From Fourth International, Vol.16 No.4, Fall 1955, p.142.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
by John O. Killens
Dial Press, New York. 1954. 566 pp. $3.95.
[Pocket Books Inc. 1955. 50c.]
Early in the summer of 1954 a new name appeared among American writers – that of John O. Killens. To my knowledge, Killens is the first Negro writer to show the struggle carried on through generations and groups and masses of people; also the first, to my knowledge, to approach it from a class point of view.
Other Negro writers show the heroic struggles of the individual which end and can end only in death, despair, or escape to the north. Richard Wright, outstanding and most important, is typical. In his first novel, Youngblood, however, Killens shows death as part of the struggle; but here the death of the individual is shown as a new beginning for those left behind to continue the fight.
The story is placed in the heart of the deep South – Georgia, which is typical in its race relationships. Here the line-up of white against black and the undertone of black against white is sharp and clear and the repressions brutal. But also here in Georgia the fighting spirit of the Negroes is high. Today, for instance, agitation for school integration has reached its highest pitch in the Deep South in Georgia. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in that state is one of the strongest, with great initiative and fighting capacity. This is the spirit that is reflected in Youngblood.
Killens takes the Negro people as they are in the South, shows why they are what they are and at the same time shows how they have picked up the thread of the struggle dropped with the defeat of Reconstruction, determined, to win through to victory. The author starts us off at the turn of the century with the birth of Laurie Lee, but takes us back in consciousness to slavery and the fierce struggle against it through Big Mama, the grandmother, who is the inspiration for the determination to win through.
“Donchoo cry, honey,” she told Laurie Lee. “Git mad, yes Godamighty, but donchoo waste a single tear ... donchoo never let em walk over you ... Fight em every inch of the way, especially the big rich one ... They the one took over where ol’ marster left off. They lynch us, they starve us and they work us to death, and it ain-na gonna change till you young Negroes gits together and beat some sense in they head.”
The people you meet in Youngblood are real, everyday people. There is nothing shadowy about them. Each person is an individual and yet at the same time representative of a particular layer within the class.
Laurie Lee is the link between the struggles of the past and the struggles of the present and future. Richard Myles, the northern school teacher, is the organizing center of that struggle. The story of the Jubilee program built around the history of the spirituals, a program that sets the white population rocking on its heels and builds up the spirit of struggle in the Negro population, is one of the most gripping sections of the book, as for example when Robby Youngblood is narrating the story of Let My People Go.
“... And there was a little black woman named Harriet Tubman, a friend of John Brown, a woman of greatness. Harriet Tubman overpowered her whipping boss and escaped from slavery. But she wasn’t satisfied with just her own freedom when she crossed over Jordan. She couldn’t sit still till the South was free. She went back south, she went down in Egypt Land, time and time again, and she led the Hebrew children to freedom. And they called her Harriet and they called her Moses. The next selection by the Pleasant Grove School Chorus will be Go Down Moses.
“He almost burst out laughing, and at the same time crying, when he heard Fat Gus’ mother, Miss Lulubelle, who was seated in the front row, say – ‘Moses been going down too damn long now – He need to git up off his devilish knees and stand up and fight!’”
The role of the educated middle-class Negroes is expressed through Rev. Ledbetter when he says:
“‘We’re scared of our shadow ... Scared we’ll lose this little bit of security the white man handed down to us ... Sometimes I think we more scared of the Negroes over in the Quarters than we are of the white folks ... You know where Monroe Terrace is located? Our street is two blocks long. It runs to the west smack into Peckerwood Town, but north of us is the rich white folks and south of us is the black folks. And here we are in the middle. And you know what it is to be in the middle.’ He laughed and he slapped his knee. ‘Yes-sir-ree.’”
The thread that runs through this book is the knowledge that the way to win through to freedom is by a combination of struggling in organized fashion as an oppressed people, and organizing as workers together with the white workers, because poor white is just as much downtrodden as colored. The Negro in the South is like the worker anywhere in the world – he cannot run away from his troubles. He must stand up to them, face them and make up his mind to fight them.
Youngblood shows the innate dignity and courage of the Southern Negroes: their feeling theft although victory is not achieved in single battles, each battle is a step forward; that what is begun by one generation is picked up and advanced farther by the youth of the next. In the march toward victory there are many defeats, but these are temporary. These are the milestones along the road of struggle of black and white together for a world of genuine brotherhood.
Last updated on: 2 April 2009