John Oliver Killens was an American writer and activist known for his politically charged novels and his contributions to the Black Arts Movement and as a founder of the Harlem Writers Guild.
Killens was born January 14, 1916, in Macon, Georgia, to Charles Myles Killens Sr., a restaurant manager, and Willie Lee Coleman, an insurance company clerk. His parents were well-read and kept on top of the latest trends and events important to African-Americans. His mother introduced him to the work of poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar when he was a young boy. The Jim Crow laws had an enormous impact on Killens’ political and social outlook; it was the source of many of his writings.
Killens attended several colleges and universities. He ultimately graduated from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree and then pursued a law degree by taking evening classes at Terrell Law School. He was interrupted while attending Terrell by military service during World War II. While serving, he encountered intense racism in the South Pacific, which later inspired his novel And Then We Heard the Thunder.
He wrote six novels for adults. His works include Black Man’s Burden, essays on race in America; Great Black Russian, a biographical work on the poet Alexander Pushkin; and two books for young readers, Great Gittin’ Up Morning, a biography of Denmark Vesey; and A Man Ain’t Nothin’ but a Man (1975), which recounts the adventures of John Henry. Killens also wrote plays, screenplays, and numerous articles and short stories.
With his work came several honors, which include the vice presidency of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a Distinguished Writer Award from the Middle Atlantic Writers Association. The Before Columbus Foundation, which sponsors the American Book Awards, cited Killens for lifetime achievement in 1985. He is also a member of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. John Oliver Killens died on October 27, 1987.