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The Thunder Of Protest Without the Lightning of Art

By Jonathan Yardley
Thursday, July 24, 2003

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

"And Then We Heard the Thunder," the second novel by John Oliver Killens, is the African American "From Here to Eternity." Published in 1963, it portrays the lives of black soldiers during World War II much as James Jones's far-better-known novel portrays the lives of white soldiers. Both books are raw, crude, overwrought and overweight, yet undeniably powerful. Jones's book is now probably best known for the fine movie adaptation released in 1953; Killens's never got to the screen, though one shudders to imagine what the right director could make of the bloody race riot that is its climax.

I first read Killens's book soon after it appeared, in a great gulp of emotion. A couple of years earlier I had become caught up in the civil rights movement; I was eager for books that could help me understand the black experience in America. I was also 22 years old and a sucker for novels that delivered high-octane emotion, so "And Then We Heard the Thunder" bowled me over.

Reading the book for the first time in four decades, I bring to it an undiminished interest in its subject matter but a sharpened critical viewpoint. "And Then We Heard the Thunder," alas, is the first book in this Second Reading series that does not hold up to my original judgment of it. As a work of protest and propaganda, it remains impressive and moving, but as a work of literature, it has large flaws. As was pointed out in many of the 1963 reviews (some of which are reprinted at the end of the Howard University Press paperback edition), too many of its characters fail to rise above stereotype; they are walking tracts, speaking for ideas or points of view rather than as individuals. The prose too often is hyperventilated, which may be appropriate to the deep anger that motivates the book but makes reading it an exhausting undertaking. There is too much talk talk talk, so that the narrative line often gets lost amid the chatter.

Still, it is an important book. Though Killens no longer has a significant readership, he played a large part in the postwar development of African American literature, a point that is made convincingly in a new study, "Liberation Memories: The Rhetoric and Poetics of John Oliver Killens," by Keith Gilyard (Wayne State University Press). Gilyard argues that Killens's influence on younger black writers, both as exemplar and as mentor, was substantial. "And Then We Heard the Thunder" commands attention for its detailed depiction of life in segregated Army units and, even more, for its ruthlessly honest account of how black soldiers were simultaneously loyal to their country and outraged at being ordered "to fight a democratic war with a racist Army" on behalf of a country that denied them the very rights for which they fought.

The novel arose, as all of Killens's fiction did, from personal experience. Killens was born in Georgia in 1916, into a family that valued literature and the arts. His original ambition was to be a lawyer, and after a couple of years in college in the mid-1930s he took a job with the National Labor Relations Board in Washington. He studied the law but joined the Army early in the war and never got his law degree. Instead, inspired by his years in the service and the discrimination he encountered there, he embarked on a career as writer and political activist. He helped found the Harlem Writers Guild in 1950 and came under the influence of W.E.B. Du Bois. He took to heart, Gilyard writes, the words Du Bois wrote in his essay "Criteria of Negro Art":

"All art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent."

Killens himself said, "Art is functional," and he spent his entire career seizing, in Gilyard's words, "every opportunity he could to push the idea that African American writers should place their creative energies in the service of black liberation efforts." He did this in his own work, both novels and essays, and he became a frequent participant in conferences of black writers. Over and over he insisted on what Gilyard calls "the production of positive, optimistic, affirming black literature," and he "invariably stressed black nobility and heroism."

As is made plain by "And Then We Heard the Thunder," Killens had his own definitions of "positive," "optimistic" and "affirming." He was anything except a Pollyanna. What the black men affirm in this novel is their manhood and their right to assert it, by violent protest if necessary. Their path to that affirmation is charted by the protagonist, Solomon "Solly" Saunders Jr., who as a boy had been brought to Harlem from Georgia and now "had spent two years in law school and also aspired to be a writer." He is smart, ambitious and newly married to the beautiful Millie, "the only daughter of one of the 'first' families of Brooklyn, colored, that is," prominent members of the upwardly mobile black middle class that Killens subsequently satirized in his novel "The Cotillion."

Solly enters the Army with plans for "winning the Democratic War." He believes that "all you have to do is have the right attitude and play ball by the rules of the game," and that the war transcends the discrimination blacks face at home. "We're Americans first, aren't we?" he says, "Americans first and Negroes incidentally. . . . We Americans have a common enemy and we have no time for family squabbles. We can settle them later." Encouraged from afar by Millie, he persists in this rosy view even after his unit is sent to Georgia. Soon, though, local customs force him to reexamine his assumptions. Trying to get back to base from town, he and other black soldiers watch with rising fury as bus after bus refuses to board them "as long as there were white soldiers to get on." The first step in his radicalization has been taken:

"He looked at the faces of the other Negro soldiers, angry and sullen. His ears picked up the grumbled cusswords under their breaths. Why in the hell didn't they do something about it? Why did they stand there night after night in the Army of the United States and let themselves be robbed of the dignity of being a soldier or serving their country or being a man? He summoned up the deepest kind of hatred and contempt for them and for himself. Why in the hell didn't he do something?"

Back on the base, after a brutal beating by whites, he decides to act. He and two other soldiers write a letter of protest and send it to various places. One black newspaper publishes it: "We are Negro enlisted men but all of our officers are white and mostly Southern and mostly rabid Negro-haters. . . . We are voices crying out in a wilderness of hostility and undemocracy, victims of a cruel, sadistic, perverted and hypocritical hoax. Some of us feel that we do not need to go four or five thousand miles away to do battle with the enemies of Democracy. They are present here and now and spitting in our faces. . . ." The radicalization of Solly Saunders is complete:

"He felt he'd been like an innocent virgin when he came into the service, and the Army had brutishly raped him of his youth, his faith, his idealism. His great ambition. He'd never believe in anything again. Never ever. He was old and disillusioned. He would never dream again."

Instead, he comes to believe in something else. Shipped to the South Pacific, trained in amphibious warfare, he finds himself in a terrible battle, acts heroically and is severely wounded. Recovering at a hospital in Australia, he is given a copy of Richard Wright's "12 Million Black Voices." It "was the most beautiful and the most lucid book he had ever experienced," and it changes him:

"One day he was reading the book and it suddenly came to him, and he said to himself, if I'm proud of me, I don't need to hate Mister Charlie's people. I don't want to. I don't need to. If I love me, I can also love the whole damn human race. Black, brown, yellow, white. . . . He looked around at the other soldiers in his ward, most of them white, and he loved the whole damned miserable wonderful human race."

Unfortunately, most of the white soldiers don't love him back. Murderous violence breaks out between white and black GIs in Brisbane -- the scene in the novel is based on an actual event -- and Solly takes up arms with his black compatriots. So too does the Jewish lieutenant from New York, Bob Samuels, whose expressions of sympathy for blacks Solly had mistrusted. As the battle rages (and rage is the word for it) Solly tells himself that "Bob Samuels had chosen sides and Bob was his friend and Bob was his country, the best part of it, the healthiest portion . . . he wanted desperately to believe, goddamit, it was his country as much as it was anybody else's, and he loved it angrily and critically, and he hated the phony patriots, the goddamn goose-stepping flag-waving patriots, who really loved the status quo more than they loved the country and its promises unfulfilled."

Those are powerful words, words that certainly express the emotions felt by countless thousands of black men who volunteered or were drafted to fight for this country during World War II, not to mention Korea and Vietnam: pride in their country and themselves, fury at being sent into battle at the back of the bus. Those who survived brought their anger and determination home with them, and it was upon this foundation that the civil rights movement in large measure was built. "And Then We Heard the Thunder" was one of the first books to articulate the rage and frustration these men felt, and as such it is a document of considerable historical and cultural importance.

As a work of fiction, it is, as noted, considerably less satisfactory. Killens was a gifted storyteller (he wrote the screenplay for Harry Belafonte's successful film of 1959, "Odds Against Tomorrow") but he was not given the gift of subtlety. What he meant as irony too often took the form of sarcasm, and he never quite overcame his inclination toward stereotypes, "good" black ones as well as "bad" white ones. He was also the prisoner of his own artistic convictions; what drove him -- what drove Du Bois and all those white "proletarian" novelists of the 1930s -- was not art but politics, and the two are poles apart. It is worth noting that Du Bois, one of the most brilliant essayists and prose writers this country has known, was a mediocre novelist. It is a rare novelist indeed -- Charles Dickens, Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- who makes art out of politics; in most hands, politics smothers art.

In "And Then We Heard the Thunder," Killens comes closest to art when he describes Solly's painful awakening to the racial realities of his time and place and when he writes about men fighting each other, whether on the battlefield or in a race riot; these scenes are vivid and wholly believable. When he tries to use fiction to score political or ideological points, he lapses into rhetoric and stereotype.

This is a pity, but it is no less a pity that he has been allowed to disappear from the literary landscape -- incredibly, he does not rate an entry in the current edition of "The Oxford Companion to American Literature" -- because he was a substantial figure not merely in his own right but also in the work of those other writers who profited from his example and support.

"And Then We Heard the Thunder" is available in a Howard University Press paperback ($15.95).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.

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