Latimore: Honoring the legacies of John Oliver Killens and Maya Angelou

June 6, 2014 

Around the turn of the century, John Oliver Killens was born to Charles Myles Killens Sr. and Willie Lee Killens in the historic Pleasant Hill neighborhood of Macon. Although he’s no longer living, his date of birth was Jan. 14, 1916, and he lived to age 71. Killens’ works and achievements are a prime example of the significant accomplishments made by African-Americans from Macon. He is definitely more known and acknowledged nationally and globally than in his hometown.

When Maya Angelou passed away a little more than a week ago, I started to think heavily about Killens. About 15 years ago, I met Angelou at a National Black Arts Festival event in Atlanta. As one of her biggest fans, I’ve read many of her books of poems. However, one of the books in her series of autobiographies, “A Song Flung Up to Heaven,” really made me become more familiar with Angelou.

Upon speaking with her in front of about a thousand people, I told her that she reminded me a lot of myself. I went on to tell her that I was from Macon. Suddenly, she interrupted me and told me that I sounded like one of “them Macon folks.” Afterward, she talked to me for about 15 minutes about her encounter with Killens when she moved to New York from California, as if we were the only two people in the building. She also advised me to keep my confident and determined spirit as a person and poet.

Many Maconites don’t have the slightest idea that Killens was one of the co-founders of the Harlem’s Writers Guild, which he started in 1950 along with Walter Christmas, John Henrik Clark, Rosa Guy and Willard Moore. He was key in helping Angelou with her career as a writer.

Almost any well-known black author was a part of that guild, and they used it to help empower each other. He also was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for two of his novels: “And Then We Heard the Thunder” and “The Cotillion; or, One Good Bull Is Half the Herd.”

Killens made people like Angelou aware of Macon -- from the words out of his mouth to the words of his written works. As a writer, I will make an effort to teach our residents about this legendary black writer from Macon.

The Tubman African American Museum keeps his legacy alive with classes and writing workshops named for him. Likewise, Chris Horne, one of the founders of the Crossroads Writers Conference, titled the literary event because of Killens’ fictitious town of Crossroads, Georgia, in his novel “Youngblood.”

We should honor him with a marker, statue and a proclamation that declares Jan. 14 as John Oliver Killens Day. If you would like to assist me with this task, I’ll be waiting on an e-mail from you.

Yolanda “Y-O” Latimore is founder of Poetic Peace Arts, Macon’s representative on the Knight National Arts Advisory Board and director of Like Water Publicity, a media and booking agency. Contact her at ylatimore@gmail.com.

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