Dr. John Oliver Killens - novelist, social critic, screenwriter, playwright and essayist - was the founding chairperson of the legendary Harlem Writers Guild, a workshop that strongly influenced such writers as Maya Angelou, Sarah E. Wright, Lonne Elder and Paule Marshall. Born in Macon, Georgia, Dr. Killens was himself influenced by his Southern experiences and reflected them in the themes and critical realism of his fiction. His work with the National Labor Relations Board (1936-1942), his service in the U.S. Army during World War II (1942-1945), and his deep commitment to a variety of civil rights and nationalist causes are important for understanding his artistic choices.
Dr. Killens is probably best known for his first two novels, Youngblood (1954) and And Then We Heard The Thunder (1962), the latter of which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His other works include Black Man's Burden (1965) - a collection of essays, 'Sippi (1967), The Cotillion; or One Good Bull Is Half The Herd (1971) - which was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and became the basis for the 1975 play Cotillion which was produced in New York by Woodie King's New Federal Theater, Great Gittin' Up Morning: Biography of Denmark Vesey (1972), A Man Ain't Nothin' But A Man: The Adventures of John Henry (1975), and the posthumously published The Great Black Russian: The Life and Times of Alexander Pushkin (1988).
In addition to his novels, Dr. Killens also occasionally wrote for both the cinema and the stage. He penned the screenplay for the 1969 film, Slaves, and authored the play, Lower Than The Angels, which was produced in New York in 1965. He also the co-wrote the screenplay for the 1960 film, Odds Against Tomorrow, and co-authored the play, Ballad of The Winter Soldier (1964).
During the 1970's, Dr. Killens served as the writer-in-residence at Howard University's Institute for the Arts and Humanities. He also taught at Fisk University, Columbia University, Bronx Community College and the New School for Social Research. He spent the final years of his life as the writer-in-residence at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.
Dr. Killens held a strong belief in the revolutionary power of writing and the need for people of color to bring their stories to light. That revolutionary power did not cease with the passing of the sixties, or the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Killens is quoted as saying:
"It is an interesting phenomenon that we black folks, as a people, have produced some of the most magnificent athletes the world has ever known, but have produced very few long distance runners. We've raised a whole lot of hell in the hundred yard dashes. You watch the Olympics and you see nothing but black brothers up there at the finish tape in the sprints. We have the fastest get-away known to man or womankind. At the same time, we have produced very few long distance runners. Long distance running requires planning, pacing, discipline, stamina and a belief in the ability to win everything over the long haul. Lasting power is the name of the game... We must evolve a generation of long distance runners, men and women, prepared to pay some dues for their children's children. Our people have paid some terrible dues for us to have come to this place and this moment in time and space."