack of consciousness and the eagerness with which we grab at anything that runs counter to European models without sufficient thought given to what we're being led into.
Several of these books, by the way, have been translated into other languages, including Italian, Spanish, French, Chinese, Russian, Hungarian, German, etc.; in other words and to our collective shame, despite the way he's ignored here, his work continues to be studied in more than fourteen different languages across the planet. But it's not just his books. There's also his sense of being.
Born and raised in Macon, Georgia, educated in the Normal school system as well as at several colleges, John had developed an early and deep regard for literature and self. Once he gave up the idea of finishing law school in favor of writing as vocation, John became a disciple of truth and tall tales. Influenced by the writings of DuBois, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, E. Franklin Frazier, he grew to embrace the people as his only religion and liberation as his only god. After his tour of duty in World War II, he made his way into New York, where he eventually co-founded the Harlem Writers Guild in which he developed close associations with and literary influence upon several previously mentioned writers who had joined the Guild.
But it's not just his friends. There's also his sense of continual responsibility, which is not usually a part of the official record. Every college in which he had taught, John O., as he was affectionately called, practiced one of his long standing constants: to create the space for unregistered (meaning "non-paying") students from the local community to take part in his writing workshops. At Fisk, Howard and at Medgar Evers, he helped organize several major national writers' conferences and symposia during his respective tenures there, bringing together African American writers and lovers of literature and struggle to exchange public notes and private collaborations.
(I remember that right after his death, another poet, Sekou Sundiata, and I were talking on the phone about it all. And Sekou said, "You know, there's only one other writer I can think of who has had such a direct impact on so many generations of writers." And I said, yeah. "Yeah, Sterling Brown's the only other one I can think of.")
Just as significant is his far ranging impact beyond the circles of writers and workshoppers. Throughout his literary career, the home of John Oliver and Grace Killens remained refuge and meeting ground for the young and old, established and promising, among and between writers, musicians, actors, producers, dancers, painters, businessmen, politicians, students and activists, historians, journalists, statesmen, and exiled guerilla fighters of most persuasions, entering his home and sharing their moments with each other and with John O. The decor that surrounded them, posters, paintings, framed photographs and illustrations, woodcuts and statuettes from different parts of the African world, a wall full of books, personally autographed and otherwise, and several other walls filled with citations, plaques, awards --all of it testifying to the esteem in which this man with the curling smile, the turtle necked shirt and that map of African medallioned down his chest was held and beheld.
But as well there's one other persistent contradiction: John Oliver Killens was and was not the only writer ever to receive and not receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction three consecutive times, all in a row, and yet never receiving it once, even when critics were announcing that he was the only one who could get it. Each time he was nominated, his book would be the frontrunner all the way, yet by the end of the running there'd be no winner that year.
Look in the Almanac. Then check out these facts: There was no Pulitzer given for fiction in 1954, the year Youngblood raised the roof of literature to usher in a new and contending voice in American letters. The critics and the public hailed it but the committee refused it. Again, there was no Pulitzer given for fiction in 1964, the year that everyone knew And Then We Heard The Thunder was gonna cop it easy, since there were no other books that year worthy of (check it out!) even being nominated. His was the only one! ...Thunder, by the way, is one of the ten most highly praised novels, out of more than 1,000 written with WWII as backdrop, but again the committee didn't even wanna hear it.
Again, no Pulitzer for fiction in 1971, the year that The Cotillion was such a rave, even John's publisher was sure the nomination would turn into the prize. But the committee once again recorded itself as incapable and unwilling to acknowledge good solid African American fiction.
Since 1918, according to record, the Pulitzer committee has continuously made awards in fiction. Within the period 1918 through 1976, there were but eight instances where the committee did not make such an award: 1920, 1941, 1946, 1954, 1957, 1964, 1971, and 1974. In addition to the three times that John O. should have received the prize, it should be noted that 1941 was the year in which Richard Wright's Native Son was among the more talked about, highly lauded and better selling books around. These four mentioned books (the three by Killens, the one by Wright) are each considered classics in American fiction.
Further, Booth Tarkington (The Magnificent Ambersons, 1919; Alice Adams, 1922) and William 'racialist' Faulkner (A Fable, 1955; The Reivers, 1963) were the only novelists up through 1976 to receive the Pulitzer twice. Had the game been played fair, or the system and perspective we live with and under been clean, if this society were not racist, John Oliver Killens would have been the first novelist to have won that prize (the one that gets your books into the schools, required reading lists and into our children's hands) three consecutive times at bat. As it is, the committee, like the society under which it is housed, preferred to ignore the work rather than dispel the distortion that we can't and ain't supposed to do (!), to thus be recorded and understood accordingly.
Consequently, we see how it happens that someone like John Oliver Killens will take a position against the enslavement of our minds, like Paul Robeson, with no other choice but to bear the brunt of injustice, like Paul Robeson, and yet will continue to do what his conscience demands straight through to his death, even while he runs the risk of being pushed into obscurity through the callous indifference that racialist omission creates. And, as in the case of that student who did not know who Robeson was, we face generations of young and hungry minds who may not find out about John Oliver Killens until another teacher who cares to be in tune with life will order that student out of the classroom and into the library to learn it the hard way.
First published in New Rain, Vol. 9, (blind beggar press), 1999
About Louis Reyes Rivera
Known as the "Janitor of History," poet/essayist Louis Reyes Rivera has been studying his craft since 1960 and teaching it since 1969. The recipient of over 20 awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award (1995), a Special Congressional Recognition Award (1988), and the CCNY 125th Anniversary Medal (1973), Rivera has assisted in the publication of well over 200 books, including John Oliver Killens' Great Black Russian (Wayne State U., 1989), Adal Maldonado's Portraits of the Puerto Rican Experience (IPRUS, 1984), and Bum Rush The Page: A Def Poetry Jam (Crown Publishers, 2001).
Considered by many as a necessary bridge between the African and Latino American communities, he is a professor of Pan-African, African-American, Caribbean and Puerto Rican literature and history whose essays and poems have appeared in numerous publications, including Areyto, Boletin, The City Sun, African Voices, and in five award-winning collections: In Defense of Mumia; ALOUD: Live from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Of Sons And Lovers, Bum Rush The Page, and his own Scattered Scripture.
Since 1996, Rivera continues to host a bi-monthly 1st & 3rd Sundays Jazzoetry & Open Mic @ Sistas' Place (where he also conducts his writing workshop), in Brooklyn, and has appeared in Jazz clubs and festivals with The Sun Ra All-Stars Project, Ahmed Abdullah's Diaspora, and his own band, The Jazzoets. He has recently appeared on C-SPAN, as part of the REPARATIONS NOW! rally held in Washington, D.C., this past August 17th, and on Russell Simmons' DEF POETRY on HBO. Currently, Louis Reyes Rivera can be heard every Thursday, at 2pm, on radio station WBAI (99.5 FM), hosting his own weekly show, PERSPECTIVE.