John Oliver Killens William H. Wiggins, Jr. - Essay

William H. Wiggins, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his first three novels, John O. Killens makes traditional and structural use of black folktales. A careful re-reading of Youngblood, And Then We Heard the Thunder, and 'Sippi reveals Killens' literary progression, from the former to the latter. Youngblood and And Then We Heard the Thunder have black folktales incorporated into their story line to invoke humor and also to embellish the dominant theme of all three novels: black manhood. This ornamental use of black folktales is traditional—the most common use among black writers. Killens adheres to this method of writing in the two earlier novels. The folktales embedded within them are not inextricably woven into their plots. They could either be replaced by some of Killens' prose or other folktales from the black community which are funny or convey the theme of black manhood. Killens extends this traditional usage to a higher and much more sophisticated level in 'Sippi. Like its two predecessors, 'Sippi includes folktales for humorous effect and as variations on the theme of black manhood. However, in addition to this customary use, Killens breaks new literary ground among black novelists by using both the structure and dynamics of a black folktale as the basic outline of his novel: Unlike the other folktales which appear in these novels, you cannot remove the "'Sippi" folktale from the novel 'Sippi; they are basically one and the same. (p. 92)

In a real sense, Killens' three novels form an historical trilogy which chronicles the black American experience from 1900 to the present. Black manhood and the Negro race's century-long struggle for human dignity in America are the major and minor themes of these books. The three heroes, Robby Youngblood in Youngblood, Solly Sanders in And Then We Heard the Thunder, and Chuck Chaney in 'Sippi, are all black men valiantly struggling against white racism in America. Youngblood deals with the crippling effects of "the southern way of life" on Negroes from 1900 until World War II. And Then We Heard the Thunder concerns itself with integration and the Negro's mid-fifties push to enter the mainstream of American life. 'Sippi begins after the Second World War—the date of the Supreme Court's ruling on integrating public schools, May 17, 1954, to be exact—and reveals through its hero, Chuck Chaney, the disenchantment of many blacks with the American dream and a growing enchantment with black pride, race awareness, and separatism. (p. 93)

While developing these characters, Killens made great use of black folklore. Basically an item of folklore has three characteristics. First, it is traditional…. Second, folklore is communal. It must be shared by a group…. Third, genuine terms of folklore must be communicative. They must convey, to member and non-member alike, the thinking of the people from whom they have come. (pp. 93-4)

Black manhood is the dominant theme of both Killens' three novels and the majority of the black folktales he incorporates into them. (p. 97)

The tabooed white woman is also a theme of one of the black folktales selected by Killens. Sexual relations with a white woman is the cardinal sin for black men in the south. The John cycle of tales has one about the slave putting his hand under the dress of a master's wife—while it was still hanging on the clothesline. (p. 99)

Killens has made the customary literary use of this folklore genre; he uses them, that is, to invoke some response from his readers, such as humor or social protest. In many of his folktales humor and social protest are combined. In 'Sippi, he not only uses the message of a traditional folklore genre, but more importantly, he uses the structure of the folktale as a formal outline for his novel. Hence, it is not possible to remove the "'Sippi" folktale from Killens' novel and have the same book: the novel 'Sippi is a bigger and much more sophisticated offspring of her folktale father….

There have been other instances in which traditional black folktales have been closely integrated into the fabric of a novel beyond the use for comic effect or to register a social complaint. Richard Wright and Cecil Brown are two authors in point. (p. 100)

In 'Sippi, Killens goes further than either Wright or Brown in his use of the black folktale. The tale that he selected for this innovative act was very popular during the early and middle sixties….

Negroes getting mean now. They ain't taking no more stuff off the white man. Like this mad Negro who went up to these white folks that he's worked for all his life and said, 'Ain't gon be no more Mister Charlie. It's just Charlie from now on.' Then he looked at his wife and said, 'Ain't no more Miss Ann. It's just plain Ann from now on." After saying this the Negro turned in a huff to leave. But when he got to the door he turned again and said, 'And another thing! Ain't no more Mississippi! It's just plain 'Sippi from now on!'

The title, 'Sippi, is one of several clear indications that Killens has brought about the perfect marriage between the folktale and the novel. For 'Sippi obviously refers to the above black folktale. (p. 101)

Basically the structures of [the] "'Sippi" folktale and John O. Killens' novel 'Sippi are the same. In the first place, both the novel and the folktale are built upon the same theme, namely that black people, black men especially, will no longer passively accept southern racism. Both the novel and the folktale proclaim that the time has arrived in American history in which black people will be actively engaged in the task of changing this social system. The folktale begins with the black hero breaking a "southern custom" by entering the front door of a white home and concludes with him re-affirming his newly found manhood by shouting:

Ain't no more Mississippi!
Ain't no more Mississippi!
It's jes' 'Sippi from now on!

In short, his closing words articulate what his bold initial action implied. Killens repeats his novel's basic theme of black manhood in his prologue and an epilogue. Secondly, the flow of Killens' novel is similar to [the] folktale; that is, it moves from the black hero's confrontation and rejection of: (1) the racial southern custom, (2) the white man, (3) the white woman, and (4) the violence which white southern society meters out to Blacks who get out of their "place." In the process of developing his central hero, Chuck Othello Chaney, Killens has him meet and pass all four of these trials.

In addition to these similarities in structure, Killens also develops both the stated and implied themes of the "'Sippi" folktale in his novel…. Black pride and black manhood are the two implied themes that Killens … develops throughout his novel....

(The entire section is 2899 words.)