“our struggle for liberation is indeed a long long distance race, for we are out for nothing short of winning the entire human race and we are up against a formidable foe. to win this race will require planning, pacing, discipline and stamina, and a belief in our ability to win the long protracted struggle. we must construct one hundred year plans; two hundred year plans. we must construct institutions for generations unborn.” john oliver killens
i am flowers of the delta clan flowers and the line of o. killens
this the ritualized 1st line of all my major works, a griotic opening, who you are and who
you were trained by. i was trained by john o killens, the great griot master of brooklyn
babajohn taught me not only how to write but how to be a writer. taught me how to be a visionary, what he called a longdistance runner, what i call the longgame.
babajohn showed me the way
i came to nyc in the summer of 73 to get into babajohns workshop over at columbia and stayed in it till he died in 1987. where ever john taught he stipulated that his workshop would be open to the community and over the years he drew a cadre of young writers unto him.
13 years i followed john killens from school to school, from columbia to howard to bronx community to his final resting place at medgar evers. only looking back do i see that i was learning what is called in mystic traditions, the unwritten knowledge – that which can only be learned from the extended example of the masters life.
i have internalized so many of john o’s precepts about being a writer that he continues to guide me to this day. i would never do anything as a writer that i dont think john o would approve of.
we were all politicos and artistic activists who had come out of the black arts movement, believed in art as an instrument of cultural empowerment, an instrument of redemption. thats why we were drawn to john in the 1st place, he showed us how it was done.
first thing we all had to learn that politics cant carry a story. babajohn used to tell us over and over, “the more important that you have to say, the more obligated you are to say it well.”
preached craft, craft and more craft. told us we had to grow as craftsfolk for the rest of our literary lives.
over the years john o’s literary reputation declined and he is no longer read. his advice not to let politics overwhelm the craft was paid for in the coin of his own work.
but folk who leave john o out of any exploration of afro am lit just dont understand the game. john os influence transcends his work. babajohns efforts to institutionalize a black literary infrastructure and train generations of blackwriters in the longgame will make his influence unprecedented. he left behind legions infused with a sense of responsibility for the tribal soul and destiny and the cultural skills to manifest it.
john o taught us to be cultural custodians, guide and guardian of the tribal soul and destiny, shield and spear
in pursuit of that vision he tried to make of himself a place where young writers grew (as in his name do i). in doing so he taught generations of writers in the longgame, trained us in how to be a literary mob, how to wield literary power, how to be successful writers and cultural influents.
babajohn tried to make sure we were not only powerful but righteous. in my literary cubdom i aspired to be a machiavellian thinker who would forge blackfolk into a conquering horde and fling them into battle. power was my field of study and people were just factors to be used, this was reflected in my work
one day babajohn pull me aside and said, “art, you a brilliant writer but with a little compassion you could be profound”
i didnt get it
all I heard was “brilliant”. wasnt until many years later i realize he was trying to ensure that my contribution to the tradition, my legacy as his student, would not be hard and cold but warm and loving – an old shaman trying to ensure the health of the tribal soul
john o. killens died may 1987. he had been terminally sick for awhile, in and out of the hospital, one of those folks just refuse to go. last time i saw him i go out to brooklyn, house full of folks on the deathwatch. john on the second floor, i go up to see him and im shocked. he thin and wasted, a faint reflection of who i knew him to be, just skin and bones and spirit
we talk. he knew i was thinking about going to los angeles and he telling me be careful out there, dont get lost out there he told me, dont let ever money rule the work
barely speak, still dropping knowledge, giving guidance
i assured him i would keep the faith
then he ask me to lift him up. put him in a chair that was sitting by the bed. i carefully slide my arms behind his knees and his back and when i lift him i stumble, shocked how feather light he is. i very carefully place him in the chair and arrange the blanket over him
call amazing grace, he say, thats what he call ms grace, amazing. i call her, she come upstairs and beam at him sitting there so proud
im sitting up, he told her
i see you are, she say
i like to know what’s going on around me, he say
i know you do, she say
knowing babajohn like i did was a once in a generation experience. there will never be another like him, and i feel totally blessed to have known him, to have been trained by him, to be one of his crew, best damn literary crew ever was – and with everything i do i praise his name
babajohn killens. the great griot master of brooklyn
gods blessings on us all
this spell is done