In his first published novel, "Young-blood," John O. Killens looked at a small Georgia town and showed how the high-school students, the hotel bellboys and the factory workers would lead the fight against racism.
That was May, 1954, the same week the Supreme Court decided that school segregation was illegal. History was about to change, Killen's way. But, it was still too early for many people, like Killens' publisher, to accept his vision.
"He said black folks in the South aren't acting like that. I was talking about blacks I knew," Killens, a son of Macon, Ga., recalled yesterday. "Then a few months later, it was Montgomery, Ala. and a tired seamstress was saying I'm not going to take this anymore! Then he saw those working-class folks rise up."
Before another man of the same Georgia soil, Martin Luther King Jr., spoke of the leadership of the little people. Killens knew that they were the ones, that later the intellectuals would document their actions. He was ahead of his time, though he doesn't put it quite so bluntly. In his next six books, Killens focused on the emotions of ordinary people - the soldiers, the sharecroppers and the students, more recently returned to heros - Denmark Vesey, the antebellum or ganizer; John Henry, the legendary black railman; and Alexander Pushkin, the novelist.
Though he considers New York the cultural center of this country, he has become an equally well-known literary personality here. He is now writer-in-residence at Howard University. And that's a change from the first time he lived in Washington, at age 19, employed as a clerk at the National Labor Relations Board. But because his looks are ordinary, and he doesn't flaunt his famous connections, Killens can walk down 14th Street with a bag of groceries and look like that clerk of 40 years ago. He's very much a part of the pulse of the ordinary people.
And just as the ordinary people have been hurt by the political and economic conservatism of the '70s, so has Killens. Publishing has tightened up; the movies have lost their pride, the artists some of their spirit.
"In New York City you can see black men with curlers and wide-brim hats with built-in processed sideburns.That's counter-revolutionary to all that was said in the '60s. But it's not only the movies," said Killens. "In the '60s, all the black writers could get published, good, bad or indifferent. Now the publishers act like the '60s were an aberration, they think a lot of things were childish. While some of the writing might have been outrageous, the times were outrageous."
Killens- analysis of the conservatism of the '70s, and his own problems getting his work on Alexander Pushkin published are aprt of a lecture he is giving this afternoon at 3 at the Wilson Center, 15th and Irving Streets NW. Killens is the best known of a dozen writers, filmmakers, musicians and political activists participating in a weekend of cultural seminars, sponsored by the Salt of the Earth, a community cultural group.
Besides Killens, Sonia Sanchez, Antar Sudan Katara Mberi, Larry Neal, E. Ethelbert Miller and Denise Oliver will read their works from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Eloise Greenfield, a children's book author will read at 4 p.m.; Haile Gerima will discuss his film "Child of Resistance" at 5 p.m.; Fondo Del Sol&Osiris will present a bilingual presentation at 6 p.m.; and a discussion on human rights at 7 p.m. will include Isabelle Letellier, the widow of the Chilean di
In his lectures, Killens often asks where are the black long-distance runners, and he has certainly been on many projects. Right after his 41 months in the Army in World War II, Killens moved to New York, where he participated in the first meetings of the Harlem Writers Guild. The Guild nurtured poet Maya Angelou and playwright Douglas Turner Ward, among many others.
In the '60s, Killens' workshop at Fisk University produced writers such as Nikki Giovanni and Mignon Holland. In 1971, he watched the creation of the Howard University Institute for the Arts and Humanities, where he is curently writer-in-residence.
Killens has also written two screen-plays, "Odds Against Tomorrow" and "Slaves", a book on the black soldier in World War II, "And Then We Heard the Thunder," a book of essays, "Black Man's Burden," (banned by the South African governement), and "Cotillion," a satire that is being adapted for Broadway.
But his standing and success didn't help his latest project.
"Pushkin was considered the father of Russian literature. His grandfather had been an Ethiopian and he wrote about him; he was never ashamed of that African heritage. Most writers considered Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to be the giants but Dostoevsky himself said" - and Killens pulled out a notebook, reading - without Pushkin we should be lost."
Why, in this year of "Roots" would a black author have trouble getting published?
"The book hasn't been turned down as not acceptable, but they say "It's not viable," or "We wouldn't know how to promote you and Pushkin," said Killens, his voice reflecting the measured anger of a very patient man. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Chrag [WORD ILLEGIBLE] The Washington Post