JOHN OLIVER KILLENS was bom on January 14, 1916, in Macon, Georgia.He was exposed from an early age to black American literature by his parents and by his schoolteachers, thereby gaining knowledge of traditional black mythology and folklore, which later appeared in his writings. He attended a variety of universities and law schools while working for the National Labor Relations Board ( 1936-42); but after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II as a member of the Pacific Amphibian Forces, he abandoned the idea of becoming a lawyer and concentrated on writing instead.
After the war Killens returned to his job with the Labor Board, but became increasingly cynical about the possibility of harmony between white and black workers. Around 1950 he formed an informal writing group (later to become the Harlem Writers Guild) where he read portions of his first novel, Youngblood ( 1954), dealing with the coming of age of Robby Youngblood in a Southern black family. It was generally well received, as was his second novel, And Then We Heard the Thunder ( 1962), about the treatment of black soldiers in the military. Killens drew upon his own experiences in the army for many of the details and incidents of this work, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
In the late 1950s Killens began work in film and theatre. He collaborated on the screenplay for the films Odds against Tomorrow ( 1959) and Slaves ( 1969), cowrote (with Loften Mitchell) the unpublished play Ballad of the Winter Soldier ( 1964), and wrote Lower Than the Angels, an unpublished play produced in New York in 1965.
Killens enunciated a number of his social and political positions in a collection of essays called Black Man's Burden ( 1965), in which he denounces nonviolent protest to racial oppression as ineffective. This position is illustrated in 'Sippi ( 1967), his third novel, concerning the issue of voting rights during the 1960s.
In The Cotillion; or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd ( 1971) Killens attacks the black middle class, which, he claims, is disconnected from African