Liberation Memories: The Rhetoric and Poetics of John Oliver Killens

When Black Writers Were on the Left

Keith Gilyard, Liberation Memories: The Rhetoric and Poetics of John Oliver Killens. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003).

“The Negro is nationalist to his heart and is perfectly right to be so,” pronounced the Trinidad-born Marxist C.L.R. James in 1945.1 This insight is critical to the anti-racist political strategy within the socialist tradition in the United States. It is also a principal theme of the writings of left-wing African American novelists, poets, and playwrights in the mid-twentieth century. These cultural workers of the “Old Left” sought to balance commitments to national liberation and international class solidarity in their novels, poems, and plays. The most bountiful years for writings that foreground such a symbiosis of anti-racism and the class struggle were arguably the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, when the reigning radical political trend among Black artists was pro-Communism.

Today, writers on the Black literary Left during the Great Depression and early World War II years are well-nigh secure in literary histories and biographies. Among the names that come to mind are Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Countee Cullen, Arna Bontemps, William Attaway, Theodore Ward, and Dorothy West. Nonetheless, Julian Mayfield, the late left-wing novelist, recalled in a 1970 oral history that “some of the finest Black talent was in the [Communist] Party during and after World War II.”2 Due to the ravages of McCarthyism, this group has met a very different fate.

Apart from Ann Petry, Audre Lorde, and Lorraine Hansberry, whose reputations are substantially coupled to the surge of interest in select women writers after the 1960s, the names of those whose careers are diversely linked to the late 1940s and 1950s pro- Communist Left are less familiar. Writers such as John Oliver Killens, Julian Mayfield, Willard Motley, Rosa Guy, Shirley Graham, Lloyd Brown, Sarah Wright, Lance Jeffers, Frank Marshall Davis, Alice Childress, Douglas Turner Ward, and Lonne Elder III, are nearly invisible in histories of cultural radicalism and especially in popular anthologies such as the 1997 Norton Anthology of African American Literature.

What is the basis of the decades-long affinity between Communism and the militant Black artist? A few years after he left the Communist Party, Mayfield offered some thoughts on the matter in the journal Freedomways:

On the Left the young Negro writer found a haven and encouragement that existed nowhere else for him. It was the Left that usually published his first story or produced his first play…[The Communist Party] broadened his perspective so that he saw his own struggle within the context of the world struggle for power between socialism and capitalism…

At the same time, Mayfield commented that the alliance was eventually doomed for those artists who continued to grow: “The Stalinist insistence on doctrinaire novels and plays, according to the ‘socialist realist’ theory, tended to cut the young writer off from other currents in literature which might have enriched his craftsmanship and heightened his art.”3

Beyond the artistic questions, episodic political crises also strained the alliance, usually ones associated with the policies of the Soviet Union, to which the leadership of the Communist Party was unbreakably loyal. Most significant, at the time of the second Popular Front, after the Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany in June 1941, anti-fascist unity with liberal democratic forces displaced militant anti-racism as a primary focus. Some of the pioneer Black Communist writers departed, such as Wright, Ellison, and Walker; but they were quickly replaced. Two very prominent figures, Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois, drew closer to the Communists after the 1930s, and they in turn were inspirational to a younger generation who would come to be associated with the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, the Harlem Writers Guild, the newspaper Freedom, and the journal Freedomways during the Cold War.

In due time a new kind of militant left-wing nationalism emerged in the 1950s out of the struggles against colonialism in Africa and Latin America, the debut of China as a world power, and the battle of the Vietnamese people to throw off the yoke of French and then U.S. imperialist domination. This rising tide of revolt, along with the re-energized Southern-based Civil Rights movement, came on the heels of the internal crisis of the Communist movement, precipitated by the Khrushchev revelations and the suppression by the USSR of the popular revolt in Hungary in 1956.

Even so, a residual loyalty to the past remained alive-enough to prevent most of the Black cultural workers from “naming names” or writing “tell all” exposés of Communism. But these African American veterans of the Old left mostly struck out on their own by the end of the 1950s. They became a current within the Black Arts Movement, and were politically drawn to heterodox revolutionary nationalists such as Malcolm X and James Boggs, as well as the Cuban, Chinese, and Vietnamese revolutions.

Other than Harold Cruse’s uneven and vindictive The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), very little of this history of the post-World War II Black literary radicalism has been recorded.4 In this context, the arrival of Liberation Memories, Keith Gilyard’s pioneering and illuminating study of the literary technique and themes of John Oliver Killens (1916-1987), merits signal attention. Gilyard’s accurate and lucid scholarship unveils not only an extraordinary artist and political figure who intellectually and artistically developed in the Communist movement after World War II; Gilyard’s book also opens the door to reclaiming an entire “lost generation” of Left-wing cultural workers who later helped to shape the Black Arts Movement, and whose writings embody innumerable lessons for socialist activists in the twenty-first century.

Gilyard’s method deserves particular accentuation because, while attentive to the earnest radical political commitments that animated Killens from his youth to his death, the case for Killens’s art is fashioned from a “rhetorical perspective.” Gilyard’s argument is that “Killens’s novels are best construed as tremendously artful renderings of African American rhetorical forms and.the richest readings of his novels involve a knowledge of Black verbal traditions” (2). For this procedure, Gilyard, himself a poet, enlists the categories of “vision,” “vehicle,” and “vernacular,” terms parallel to those from discussions of African American poetry during the 1960s and 1970s. The vision that Gilyard seeks to explore comprises “an argument about a view of the world”; the vehicle consists of “the most salient rhetorical devices used to carry the message” (such as the sermon and folktale, reoccurring metaphors and imagery, etc.); and the vernacular refers to “textual embellishments that derive from the linguistic, musical, folkloric and religious practices” (4).

The book, then, is not organized chronologically or biographically, but conceptually. Chapter One tackles Killens’s depiction of African American resistance in the South, primarily in his first and third novels, Youngblood (1954) and ‘Sippi (1967). Most poignant and distinguished is Killens’s focus on “positive and generative Black families” (9), notably their potential for defying the racist power structure. This was a literary move that reflected his own life experience, but it was also partly intended to counteract the despairing images of Black family life found in Wright’s Native Son and Ellison’s Invisible Man. Moreover, both of Killens’s southern novels deploy “sermonic” elements in diverse ways, with ‘Sippi placing the amplification of a folktale at center stage.

Chapter Two is more ideologically concentrated, in its exploration of Killens’s monumental World War II novel, And Then we Heard the Thunder (1962). For Gilyard, the primary narrative is that of the college-educated exemplar of Duboisian “double consciousness,” Solly Saunders, who eventually chooses community-based activism over upwardly-mobile individualism. At pains to refute the charge by some Black nationalist critics that Killens was in his early novels “integrationist,” Gilyard embraces the definition of “critical realism” promoted by critic Bernard Bell:

A certain Black nationalism is always part of Killens’s work; the Black folkloric, vernacular-laced tales and the community-oriented activism and armed self-defense portrayed in his prose make that clear. But there is ever present, mingled with nationalist gestures, the undeniable strand of critical realism that speaks to wider transformation. (48)

As in Killens’s other works, folk lyrics, folktales, “call and response” discourse, and blues motifs are all employed to deftly depict the protagonist’s unbreakable ties to Black culture and community.

Chapter Three ponders Killens’s essays, mainly collected in Black Man’s Burden (1965). Here Gilyard provides meticulous documentation of a profound connection between some of these writings and the founding document of Malcolm X’s “Organization of African American Unity” in 1964. Other vital essays by Killens, such as his answer to William Styron’s 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and analyses of Black Power, Pan Africanism, and “The Black Psyche” are considered. Unfortunately, the one essay that Killens never wrote was a much-needed rebuttal to Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.

Chapter Four delves into Killens’s most recognized novel, The Cotillion (1971), a satire of the Black middle class set in the North toward the end of the 1960s. Using the Black vernacular to vivify his radical vision, Killens dramatically shifts his style in order to devote “his complete literary canvas to showing off Black urban orality” (91).

Chapter Five turns to Killens’s lesser-known books which, in fact, comprise a plentiful collection of fables, role models, and tales-Slaves (1969), Great Gittin’ Up Morning (1972), A Man Ain’t Nothin’ but a Man: The Adventures of John Henry (1975), and Great Black Russian: A Novel on the Life and Times of Alexander Pushkin (1989). Gilyard observes that Killens’s attraction to this last topic was due not only to Pushkin’s African ancestry stemming from his mother’s grandfather, but also to Pushkin’s role as a “vernacular artist” supportive of revolutionary causes (108).

Gilyard’s study closes with a review of Killens’s evolution in conjunction with the numerous writers’ conferences in which Killens played the role of “ideological orchestrator” between 1965 and 1986. Although Killens is best known as the founder of the Harlem Writers Guild in 1950, a workshop whose members have produced hundreds of books, he inaugurated his career as a conference organizer when he chaired the Planning Committee for the conference of the American Society of African Culture in 1959. Six years later Killens convened his own conference, “The Negro Writer’s Vision of America,” at the New School, and thereafter organized regular events wherever he was teaching-Fisk University, Howard University, and Medgar Evers College. Each event demonstrated growth on the part of Killens as he promoted new writers and increasingly campaigned for women’s equality; still and all, he maintained a belief in the need for positive literary role models that sometimes led to uneven polemics.

To explore the complex tensions between class and national themes in the history of the African American literary Left, the career of John Oliver Killens is in many respects more suitable than that of the “canonical” Black Marxist, Richard Wright. Both men are similar in their Southern origins (the setting for both of their early works), their youthful Communist commitment, their use of Southern folklore, and their eventual departure from the Communist Party. But Killens remained in the United States after Wright became an expatriate in 1947, participating fully in the events of the 1960s and after; he successfully bridged several crucial stages in Black radical cultural activism, demonstrating noteworthy continuities and transformations over the decades.

One illustration is that Killens’s commitment to Black nationalism, although more pronounced as he aged, was an evolution but not a complete departure from his education in the Communist movement. In 1949 he published a long review essay of Party leader Harry Haywood’s Negro Liberation in the Party youth journal, New Foundations. He characterized Haywood’s book as “one of the most important contemporary contributions to American literature and progressive understanding.” Particular attention was bestowed on Haywood’s elaboration of the “right of self-determination” for the African American people in the sense that they constitute a nation that ought to be able to determine its own fate without forcible intervention. To explain the Communist view that the “right” of separation is not identical with the advocacy of an autonomous Black territory, Killens approvingly cites an analogy offered by Haywood “between the national right of self-deter- mination and the right of women to obtain a divorce.” Haywood noted that, while “it is almost universally recognized that the right to divorce is essential to emancipation and equal status of women, it is nowhere held that woman have an obligation to divorce their husbands.” 5

Black Marxists of Killens’s generation rarely reverted to an all- class Black nationalism. Even when hopes had faded that the Euro-American and European working class would live up to their anti-racist and internationalist responsibilities, Killens himself favored a proletarian Black nationalism and advocated the organization of African American trade unionists. White allies, in the tradition of John Brown and the two civil rights workers killed in Mississippi in 1964, were welcome to join the struggle.

Moreover, Black identity to Killens was regarded as a route to a deeper humanity in a manner that recalls the writings of Frantz Fanon. Gilyard quotes Killens’s 1971 statement about his literary progression: “Each book got Blacker than the one before, I hope. Which means, to me, that each book became more humanistic and universal” (39). Du Bois proffered similar sentiments in a passage frequently quoted by Lloyd Brown, a Black Communist who wrote the novel Iron City. To DuDois, Black identity meant a “pride of self so deep as to scorn injustice to other selves.”6 Julian Mayfield epitomized his generation’s view of Communism and Black nationalism in a blunt retort to Harold Cruse: “You scratch a Black man in the Communist Party and you’re going to find a Black man.”7

Lance Jeffers, yet another African-American poet and fiction writer who passed through the Communist movement in the post-World War II era, observed in 1971: “The literature of an oppressed people is the conscience of man, and nowhere is this seen with more intense clarity than in the literature of Afroamerica.”8 In Liberation Memories, Keith Gilyard has made a resplendent and judicious case that John Oliver Killens belongs at the center of this tradition.

Reviewed by Alan Wald
University of Michigan


1. Cited in Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), p. 49.

2. Oral History of Julian Mayfield, Howard University Library, May 13, 1970.

3. Julian Mayfield, “And Then Came Baldwin,” Freedomways 3 (Spring 1963): 148-49.

4. See my critique of Cruse, “Narrating Nationalisms: Black Marxism and Jewish Communists Through the Eyes of Harold Cruse,” Science & Society 64, no. 4 (Winter 200-2001): 400-423.

5. “For National Freedom,” New Foundations 2, 4 (Summer 1949): 245-258.

6. Quoted in Wald, Writing From the Left, p. 215.

7. Oral History of Julian Mayfield, Howard University Library.

8. Lance Jeffers, “Afroamerican Literature: The Conscience of Man,” reprinted in Abraham Chapman, ed., New Black Voices (New York: Mentor, 1972), p. 506.

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