The saying goes, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks;” John Oliver Killens had something to prove.
The above picture is a representation of the Harlem Writers Guild. The Harlem Writers Guild was started in 1950, by a group of black authors, including: Rosa Guy, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Willard Moore, Walter Christmas, and our very own John Oliver Killens.
Killens was a man of many hats. He began his life in Macon, Georgia with parents who focused on education and an appreciation of black culture. The path that Killens took to becoming a founding member of the Harlem Writers Guild was not the path that most novelists take. Before World War II, Killens ( who was born in 1916), John Oliver bounced around the education system after graduating from one of the only black secondary schools in Georgia. Killens made stops at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida; Morris Brown College in Atlanta; and Howard University in Washington, D.C. before he dropped out of Robert H. Terrell Law School before his final year.
After serving 4 years in WWII, Killens was awarded the position of master sergeant. Then came the writing. Killens had a lot of experiences, and had a knack for putting them onto paper in story form. When he, along with his friends living in NYC, started the Harlem Writers Guild, Killens wrote about maintaining black dignity and securing rights. Youngblood (1954) was practically written by the Harlem Writers Guild, as most of the work they did was in a small apartment.
Then Killens wrote another novel about being black in the military. And Then We Heard Thunder (1963) was often thought of as Killens’ autobiography. This novel delved into the hardships of war and the acts of racism that occurred even between brothers in arms.
In 1971, Killens comes out with The Cotillion or One Good Bull is Half the Herd. This novel unlike any of the novels that Killens had written previously. After years, nay, decades of writing novels about the hardships of blacks in a white society, Killens decided to write about something that was being greatly overlooked.
The dichotomy between those in the radical black power movement and those attempting to further their careers and lives through running with the “in crowd” proved to be a very interesting one within the black community in the 1960’s. The Cotillion was a deviation from the norm for the Harlem Writers Guild. Killens had seen enough of the changing black society and wanted to make sure the world knew of it. He chose to use satire to depict the social construct of black society in the 60’s. Killens also chose to write from the perspective of a woman. Yoruba, the protagonist in Killens’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel, gives a good perspective of both the socialite climbing of her mother, while also respecting the militancy of her “Captain.”
Killens changed the style in which he wrote because of the fact that he saw situations in society that he needed to address. I think that he used satire because a book that was too harsh on either movement (social climbing v. militancy) would have been deemed “against the cause.”
“Harlem Writers Guild.” N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2013.
Old Dogs Can Still Learn Tricks by Lee Hopcraft is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.