ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes

   

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African American artists should honor the memory of those who have performed heroically

in the past and have been examples of Black struggle and Black sacrifice. Let those people

 become fodder for our mythmaking, which is very important activity in sustaining a people

 

 

Books by John Oliver Killens

Youngblood  /  And Then We Heard the Thunder  /  The Cotillion  /  The Great Black Russian

 

A Man-Aint-Nothin But A Man Adventures of John Henry  /  Slaves  / Sippi A Novel Black-SouthernVoices: An Anthology 

 

Great-Gittin-Up-Morning: A Biography of Denmark Vesey The Black Man's Burden

 

Keith Gilyard, Liberation Memories: The Rhetoric and Poetics of John Oliver Killens (2003)

 

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Books by Keith Gilyard

Voices of the Self: A Study of Language Competence (1991) Poemographics (2001)

 

Let's Flip the Script: An African American Discourse on Language, Literature, and Learning (1996)

 

Spirit & Flame: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (1997) / Race, Rhetoric, and Composition (1999)

 

Liberation Memories: The Rhetoric and Poetics of John Oliver Killens  / True to the Language Game

 

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Interview with Keith Gilyard

author of 

Liberation Memories the Rhetoric and Poetics of John Oliver Killens

 

 

Rudy: Liberation Memories is a clear and excellent portrait of the writings and political efforts of the much-overlooked writer John Oliver Killens within the African-American intellectual community. I strongly recommend this work for both high school and college students and professors of English and African-American Studies. It’s simply a book that should be on the shelf of every serious student of African-American life and culture.

Professor Gilyard, let us start at the beginning with your interest in this overlooked spokesman of black interests. How came you to Killens? What was the first book of his you read and your first impression of his work?

Keith: First of all, thanks for the props. When you do this sort of work, you're uncertain if you'll get a serious read. So it's good to run into folks like you who care deeply about the subject matter. As for meeting Killens, I first read The Cotillion shortly after it came out in 1971. Back then I wasn't that serious a student of African American literature.  

I was getting up on the poetry but hadn't done much in reading the novels. I was scribbling a little prose as well as poetry, but my reading of fiction was lagging way behind my composing efforts even though my reading should have been way out in front. I think John's book came into the Langston Hughes Library in Queensjust walked in I guessand since I hung around the library all the time I just bumped into it. It happened something like that; that's the spirit of the thing, although I can't guarantee that my memory is flawless. What I'm sure about is that I got through almost all of the novel in one sitting, just read on through the night.  

I was drawn in by the language, the political and cultural issues addressed, and the charactersI was even in Evelyn and Lumumba's age group back then. So I was feeling the youthful aspect of the book. Unfortunately, I hadn't yet developed my habit of reading all the work I can find by an author I like before I move on to another authorhow I read Richard Wright, for example. So after reading The Cotillion I moved on to something else and other writers and didn't even remember the novel all that well until I started working at Medgar Evers College in 1981.  

Killens was also on the faculty and I remember folks talking about The Cotillion and describing it and the story started coming back to me, especially the scene with Jomo Mamadou Zero the Third.  So, to sum up, I came to his work through The Cotillion and then had the good fortune to actually work with him a bit while we were both on the faculty of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.

Rudy: Before I heard of your work from Louis Reyes Rivera, Killens son-in-law, I had read And Then We Heard the Thunder, which impressed me greatly as a novel of heroism, and The Cotillion, which mocked black pretensions and blind imitation of white cultural models. He was widely recommended by my Black Power friends. But I had never thought deeply about Killens, as I had Baldwin or Wright, though I enjoyed and admired his work.  What brought you to this full study of Killens?

Keith: I have to stop and thank Louis too for his insight and support. He sort of inspired me to write Liberation Memories.  Louis knew and was vocal about the fact that John had been underappreciated in critical circles.  Only a few peoplelike Addison Gayle and William Wiggins, Jr.tried to do him justice in the scholarly literature. But even they missed articulating some of the richness of John's writings. And Arthur Flowers is a good friend of mine—and present-day underappreciated novelist and Killens protégé.  

Flowers joined the faculty at Syracuse University during the years I worked up there. We used to talk about doing something to honor Killens' memory, maybe a testimonial book, get former students and friends to contribute. Arthur was more focused on John's legacy and his role as a teacher and cultural worker and even as a cultural orchestrator, as Arthur liked to say.  By then, I had gotten more into his fiction. I heard all that Arthur was saying, and even a few years before I had drafted a manuscript about Killens that I tried to get included in one of the series that publishes short biographies of notable African Americans targeted for an adolescent readership. But that project didn't get far.  

At any rate, I began focusing on his fiction. I began scribbling drafts of my readings of parts of his novels.  At that point, Arthur and I were still thinking about bringing our different strands (he had even written a proposal) together in a book. But it went, as things often do, another way. I ended up pushing ahead on my own manuscript, with Arthur's encouragement, and after several fits and starts I got it done.  In short, I was trying to fill a void in the scholarship about African American literature.  It's interesting that you mention Wright and Baldwin.  

When studying the African American novel, one could logically be pointed, if we're thinking in terms of major developments and connections chronologically, from Wright to Chester Himes first and then Ellison and Baldwin and Killens--in that order--(and a few others). In terms of critical attention, Killens, maybe along with Himes, got the short straw in that group. It was obvious to me, though, that Killens did commendable work and deserves to be more widely studied. Also, I knew him and it seemed to me that his spirit wasn't letting me rest until I did what he and I both knew I could do, get him somewhat back on the agenda, not for him but for what he stood for: African American art with a political commitment on behalf of the masses of African Americans and the masses of humanity overall.

Rudy: Killens was nominated for the Pulitzer – once, twice.  But fell short of the mark of full recognition by both white and black critics. For instance, Arthur P. Davis in his From the Dark Tower seems to deride Killens in reference to And Then We Heard the Thunder, which I consider his best work, as “still using the old protest tradition.”

Recently, a white commentator Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post made a similar disparagement of Killens writings:  “He was also the prisoner of his own artistic convictions; what drove himwhat drove Du Bois and all those white "proletarian" novelists of the 1930swas not art but politics, and the two are poles apart.” In a response to Yardley, you spoke of apples and oranges and concluded: “we have to continue to develop appropriate paradigms to enable the fullest and most fruitful discussion of texts like Thunder.” Could you now extend your remarks about Killens’ work falling short of “true art.”

Keith:  But the remark about "the old protest tradition" is the extent of Davis' commentary about Killens, at least that's what I recall about From the Dark Tower. He might have implied that, nevertheless, And Then We Heard the Thunderr is a novel of quality.  So I don't think he actually was derisive in the sense that you suggest.  But it's not a big point.  I really don't regard Arthur P. Davis as someone who took Killens' work seriously.  Just a sentence or two on the work of someone who had published four or five novels by the time of Davis' study doesn't do a lot for me.  

As for "true art," my remarks would be that Killens' work did not fall short.  Judgments of art are obviously subjective but coalesce roughly around notions of creativity, significant form, beauty, and craft.  What I argue is that on some reasonable measures of creativity, form, beauty, and craft, one could say that Killens' work is art.  I won't detail the argument here; I do want to sell some books.  But my main point is that his work can reasonably be seen as art.  We can argue about how good it is as art, how bad it is as art, but to argue that art and politics are poles apart just misses the point for me.  I actually liked the piece by Yardley that appeared in the Washington Post.

Yardley does take Killens' work seriously and gave it space in the Post. That's good. I was happy to see the article and know–this is fairly certain–that my book prompted him to write the piece. I'm not hatin'.  It's just that Yardley doesn't escape from the vagueness that critics like him slip into sometimes when judging the work of African American writers who portray activism. Politics, for them, can't be artunless Dickens or Marquez does it. Those are Yardley's examples. I agree with him about Dickens and Marquez.  But the problem is that he doesn't specify the criteria that make the work of Dickens and Marquez art and that of people like Killens not art.  

The argument is that Dickens and Marquez can make politics be art because they can.  Killens can't because he can't.  So it's hard to persuade someone like that because he does not acknowledge the grounds on which he is willing to be persuaded.  You can show certain aspects of Killens' creativity, but if one has decided that politics can't be art unless you're Dickens or Marquez, then what can you do? One thing you can do is to take the conversation beyond the sites where the restrictive notions predominate. That's what I do because I don't get to pontificate in the Washington Post. So you thank the Jonathan Yardleys for the play you get.  His piece certainly wasn't overly negative. And you move on.

Rudy: In his From the Dark Tower, Arthur P. Davis also points out that Killens moved from integrationism to “blackness.” I assume from your reading of Killens that that swing, if indeed it is a movement at all, was not a radical one.

Keith:  Yeah, I guess that was the one other remark that Davis made. But the so-called swing wasn't that big, which you can tell if you read the whole career closely.  The political sentiment of the 1975 A Man Ain't Nothin' but a Man is not far removed from the politics of the 1954 Youngblood. And the 1954 Youngblood is not really less "Black" than the 1971 The Cotillion.  That easy intregationism-to-Blackness theory doesn't really get at the work in the most productive way.

Rudy:  You have pointed out in Liberation Memories that a “black nationalism” and an emphasis on glorifying and redemption of black culture is found as subthemes in most, if not all, of Killens  fiction. Why do you think these elements in Killens’ writing are a significant contribution to American literature? What has been the influence of such themes?

Keith: I think those traits were models for some of the writers that came afterward.  Addison Gayle dubbed Killens the "spiritual father" of a generation of African American novelists.  Toni Cade Bambara noted that Killens broke from the Wright school of social protest. I think by this she meant Killens' focus on community struggle rather than on a protagonist's singular dilemma. I also think Bambara  appreciated Killens' focus on what was healthy in African American culture. And I think other writers have seen this also and have been inspired by the example.

Rudy: You point out in your Introduction “Killens will always be associated with the Black Arts Movement.” When I usually think of BAM, I think of poets and dramatists. I do not think of novelists. Would you agree?

I suppose one might indeed say The Cotillion (1971) is a BAM novel. But it seems difficult to make such an assertion about other Killens novels, whether about Sippi or those works that follow The Cotillion.

Keith: I think the tendency is indeed to think of BAM as largely an outpouring of poems and plays.  That's an understandable perception, as the poetic and dramatic production was considerable.  Baraka, for example, was well known as a poet and dramatist and his personality and energy informs how we think about BAM.  His name is synonymous with the movement.  But economics plays into the picture because so many of the people who assumed, say, the role of poets could find an outlet for their work even if they had to publish it themselves. 

But think about it. Given the nature of the novel, you're going to have fewer published novels if for no other reason than the fact that the financial investment to bring a novel into publication is so much greater than it is to do the same for most collections of poems.

There might be almost as many novelists or aspiring novelists as poets, but it's hard to determine that.  I remember that a while back, some folks were doing an African American novel project, trying to ascertain all the African American novels that were in existence, not just those that were published. I think Abdul Alkalimat told me something about that. Anyway, the results of such an investigation would shed more light on African American literary activity of the 1960s and 1970s. I have an unpublished novel from the 1970s myself.

One from the 1990s also, for that matter.  But even if you look at the published work, I think the novel is a larger part of the Black Arts Movement that many folks assume. Thinking deeply, however, you would have to consider John A. Williams' The Man Who Cried I Am, Sam Greenlee's The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red, even Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye to be BAM novels.  They are each more than that, but check out the themes: Black pride, the damage of Euro-brainwashing, embrace of African culture, militant political action. That's BAM, no? 

And Killens' The Cotillion is in that mix, a very complementary novel, as I point out in my book, to Morrison's novelalmost mirror images. Evelyn Lovejoy (LOVE JOY) has the support system that Pecola Breedlove (BREED NOT LOVE, given Morrison's ironic sense) lacks.  But The Cotillion is not simply a Black Arts Movement novel; Killens is too much artist and satirist for the easy label. 

I guess I'm thinking of BAM two ways.  One, as a description that sums up a work structurally and thematically--and I think that's what you mean—and two, as a set of artifacts from a specific period.  The Cotillion fits easily the second way, and partly the first way.  That's what I would say.  My reason for stating that Killens will always be associated with the Black Arts Movement had only partly to do with The Cotillion. It had at least as much to do with his cultural organizing and positions he took in public forums, what might be termed literary manifestoesspeeches like "The Black Writer and the Revolution," for example. When you think about BAM and a Baraka or a Ron Milner or a Sarah Webster Fabio or a Haki Madhubuti, well, those are the people that Killens was inviting to his writers' conferences.

Thus the association. As for other novels by Killens being BAM novels, I say maybe, maybe not.  Only 'Sippi is another major novel of his that fits timewise.  On the other hand, militant self-defense and Black pride are hallmarks of his 1954 novel Youngblood.  I don't think one needs to get so much into trying to ascertain a shelf to which one can confine a particular work, though talking about dominant traits is certainly cool and definitely appropriate.  I'd rather folks read Killens and tried to figure out all the things that he is doing as an artist.

Rudy: On the whole, your criticism of Killens work is balanced and scholarly. For instance you point out in both your Introduction and Conclusion and throughout Liberation Memories the shortcomings of Killens literary method: you say, Killens “eschewed realism . . . complex environmental and psychological portraiture – in favor of . . . noble and polemical characters.”  You also point out that Killens had a “utopian” political perspective.

Both your definitions of “realism” and “utopian” need more commentary. Despite his sketchiness of character, his novels on the whole seem realistic. Though I understand to a degree what you mean overall, the character of the hero in And Then We Heard the Thunderseem to gather complexity. I am altogether at a lost by what you mean by “utopian.” Do you mean in the sense that King was utopian in that he had faith that blacks and whites would eventually work out their differences and become one people?

Keith: I meant realism in terms of the psychological realism of particular characters. That's why I qualified my statement by saying something like "if by realism you mean..."  I don't think you get the deepest psychological portraitures in Killens.  It's not so much a shortcoming but a choice he made.  Sophocles made similar choices. And you're right that he comes closest to the sort of realism you mean in And Then We Heard the Thunder.  And you're right that the novels have elements of realism and complexity. Again, I was mostly speaking about character development. 

As for utopian, he was indeed a kindred spirit of King's in that regard. Folks need to check out Black Man's Burden.  I say Killens was utopian in that he had a vision of a socially just world.  Louis calls it "romantic realism," envisioning something better and working for it in the everyday.  I like that phrasing, separates itself from the idea of pie-in-the-sky dreaming.  Part of what I'm saying is that intellectually Killens never let go of the proletarian consciousness that he developed in his youth.  That's why the big-swing theory doesn't work.  He was never simply an integrationist or ever simply a nationalist, though he experienced emotional shifts, as many of us do.  Now I'm not sure that Killensor King for that matterhad "faith" that blacks and whites would work it out most productively.  They had a vision that it should happen.  But I'm not sure how deep the faith was that it would happen.

Rudy: There is much that I like thematically about Killens1) “his acceptance of an enabling black identity as a rule,” 2) emphasis on the role of family in Negro progress and struggle. Both are elements not so evident in Wright, Ellison, or the early Baldwin. Killens swing from mockery and burlesque (as in The Cotillion) to heroism (as in the Slaves or Great Black Russian) seem to suggest an uneven or an uncertain or a less than mature vision of African-American life and culture. His emphasis on folk forms hit the mark but his bringing forth the true dignity of its essence and the inherent conflicts and dilemmas falls short. Would you agree that his fiction has little to say about the presence conflicts and dilemmas that exist within the African-American community?

Keith:  I can't say that I do agree with that assessment.  For one, I would probably say that his portrayal of such a range of experiences is a sign of artistic maturity, not of  immaturity. Black people run the gamut from the burlesque to the heroic. It is also evident to me that a lot of his work is precisely about conflicts and dilemmas that exist in the African American community.  In Youngblood, there is occupational tension, what Joe Youngblood's actions are relative to those of Mr. Myles.  That relationship also reflects geographical tension as Youngblood is from the South and Myles is from the North. So that North-South Black thing is played out.  

Class difference is articulated, the middle class folks don't respond to the struggle in the same way the folks out in Rockingham Quarters do.  There is political tension between those that embrace radical organizing as per the labor movement and those that are afraid to embrace such organizing.  In Sippi you have some of the same tensions as well as a portrayal of tension between a sometimes exploitative college student body and the surrounding working-class community, particularly along sexual lines.  Class tensions are all up inside Thunder.  

Millie gives you one slice of African American thought, largely  accommodationist.  Fannie Mae gives you the activism.  Solly embodies all kinds of tensions.  The Cotillion gets into the colorism thing inside the Black community, hits at those divisions and pretensions.  It also lampoons all kinds of charlatans.  Come to think of it, I don't know what Killens misses in terms of the conflicts and dilemmas in the African American community.  But he left behind an unpublished novel, so he might have done even more in this vein than we now know.

Rudy: Do you find it troubling that Killens recommended creating sparkling heroes and saints out of ordinary black men and women who made sacrifices, yes, but as every day men and women, yes, bold and courageous in the face of cruelty and tyranny? The creation of black saints, like the building of monuments and museums, seem to be that work that kills the spirit and places the work of freedom and liberation out of the reach of every day men and women.

Keith:  Don't know if I go along with all of that either.  But I do think I see your point about the creation of icons.  It reminds me of how folks used to sit around in the 1970s and decry the fact that "there are no more Black leaders."  An accompanying argument was that Blackfolk could get it together if only the right leader came along. It was that cult-of-personality reasoning. So the idea that the heroic can arise from the everyday is an important concept. I think that's what you mean. And I agree.  However, I don't think that idea is oppositional to what Killens actually said. All of his heroes, except the fictionalized Pushkin, rose from humble circumstances.

And I don't think he said to make those characters Black saints.  He called Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Paul Robeson saintsbecause of what they achieved, emphasis on achieved. And I'm thinking that he meant that sainthood thing metaphorically. 

The real point is that African American artists should honor the memory of those who have performed heroically in the past and have been examples of Black struggle and Black sacrifice. Let those people become fodder for our mythmaking, which is very important activity in sustaining a people and giving them the sense that they will ultimately prevail. Killens is borrowing from Samuel Yette and Yette's thinking about "hero dynamics." As Yette once wrote, "a people with no hero concept has, at best, an aimless and confused existence." So it's in that sense that Killens was promoting artistic hero work or mythmaking.  That's not the only thing an artist can do, but that's not a bad thing.

Rudy: Some believe that Baldwin is a greater essayist than a novelist. That indeed may be so. But do you think that Killens has any novel that compares well with the excellence of Go Tell It on the Mountain?

Keith: I generally don't like to rate writers against one another, at least not in public.  You never have time to play the whole thing out and stuff gets taken the wrong way. But I think And Then We Heard the Thunder and Youngblood beat any fiction that Baldwin ever wrote–and a lot of other people too. I'll just leave it at that.

Maybe I'll just add that I hope you have a connect to Spike Lee. I can't believe that Spike hasn't brought And Then We Heard the Thunder to the screen. At one time, I thought Spike was going to do great things with African American literature after I saw how he used Zora's novel as the basic structure of She's Gotta Have It.  And when he made comments about the Black absence in films like Saving Private Ryan, and with all the mainstream Tom Brokaw-style talk about the "greatest generation," and with Pearl Harbor and a resurgence of interest in World War II stories, I just saw Spike getting somebody like Denzel to run around as Solly Saunders.  Thunder is the best depiction we have of the World War II experience and African Americans.

Rudy: Despite whatever reservation you or I may have about Killens as novelist or critic, Yardley is on the money in this comment: “it is no less a pity that he [Killens] has been allowed to disappear from the literary landscapeincredibly, he does not rate an entry in the current edition of The Oxford Companion to American Literaturebecause 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.

Based on Arthur P. Davis’ definition of “a major Negro writer as one whose works deals largely with black experience, measures up to appropriate aesthetic standards, and influences to some extent his contemporaries and/or those who come after him”one must consider Killens “a major Negro writer.”

Isn’t that the basic tenor of Liberation Memories that he "measures up” and in your 3rd and 6th chapters you point out his broad influence on his contemporaries, from Malcolm X  and other noted writers (like Margaret Walker) to college students?

Keith: That is the basic tenor of the book.  Thanks for the space you have given me to talk about the project.  But now I'm going to settle for the short answer so folks can get on to the business of chasing down the book. I would say, though, that Killens would indicate that Walker had a great influence on him. I didn't argue that he influenced Margaret Walker–not that he didn't, just that I'm not prepared to make the case based on textual evidence or any statements she made to that effect.

Rudy: I understand you are working on a biography of Killens. What is its thrust and when will that work reach the shelves of book stores?

Keith: Actually, Louis and I are trying to kick the project into full gear. We'll try to give a fuller sense of the life and activities than one can get from a critical monograph. The monograph was all I thought I would do, but Lorenzo Thomas, who reviewed the manuscript before publication, suggested that I move on to the biography that we need. I wasn't really ready for anybody, including John, to take up full residence inside my head like that, but I also knew Lorenzo's suggestion was a good one.  So Louis and I have been trying to block this thing out and get to it.  

As I said earlier, Louis has this notion of "romantic realism" as a way to describe John's work, so we're playing with that idea some. Our priority right now is to gather as much oral testimony as we can.  What's already archived will be there for us to discover, but, sad to say, the folks who can offer first-hand accounts about John are becoming fewer and fewer. We're facing our own "greatest generation" problem. So if you can help in that wayidentifying folks who have a Killens story—that would we be good. We don't have a firm timetable for completing the book; it's probably going to take a few years.

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Keith Gilyard -- born and raised in New York City -- earned graduate degrees from Columbia University and NYU. Following stints at several campuses, including Medgar Evers College-CUNY and Syracuse University, he is Professor of English at the Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Gilyard has long been active in professional, cultural, and community organization, and he has lectured widely on language, literature, and education. He also has read his poetry at numerous venues. 

Author of numerous publications, his books include Voices of the Self: A Study of Language Competence (1991), Let's Flip the Script: An African American Discourse on Language, Literature, and Learning (1996) Poemographics (2001), and Liberation Memories: The Rhetoric and Poetics of John Oliver Killens (2003). In addition, he edited Spirit & Flame: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (1997) and Race, Rhetoric, and Composition (1999).

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John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism

By Keith Gilyard

“I congratulate Keith Gilyard for bringing to life, in the pages of this absorbing book, a figure of genuine importance who certainly deserves a full-scale biography.”—Arnold Rampersad, author of Ralph Ellison: A Biography

John Oliver Killens is a genius of the South, and Keith Gilyard has honored this youngblood, civil rights and union activist, novelist, dramatist, and screenwriter in a superb biography. Gilyard’s engaging written voice draws us into a dramatic and important life, and his deep commitment to the highest standards of research inspires our trust and admiration. John Oliver Killens ably documents and brings to life the yearnings and accomplishments of a major figure in our national literature.—Rudolph P. Byrd, Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies, Emory University

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books

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#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 12 June 2008 

 

 

 

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