Killens On Writing,Afro-Russians and Apartheid
Editor’s Note: John Oliver Killens, would have turned 100 years old this year. I could not let the year get away without a tribute to his legacy as a leading African American writer in the 20th century. What follows is my interview of Killens which was published in The Macon Courier in 1979. He transitioned 8 years later.
John Oliver Killens, a short stately man, wore a blue turtleneck shirt with a pair of tan jeans, which matched the complexion of his skin. A silver medallion of the African continent hung from his neck and came to rest just below his chest. His brown eyes probed with intensity when not hidden by a pair of black-framed glasses. The round clean-shaven face and reddish hair with a touch of gray belied his 63 years.
He sat comfortably in his hotel chair, legs crossed, hands forming an arch in front of his face. He raised slightly, then said, “The future belongs to Black children.”
The writer is accompanied by Grace, his Afro-haired wife. They are on a winter vacation from the rigorous chore of writing and editing books respectively.
This 1979 vacation took them to Soul City, North Carolina where the Killens sit on the board of directors and to Atlanta, Georgia where they attended the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid.
Killens was born in Macon, Georgia’s Pleasant Hill community in 1916. He was educated at Hudson High. He left the city to attend Morris Brown College and never returned to stay. He did further study at Howard University, New York University and Columbia. He was pursuing a career in law when the army interrupted his studies.
On the day of this interview, Killens’ keen and sensitive mind was far ranging. The writer spoke on a plethora of topics.
Like Alex Haley, Killens began to write while in the service of his country. He came to feel that he could “Help the human condition by writing.”
“Writers,” Killens slowly said, write out of a sense to change the world.”
Most writers, Killens believes “Are revolutionary in nature. They end up being run out of their country, that has not happened to me yet, but time will tell.”
Killens, the author of ten books said, “The commitment of every writer is to change the world.”
When Killens is writing his day begins at dawn. He has breakfast and writes until 1 p. m. He bypasses lunch; yet will journey downstairs for a glass of juice. If it is the time of year that he drinks it, usually in the fall and winter months, he will have a cup of coffee.
Back upstairs he goes until the 6 o’clock news is beamed on his television set. After which he eats dinner. Occasionally he will watch a basketball game if one is on television. It is his favorite spectator sport. Then back upstairs for another writing session. He sleeps and rises again at dawn to create fiction out of the reality his eyes have seen and the thunder his ears have heard.
In the summer months, Killens packs his typewriter and goes to a writer’s colony in Connecticut. There he writes undisturbed all day.
He forever works at the writer’s trade. When he is not writing he is reading. When he is being interviewed, he interviews the interviewer.
The eyes of the writer widens as he talks of his recently completed manuscript.
“I have just finished a novel about the life and times of Alexander Puskins, the great Afro-Russian writer,” he said.
His face turned to dismay as he recounted how this novel has been rejected by three American publishers, while “publishers in the Soviet Union are clamoring to publish it.”
Killens said there are enough black millionaires in Atlanta for him not to ever have to worry about getting his work published.
“The American publishers do not want to publish it because they don’t want Blacks to know that Puskins was an Afro-Russian,” gingerly said the omnipresent wife from across the room.
The writer added, “I would much rather have it published here and translated in the Soviet Union.”
“We,” the writer, speaking of himself and pretty wife Grace said, “will send it off again when we return to New York. I believe it will be published in the fall.” (Great Black Russian: A Novel on the Life and Times of Alexander Puskins, was published by Wayne State University Press in 1989, two years after Killens’ death).
“The 60s was the time of the Black writer. When Blacks stopped being in the streets, publishers stopped publishing Black writers. The 70s was the time of the women’s liberationist. But that will change with the coming of the 80s. I think the 80s will make the 60s look like a Sunday school picnic,” the writer said.
He is concerned about Apartheid: “South Africa is the last frontier. It is one of the richest spots in the world.”
“America,” the writer believes, “is in cahoots with South Africa. They wanted Andrew Young to help placate the situation.”
“When war breaks out in South Africa, I can’t conceive of a single Black soldier going over there to fight,” thrusted the writer.
“The South African government is intransient which will lead to a bloodbath,” he predicted (Apartheid collapsed with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990, three years after Killens death).
Killens was inspired by Dr. W. E. B. Dubois. He thinks the Dubois statement on the colour line at the close of the 19th century is “just as true today as the day he wrote it.”
Dubois wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line-the relations of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia, in Africa, in America, and the islands of the sea.”
Killens credits his unbounded faith in the future to a 1915 statement written by his mentor Dubois. A smile flashed across his face as he quoted it. “Most men in this world are coloured. A belief in humanity means a belief in coloured men. The future will, in all reasonable possibility, be what coloured men make it.”
“The 21st century belongs to young men like you,” Grace Killens softly said.
“You will be responsible for humanity,” forewarned the writer.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper puzzle and Justice in the Round; and the host of Beyond the Law with Harold Michael Harvey. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com.