Old Dogs Can Still Learn Tricks

Started from the bottom, now we here.

Started from the bottom, now we here.

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.

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Above is an image of a barbershop in which local community members come together and discuss important news and escape from their everyday lives. http://www.itsablackthang.com/images/ErnieBarnes/barber-shop.jpg

Black barbershops have always been a place where community members, young and old, come together and unite over a haircut. The overall experience of getting a haircut is actually much more than just a haircut. It is a time when people can converse and discuss anything from sports to politics.

There is quite a bit of activity going on in the above image. Some men are playing a simple game of checkers. Others are sitting quietly reading the newspaper to themselves. And then there is a young boy on the right side of the image who is getting his haircut. His mother seems to be peering over the barbers’ shoulder in an attempt to instruct the barber on how she wants her sons hair cut. All good mothers have at one point or another instructed a barber on the specifics on how they want their children’s haircut. The image truly illustrates that there is a lot going on in this barbershop just like many that are similar to this all across the world.

The image also shows that boys and men of all ages come and participate in this barbershop dynamic. There is a young boy, some middle aged men, and some senior citizens who are in the barbershop which creates a unique setting to discuss a wide variety of topics. Also, there are sports pennants on the walls as well as important newspaper articles that were important during that time.

The barbershop dynamic also plays itself out in one particular scene in John Oliver Killens’, The Cotillion. Matthew is involved in one scene in particular where his experience sheds light on what the barbershop dynamic is all about. The scene talks about how his experience was not nearly as simple as going for a haircut. He notices that a wide variety of topics are being discussed and that is what makes this experience one that is a learning experience. As Matthew puts it at one point, the conversations are “soul talk” more than anything.

The barbershop scene and the image of the barbershop truly are where boys and men can come together and bond over the shared experience of getting a haircut. I personally, have been going to a black barbershop for the past five years of my life with my two best friends who have grown up going to this same barber. When I enter the barbershop I immediately get a feeling of a community and felt like I was just “one of the guys”.

In summary, the barbershop dynamic is one that helps boys and men come together and get away from their daily lives even if just for thirty minutes. It truly is a valuable experience and one that brings the community closer together.

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Barnes, Ernie. “It’s a Black Thing.” 10 June 2008. Web. 20 March 2013. http://www.itsablackthang.com/images/ErnieBarnes/barber-shop.jpg

Nappy? Natural? Straight? Locks?

I Am Not My Hair by India Arie


The argument of hair is a commonly discussed topic within the African-American community, especially for women. Most Black women see hair as their crown and glory; something that is worthy of pride.  This pride of appearance is readily seen within the community, and even in John Killens’ book, The Cotillion.


In the song, “I Am Not My Hair” by India Arie, there is a portrayal of this common theme surrounding hair and its texture. The song opens open up with women laughing at Indie Arie because of what she had done to her hair. The song develops with Arie’s journey of her different hair styles, eventually going into the choir which simples states “I am not my hair, I am not this skin, I am not your expectations no” her response to the fact that hair is such a determinant. The women talking and laughing continues with some women agreeing with her hair choices, while other criticizing. The second verse describes how the writer feels about society’s view of hair and about a woman who has lost all of her hair because of chemotherapy, but performing in front of the camera confidently.


Growing up with my mom and grandma owning a hair salon, I can really say that I understand the views of women regarding their hair. Hair within the African-American (especially Black Women) community can also be linked with privilege. Regarding Arie’s song, women are very critical about their hair, no matter how it looks. Being nappy or natural to some is very unappealing to many because of the amount of work it takes to maintain.  India Arie’s own journey travels not only through time but also through hairstyles and stages in a female’s life. Within the transitioning of this song the author realizes that it is not the importance of the way the hair looks, but about what is beneath; what lies within. She speaks of a woman who has lost all of her hair, yet performing in front of thousands on television. This type of confidence deters from physical appearance, and moves to the whole individual.


Within John Killens’ book, The Cotillion, the main character Yoruba is seen being put through very crazy practices in order for her to be the perfect black woman in her mother’s eyes. Her mother is very infatuated with not only “keeping up with the Jones’” but being better than many of her “lower” counterparts. Yoruba’s mother portrays this societal view that appearance is everything, which is true to an extent. Her mother leaves no room for Yoruba to actually embrace the fact that she is black, and to embrace all of being black, and being one with her people, which at times she struggles with.


India Arie’s, “I Am Not My Hair,” is one of many songs that mentions the importance of being true to one’s self.  She also helps many Black women realize that it is very important to embrace yourself, and not just your outward appearance!



Killens, John. The Cotillion. Saint Paul: Coffee House Press, 2002. Print.



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A Fist For Africa: The Concept of Africa during the Black Arts Movement

Poster by Sindiso Niyoni

Poster by Sindiso Niyoni

Part of what came out of the Black Arts Movement was this response to previous notions that Africa was this primitive place that lacked history. The response that many African Americans made was to exaggerate their own images in a style that was “African”, but their concept of what was African was equally narrow-minded.

The picture above is titled My Africa Is and features the neck and face of a woman who is presumably African. Behind her is an orange background with some kind of patterned design. The border of the picture is brown and at the bottom is the title of the work in alternating colors of orange and purple.

The woman does not face forward but presents the audience with her profile. Her eyes are closed and her mouth is slightly open. She wears what appear to be tight gold necklaces around a long neck and a large orange hoop hangs from her ear. Her hair is cut short with a small bush in the back and from the top of her head, her hair takes on the shape of a closed fist.

The closed fist is a symbol that rose out of the Black Arts Movement. It symbolizes the want of unity between African Americans and solidarity. It was also seen as a symbol for resistance against anything associated with white mainstream ideals. Part of this solidarity included embracing African culture however, this culture was construed into a narrow concept by African Americans. This narrow-mindedness can be seen throughout The Cotillion by John Oliver Killen where characters advocated for things such as natural hair and afros versus straight hair.

The fact that this woman is dressed is what appears to be traditional African garb can represent how people in America viewed people from Africa. Instead of the previous approach where it was mainstream to view Africans as exotic and “other”, African Americans portray the African people as proud. While the woman in this picture is portrayed proudly, the art and dress from the Black Arts movement fails to represent a broader idea of Africa. Black art at the time suggests that Africans dressed and carried out their daily lives in only one way, ignoring the wide spectrum of African culture.

Solidarity was a major focus for most African Americans especially during the Black Arts Movement. Part of this togetherness was to embrace the concept of Africa and adopt it.

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