The surprising alliance at the heart of John Oliver Killens
In 1967, a failed playwright named Harold Cruse published The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, his provocative dissection of black culture. A fierce opponent of integration, Cruse turned a caustic eye on Lorraine Hansberry, Paul Robeson, and nearly every other prominent black thinker of his era (and those that came before it; the Harlem Renaissance, in his view, produced no work of real merit). He reserved special loathing, however, for a novelist by the name of John Oliver Killens. “Neither the originator of a single new concept, style, or exposition whether in literature or politics,” Cruse carped, “Killens has been the neutralizing temporizer, the non-controversial, moderating lid-sitter par excellence.”
A close associate of Malcolm X—he helped found the Organization of Afro-American Unity—Killens seems an unlikely target for Cruse. His fiction, moreover, baldly reflected his politics. In 1963, he’d captured public attention with And Then We Heard the Thunder, a novel based, in part, on his experiences as a soldier during WWII. Praised by critics for its stunning depiction of racism within the army—Jonathan Yardley called it “one of the few distinguished novels about World War II”—the book was short-listed for the Pulitzer and popularized when black celebrities like Sidney Poitier, who was a friend of Killens, publicly endorsed it.
In summary, Thunder sounds more like a shelved blaxploitation flick than the sort of uplifting tome that might bear Oprah’s seal of approval: in the early 1940s, an intelligent, idealistic black law student, Solomon Saunders, joins the military, certain he’ll rise through the ranks and be “the best damn soldier in the army.” A military police colonel thinks differently: “You are nothing but a nigger, nigger,” he screams, as he beats Solly unconscious. Months later, during R&R in Bainbridge, Australia, Solly’s fellow African-American soldiers decide they’ve had enough abuse. They pile into tanks and trucks, arm themselves with machine guns and grenades and launch an all-out attack on the “peckerwoods,” the racist whites. Soon, bullet-riddled American corpses line Bainbridge’s tidy streets.
Pretty strong stuff for a “non-controversial lid-sitter,” right? Still, though Killens was as willing as anyone to embrace violence as means of social action, Cruse lambasted him, partly for his willingness to exempt Jews from peckerwood status. The plot of Thunder turns on Solly’s friendship with his lieutenant, Robert Samuels, an old-school New York liberal in the style of Irving Howe. Samuels ultimately joins forces with the black soldiers—“Make up your mind . . . what color you are,” Solly barks at him during the climactic scene, as bullets spin through the air around them—and the novel ends with Samuels and Solly arm in arm.
“Note the flicker of the twin-image,” Cruse wrote of Killens, “the Negro-Jewish identity-exchange motif.” (It doesn’t take a critic to note the similarity between Samuels’ and Saunders’ names.) Killens’ openness toward Jews, according to Cruse, compromised his politics, making him “possessed of an intellectual, literary, and creative duality [he] refuse[s] to admit.”
John Oliver Killens photographed by Carl Van Vechten, June 8, 1954
Killens’ life was, indeed, defined by duality, but of a different sort. From a young age, he was interested equally in politics and literature. Born in 1916 in Macon, Georgia, he devoured Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson while still in short pants; his mother was president of the local Dunbar Literary Club. Though he stood out academically—finishing third in his high school class—he was more than willing to fight when white boys came taunting. “We fist-fought, we rock-battled, we laid on each other with sticks and baseball bats, and everything else that came to hand,” Killens recalled in Black Man’s Burden, a collection of essays.
After a stint at local colleges, Killens went to work for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., and took classes at Howard University. Like his alter-ego, Solly Saunders, he made it through two years of law school, studying at night, before signing up for the army in 1942. The war over, he returned to the U.S., a bit more jaded and worldly, and began organizing for the CIO—grueling, frustrating work, which further inspired him to write.
In 1950, before he’d even published a word, Killens founded the Harlem Writers’ Guild, an influential organization, still in existence today, which jumpstarted the careers of Maya Angelou, Paule Marshall, and Alice Childress, to name just a few. Four years later, Killens’ epic first novel, Youngblood, became the Guild’s first big success. Though deeply autobiographical—Killens drew heavily from his Southern childhood and his family history—the novel also served as a vessel for Killens’ political beliefs, which were radical and pro-labor, though not party-line Communist. In a pattern that would continue throughout his career, critics praised Killens’ passion and politics, but found fault with his style. Granville Hicks, writing in The New York Times, described the novel as “often tiring, and at moments flatly didactic.”
Still, Youngblood established Killens as a full-fledged member of America’s black intellectual elite. Soon, he counted among his friends Hansberry, James Baldwin, and Harry Belafonte. At the same time, bolstered by the publishing industry’s mounting interest in black writers, the Harlem Writers’ Guild grew by leaps and bounds—with Killens as chief mentor and workshop leader. “I didn’t seriously think of writing until John gave me his critique [of my first poems],” Maya Angelou recalled in The Heart of a Woman, her 1981 memoir. “After that I thought of little else.”
Meanwhile, Killens was also attracting attention outside the black community. He found a supporter in writer and director Herbert Biberman, a member of the Hollywood Ten, and worked with Abe Polonsky, the screenwriter responsible for the classic noir Force of Evil and I Can Get It for You Wholesale, perhaps the only mainstream movie to chronicle the absurd perils of the rag trade. Polonsky’s Communist views (codified in Force of Evil and his World War II movie Golden Earrings) had landed him on Hollywood’s blacklist. With Killens as front, the two writers collaborated on the screenplay for Odds Against Tomorrow, a smart caper in the masterminding-the-perfect-crime mold. The mastermind in this case signs on two wily snakes to help him with a bank raid. One is Harry Belafonte. The other is a racist white. Tensions mount.
And then came Thunder. The product of a decade’s work, the novel hit bookstores in 1963, electrifying and exasperating readers across the country. As usual, critics quibbled with Killens’ style, while praising his narrative as “earthy” and “powerful.” But, weird as it seems in hindsight, no one found it remarkable that blacks and Jews might take up arms against the peckerwood majority (that is, until Harold Cruse came along). Today, the novel reads as occasionally wooden and thoroughly misogynist, but it perfectly captures the 1960s atmosphere of simmering racial conflict.
Perhaps the most prescient aspect of the novel concerns not the uplifting, but the uneasy aspects of Solly’s friendship with Samuels, who considers himself the best friend a black soldier could have. Solly continually challenges Samuels’ claims of ethnic empathy and rejects his liberal platitudes. “You think I don’t know how you feel, goddammit? I’m a Jew . . . I know how you feel goddammit!” the lieutenant insists. “You don’t know shit!” Solly replies. “. . . you want all the prerogatives of being white and want me to love and trust you like you’re colored. I’m your buddy as long as I say das right boss, and yassa boss. Well that’s the coldest shit in town!”
Still, the novel ends with the two soldiers arm in arm—along with a few other stragglers, of various ethnicities—squatting on the streets of Bainbridge. “Sit down, mates, and make yourself at home. This is the place where the New World is,” Solly says.
In 1971, eight years after Thunder‘s release, Bernard Malamud came out with a dark, searing novel called The Tenants about two writers—one Jewish, one black—struggling to finish books in the decaying husk of a New York tenement. In rather less bombastic fashion, Malamud covers much of the ground pioneered by Killens in Thunder. Like Solly, his black writer, Willie Spearmint, is ambivalent toward Jews. But Malamud’s creation—portrayed by Snoop Dogg in a recent movie version—bears a greater resemblance to Killens himself, in that his stylistics aren’t always as powerful as his ideology. Lesser, Malamud’s Jewish writer, sees in Spearmint’s work “irrelevancy, repetition, underdeveloped material . . . mistakes of arrangement and proportion, ultimately of focus.” The same could be said of Thunder, and Killens’ oeuvre generally. If Stendhal was right that politics in a novel is like a pistol shot in a concert, Killens rolls a tank into an opera house. But then Killens lived in a time when this was a real possibility.
In the late 1970s, the early hopes of the civil rights movement crashed and burned or were sadly co-opted by the mainstream. Fewer and fewer readers identified with Killens’ message. “Protest literature . . . fell out of vogue,” explains Keith Gilyard, Killens’ biographer, and some African Americans, influenced by Cruse, doubted Killens’ political sincerity and artistic taste. Meanwhile, many white liberals—Jews among them—weren’t prepared to take up arms as per Killens’ vision. He couldn’t find a publisher for his final novel, about Pushkin’s black roots, before dying in 1987.
In the years following Thunder, though, he continued to teach, and developed a following of devoted students (the Web is rife with remembrances and appreciations). In the late 1960s, Killens worked for Hollywood again, enlisted by Biberman, penning Slaves, an epic saga of the antebellum South starring Dionne Warwick that failed at the box office and with reviewers. Killens’ fiction, over the years, remained radical, and though today many literary critics dismiss him as a propagandist, he wouldn’t have objected to that characterization. For Killens, art and politics were utterly entangled. He could not—would not—write without a political purpose. “There is no such thing as art for art’s sake,” he said. “All art is propaganda, although there is much propaganda that is not art.”
Other African-American writers—Hansberry, novelist Chester Himes, playwright Theodore Ward—envisioned coalitions between African Americans and Jews, but no one imagined such a bloody (or fundamentally American) union as Killens did. Though the time is long past for anyone to be naïvely idealistic about these two groups teaming up to save America from itself, Thunder remains a reminder of the longing for connection on both sides. One year before James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman died together in the name of civil rights, Killens’ mirror-image characters, Saunders and Samuels, were killing together—picking off the proponents of American racism, one by one. If Killens will be remembered for nothing else, let him be remembered at least for this: that his belief in the necessity of violent rebellion did not come at the expense of the Jews.