Kenan, Randall 1963-
Randall Kenan 1963-
(Full name Randall Garrett Kenan) American novelist, short story writer, biographer, and critic.
Regarded as a talented and insightful writer, Kenan has garnered critical attention for producing fiction that explores racial and sexual boundaries through an innovative synthesis of realistic detail, Southern folklore, and supernaturalism. Critics have commended Kenan's imaginative depiction of Southern small-town rural life in the fictional African American community of Tims Creek, North Carolina, often comparing this setting to William Faulkner's mythical Yoknapatawpha County. In his recent nonfiction, Kenan assesses the state of the contemporary black community, charting its progress in obtaining racial and economic equality and reflecting on its efforts to eliminate racial discrimination. In addition, the author has written thought-provoking essays on the U.S. government's disastrous response to the devastation resulting from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its subsequent implications for the black community.
Kenan was born in 1963 in Brooklyn, New York. At six weeks old, he was taken by his paternal grandfather to Wallace, North Carolina, and then to rural Chinquapin to be raised by his father's close-knit extended family. Realizing at a young age that he was homosexual, Kenan felt both alienated and nurtured by the traditional and staunchly conservative environment: although marginalized by his sexuality, he felt encircled by his family and the tradition of storytelling that permeates his writing. At East Duplin High School in Bealahville, he played trumpet and was a Smithsonian scholar. Graduating from high school in 1980, Kenan enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and majored in physics. After he took a creative writing class with H. Maxwell Steele, however, Kenan began to consider a career writing science-fiction novels. He changed his major to English literature and during a junior year abroad at Oxford University studying British literature, he began to develop his personal literary style. In 1985 Kenan graduated from college, moved to New York, and got a job working as a receptionist at Random House. Several months later, he accepted a job as an assistant editor at Knopf. He also began working on his first novel, A Visitation of Spirits, which was published in 1989. That same year, Kenan left the publishing field and taught at Sarah Lawrence, Vassar College, and Columbia University. In 1992 he published a short fiction collection entitled Let the Dead Bury Their Dead and Other Stories, which subsequently became a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won a Lambda Award for best gay men's fiction. In 1994 Kenan was named the first William Blackburn Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University. He has also taught at the University of North Carolina, University of Mississippi, and the University of Memphis.
Kenan's early fiction is informed by his experiences growing up a gay black man in conservative rural North Carolina. His novel, A Visitation of Spirits, is set in a fictional North Carolina community called Tims Creek and chronicles the struggles of Horace Cross, a sixteen-year-old African American man, to find self-acceptance. Through one long night in April 1984, Horace is visited by demons and spirits that guide him through a reflection on the experiences of generations of his family as well as his own life. Disgusted by his homosexuality and feeling trapped by the homophobia of his family and community, Horace eventually takes his own life. Horace's story alternates with the story of his cousin, James Malachi Greene, a minister and school principal, as he takes his great-uncle Zeke and Zeke's sister-in-law, Ruth, to visit a sick relative on December 8, 1985, more than a year after Horace's suicide. The conversations among James, Zeke, and Ruth and James's memories of his cousin help to contextualize Horace's tragic story. Tims Creek is also the setting of the stories in Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. In these tales, Kenan explores themes of death and desire and incorporates aspects of the supernatural and surreal, leading some critics to categorize these pieces as works of magical realism. Kenan also touches on themes of sexual orientation, tolerance, and self-acceptance in the stories. In perhaps the best-known story in the collection, "The Foundations of the Earth," Maggie MacGowan Williams learns about her grandson Gabriel's homosexuality at his funeral from his white lover, Edward. At first, she angrily rejects the truth, but ultimately she comes to terms with it and develops a friendship with Edward. In the process, Maggie begins to see how intolerant and narrow-minded her world is, and she accepts her complicity in Gabriel's lies about his sexual identity and his move from the community.
In 1994, Kenan published James Baldwin, a short biography of the renowned African American writer aimed at young adult readers. His next work of nonfiction, Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (1999), is comprised of a series of interviews with dozens of people from all walks of life on what it means to be black in modern-day America. Through his dialogues with people living in the Deep South and urban North, as well as in areas such as Idaho, Alaska, and Martha's Vineyard, Kenan underscores the diversity of the black experience. In his most recent work, The Fire This Time (2007), Kenan echoes James Baldwin's seminal civil rights text The Fire Next Time and evaluates the progress of racial equality in the United States, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the racial divide it exposed. He points out the dramatic progress made in certain areas, but outlines the new challenges to the black community as the country moves forward into the twenty-first century.
Kenan is recognized as one of the most astute and gifted black writers in America today. Critics have admired his honest discussions of tolerance, self-acceptance, and racial and sexual equality in his fiction and nonfiction. In addition, they have analyzed the stylistic merits of his incorporation of African American and Southern folklore, as well as elements of magical realism, in his novel and short stories. A few commentators have noted that by setting his fiction in the small rural community of Tims Creek, Kenan enhances the conventional portrayal of black gay urban life and provides an authentic voice for gays living outside of urban areas. As a result, they contend, the author offers a different perspective on the black gay experience and highlights the diversity of gay life in America. Other critics have observed that Kenan's preoccupation with diversity also extends to the broader American cultural environment. The interviews in Walking on Water present valuable insight into the multifaceted scope of the black experience in contemporary America. Reviewers also have praised Kenan's sociopolitical essays evaluating the progress of the struggle for full racial equality in America as cogent and constructive analyses of the state of the Civil Rights movement in the twenty-first century. Assessing his contribution to black literature, Doris Betts has written that "whether in a Tims Creek church or in the mind of a troubled boy, in the biography of a writer who would never live in America after King's assassination, in the stories that pursue durable loves, close-knit families, a truer past history, and a more just present society, Kenan continues in his postmodern fictions to meditate—and to make his readers meditate—on their diverse humanity, on what being a good person really means."
A Visitation of Spirits (novel) 1989
Let the Dead Bury Their Dead and Other Stories (short stories) 1992
James Baldwin (biography) 1994
Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (interviews) 1999
The Fire This Time (criticism) 2007
Doris Betts (essay date 1997)
SOURCE: Betts, Doris. "Randall Garrett Kenan: Myth and Reality in Tims Creek." In Southern Writers at Century's End, edited by Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins, pp. 9-20. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
[In the following essay, Betts provides an in-depth overview of Kenan's life and literary career.]
The chinquapin, a Southern edible nut like a miniature chestnut, grows within a burr on a small bushy tree. As a child, I picked and ate many in pastureland in Piedmont, North Carolina, strung some as beads. Randall Garrett Kenan saw but did not eat them as a boy growing up thirty years later in the unincorporated community bearing that name, Chinquapin, Cy- press Township, with its own post office and one "high" and one "low" Baptist Church, located in the southeastern part of southeastern Duplin County, North Carolina.
When Kenan was born in 1963, that county, 822 square miles of small towns imbedded among woods, swamp, and farms, settled by Scotch-Irish in the early 1700s, already had in its population of Kenans aplenty—white, established, often wealthy. The family had stamped its surname on Kenansville, the county seat, and was known for two hundred years of leadership and philanthropy to the state. The first white Kenan immigrant ancestor, a member of the British House of Commons, was listed in the 1790 census as owner of thirty-seven slaves; some of these became the novelist's forebears. The Duplin chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy is named for a Kenan. Duplin was one of only seven counties in North Carolina that voted never to repeal secession. That old Southern family added new money when one of the Kenan girls married Henry Flagler, founder of Standard Oil and father of Miami, Florida. In 1971, when a volume of Duplin County history and government was compiled, white Kenans, Sprunts, Hills, and Herrings continued to be well-known surnames in Kenansville, Faison, and Rose Hill. Randall Kenan, then eight, was sharing with lesser-known Kenans a mostly agricultural and communal way of life, though there were nearby chicken plants and pickle factories. In the county history there was little indication that African-American descendants of slaves had been steadily living out their own complex histories alongside the descendants of slaveholders, their names and stories intertwined.
Into Duplin County, Randall Kenan, born in Brooklyn to a mother who could not afford to keep him, came first as a six-week-old baby to Wallace, then to Chinquapin to be reared by his father's kin. His father was eventually arrested for manslaughter; Kenan told Dorothy Allison in a conversation printed in the Village Voice Literary Supplement (188 [September 1993]: 26) that he had vivid memories of visiting him in prison. In the 1980s, Kenan would look back on that close-knit rural childhood as an adult living again in Brooklyn, where he would invent characters who resemble members of his extended Kenan family, to whom he dedicated both novel and story collection. In these fictions about race, love, gender, and religion in an invented York County and unincorporated community of Tims Creek, Kenan has presented the double histories of the proud white Cross family (of Crosstown, North Carolina), which takes its turn at being merely backdrop for the upstage story of the proud black Cross family. Though his work is fiction, its very existence acts as a response to that highly selective Duplin history in which so few black citizens appear.
Not surprisingly, Kenan once told a New York interviewer that North Carolina was "ambiguous. It's hard to distinguish between myth and reality." That remark serves as a useful introduction to the way he sorts, juxtaposes, and layers both myth and reality in his work.
As a youth, Kenan attended integrated East Duplin High School in Beaulaville, where he played trumpet and was a Smithsonian scholar. He has described these years in his interview with Allison as a "bifurcation" (26), his integrated school life running parallel to an insular home life where it was never discussed. The division was so strong that at school he was known by his first name, Randall, and among aunts and grandparents by his middle name, Garrett.
As a teenager, he also corresponded with a military physicist at NASA and almost patented a conversion device for changing light into electricity, but told book editor Betty Hodges of the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun that "it had no application." Still, he was avidly reading books by Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov, and at age seventeen entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, planning to earn a physics degree and write sci-fi thrillers on the side. Here he took African-American studies with the late Professor Sonia Stone, for whom the campus Black Cultural Center is named. He joined the campus gospel choir and wrote a short play about the difference between gospel songs and spirituals.
During his sophomore year, "just for fun," Kenan took his first fiction-writing workshop, with Max Steele, then director of UNC's creative writing program, and also started reading Toni Morrison—a combination that moved him rapidly from physics to metaphysics and from science fiction to literary fiction. In various interviews he has praised Steele and other English Department professors (Daphne Athas, Bland Simpson, Lee Greene, Louis Rubin) for their encouragement during his undergraduate years. The summer after his junior year, he went to Oxford to study English literature and drama criticism and sealed his intellectual fate. That year he also worked for Signal Books in Carrboro, North Carolina.
By the time he entered the senior honors writing seminar I taught, Randall Kenan had already developed the style and tone he needed to tell the Cross family stories. For any teacher, it was a dream-seminar in which one's chief duty was to stand out of the light of talented young students. With Kenan in that year-long class were two other gifted and very different writers who became friends. All three were producing work that they would publish soon thereafter: Tim McLaurin (The Acorn Plan, Woodrow's Trumpet, Keeper of the Moon) and Sharleen Baker, whose first novel, Finding Signs, Kenan would end up editing for Knopf. Some of the stories he wrote that senior year later became part of his own published work.
In December 1985, he finished at North Carolina and received his degree in May, with an English major, honors in creative writing, a minor in physics, and this teacher's highest expectations.
That summer when he went to seek his fortune in New York, he carried good wishes and letters of recommendation from many faculty members, very different from the letters Ralph Ellison's protagonist bore. They included my note to Toni Morrison—with whom I was only slightly acquainted, but who did take an interest in his obvious talent and ambition. These helped him make his own way, with her, with other writers, and also with his first employer. He took the first job he could get in publishing, as a receptionist at Random House, then moved up quickly to assistant to the vice president, Ashbel Crane, and to assistant editor.
In the meantime he kept on with his fiction writing: nights, weekends, while riding on the subway, revising his prose in stages as it moved from longhand drafts in ink to typescript and onto computer. At age twenty-six he published his first novel with Grove Press, A Visitation of Spirits (1989). It was praised by Gloria Naylor, and reviewed favorably almost everywhere. George Garrett called him "one of the best writers of his generation" (6). In his home state, reviewer Michael Gaspeny (Greensboro [N.C.] Daily News) wrote: "It's as if Edgar Allan Poe, Alex Haley, and John McPhee were competing for space in this autobiographical first novel." Its plot does make rapid-fire shifts from supernatural horror to African-American family roots to evocative short essays about killing hogs and barning tobacco. "Truth is," George Garrett said in the Chicago Tribune (6), "Kenan tries pretty much of everything and pretty much gets away with all of it, too."
But since protagonist Horace Thomas Cross, age sixteen, commits suicide in the end, "autobiographical" is too strong a description, though there are similarities between character and author, between the real Duplin County and the invented York County. Horace, like his creator, is black, brilliant, rebellious, and gay. He feels very much an outcast, first by race in Southern white society but more seriously by his sexual preference within his religious and orthodox family in Tims Creek, where traditions are already collapsing as the young leave home for urban, often northern, opportunity.
None of the Crosses is quite ready to have the male-female tradition collapse, however. Kenan has said that he wants his fictions to underscore the importance of the old values, "work and compassion and love," but Horace loves his own gender and feels condemned thereby. At Thanksgiving dinner, 1983, the Crosses (who have been mostly ministers and teachers since Emancipation) are shocked not only because Horace has been hanging out with white boys, but because he comes to the holiday table wearing an earring in his left ear. "Life the way Horace wants it ain't condoned" (Visitation 253).
To summarize A Visitation of Spirits as sequential plot will undo its kaleidoscopic structure and yet, because setting, themes, and even some characters recur in his second work, some outline of its content is required. Each of the novel's five sections ("White Sorcery," "Black Necromancy," "Holy Science," "Old Demonology," and "Old Gods, New Demons") contains fragments that skip in time and space, and many are introduced by assorted epigraphs that break the reader's focus into even smaller parts. But the main story line switches back and forth between (1) a present level, December 8, 1985, and (2) Horace's crucial demon-ridden night of April 29-30, 1984, during which he suffered either a mental collapse or an occult possession that ended when he shot himself with his grandfather's gun. Within this main bifurcation, the style and narrating points-of-view also shift. Some segments are objective, even presented as playscript; other episodes are told in an omniscient nineteenth-century voice which addresses the reader as "you."
However, the main alternating narrators are James Malachai Greene, a preacher and school principal living out the respectable Cross family tradition, and young Horace—bookish and homosexual, who, finding his nature condemned by Jimmy's church, turns to its opposite, black magic, and calls up the Ultimate Accuser. Jimmy and Horace, the two youngest members of the Cross family, tell their generation's story. They are contrasted to but still loved by the family's two oldest members, Aunt Ruth, age ninety-two, and her brother-in-law, Zeke, Horace's grandfather, whose oral history reaches back before the Civil War.
Barely has the reader met these characters when, as early as page six, the first digression occurs—a short essay on old-time hog-killing addressed to "you" and entitled "Advent." This apparent shift in content and tone actually starts the myth/reality mixture. A factual account of slaughter and smokehouse is used to call up in the reader the ghosts of butchered hogs, the memory of older times when community food was obtained by communal work. But just as the reader begins to adapt to Kenan's method, this essay ends and the next segment leaps out of general time and back to the morning of April 29, the day Horace Cross first decides to use sorcery to metamorphose himself from an unhappy human to a red-tailed hawk. His spell chants up, or he fantasizes, a member of Satan's High Court who says to him, "Come!" And, wearing only a borrowed coat and carrying his grandfather's gun, Horace follows this spirit to revisit his own short life the way Scrooge followed the Ghost of Christmas Past.
In "Black Necromancy," Jimmy Greene's first-person "confessions" change the subject; they recount his biography, eulogize his dead wife, examine his role now as the first black principal of an integrated school in York County. In a realistic episode on December 8, 1985, Jimmy is driving Ruth and Zeke to the V.A. Hospital in Fayetteville, where Cousin Asa Cross is dying. Zeke then narrates much of this trip, allowing Kenan an opportunity to reproduce eastern North Carolina dialect, which is often interracial: "gone" for "going to," "won't" for "was not," and such well-worn examples as: "if I'm lying, I'm flying," "don't vex me, boy," and the promise to do something very soon, that is, "directly."
In this section, too, Kenan uses an old man's memory to trace the Cross family history from slavery to the day Zeke's wife, Retha, took on the care of their young grandson, Horace. This section of realistic background contrasts with the melodramatic events and poetic style of Horace's last night seventeen months earlier. In a sharp changeover, Horace recalls details of his baptism; then his real memory expands into a dream-fantasy of the congregation calling him "Oreo! Faggot!" The demon also makes him remember his school life and sexual awakening. At 2 a.m. on what has tipped past midnight into April 30, 1984, Horace steals a car that belongs to one of his teachers.
In "Holy Science," the flashbacks come first through Jimmy Greene, who can never now forget that time in 1983 when Horace attempted to confide in him and seek help. In a replay of their scripted dialogue, Jimmy hears himself assure Horace he will outgrow his same-sex desire and be "perfectly normal." The matriarch Ruth picks up the narrative thread of their December 8 visit to Asa's hospital bedside, before the novel shifts backward again to the fateful night, 2:40 a.m. at the high school, where Horace's demon makes him relive his ninth-grade affair with Gideon Stone, when "for the first time he realized the difference between knowledge and experience, and that there is more than one way to know" (Visitation [A Visitation of Spirits ] 155). But he must also relive with pain his rejection not only of Gideon but of his own sexuality.
In Part Four, "Old Demonology," Jimmy Greene's "Confessions" continue to detail his love for his wife, Anne Gazells Dubois, who died at age thirty-seven, but this time with pain of his own, he reveals how he found her in bed with another man. After the Thanksgiving dinner playscript previously described, the novel resumes the December 8 return trip from the hospital for Ruth, Zeke, and Jimmy, including a humorous restaurant scene, with a car breakdown and a quarrel and reconciliation between the two elders. For the first time, the plot outcome is more than foreshadowed; it is specified with the words, "If Horace had not died" (Visitation 208).
By now on Horace's final April 30 night, the clock has ticked down to 4:45 a.m. Horace is led by his demonic spirit to visit another crucial spot in his personal history, the Crosstown amphitheater, where he worked as an eleventh-grader for the local historical production, "Ride the Freedom Star," a two-and-one-half hour musical saga of an American family—the other Cross family, of course, the white Cross family. The theater had been built by the town, aided by a grant from the Cross Endowment, and the play was written (badly) by a family member, Philip Cross. The drama had sixty characters, three intermissions, and only used black characters as happy slaves, buffoons, primitive preachers, or singer-shouters in church choirs. Kenan intends all the irony of its titular "freedom" applied narrowly to those white Americans who immigrated to York County from the British Isles, but not applied to slaves who had been kidnapped from Africa and who sometimes escaped northward, navigating by the constellations.
Interestingly enough, in the real Duplin County, where Randall Kenan grew up (though almost two decades before he was born), a real outdoor pageant called "The Duplin Story" was performed in 1949 and 1950 and underwritten by a Kenan family foundation. That play, seventeen scenes of three minutes each, was written by Sam Byrd of nearby Mt. Olive, North Carolina, the actor who had portrayed Dude Lester in the long Broadway run of Tobacco Road. Its two acts, also, covered primarily the history of white settlers who became leading white families. In it, black residents per- formed largely as minor characters or rendered choral sound effects. North Carolina's governor attended one of the performances.
In the fictional life of Horace Cross, the summer theater job introduced him to gay male actors. He had an affair with Antonio Santangelo—part Italian, part Puerto Rican—and then with two other cast members. Confused, tormented by guilt, unable to invest his full self and capacity in love, Horace was becoming both promiscuous and unfulfilled. Revisiting the theater on this mad night of April 30, Horace encounters his own shadow self, who sits applying white greasepaint at a mirror. Then he is led to relive a night of debauchery at a final cast party held in the cemetery where the Scotch-Irish Crosses are buried.
Now both the night and the novel are rising to climax. When the demon makes Horace revisit that same graveyard, he is also offered a vision of African-American racial history. He shoots his own white-faced, actor-doppleganger, but lacks the strength to throw off the demon's influence, to respond to this larger vision and mature into one of those heroes who knows the grim past but can contribute to a better personal and communal future.
There follow some quick recollections of how, after that wild party, Horace's school grades slide downhill as do his hope for his future. "So this is it," his personal demon says (Visitation 235) as the night's "visitations" come full circle. "It is time."
In the last section ("Old Gods, New Demons"), Horace's "Confessions" again seem at first to digress. He describes the old way of killing a chicken, either by neck-wringing or with an ax: ("it would run and run fast, in a kind of womanish strut, as if somebody had told it some bad news and it was trying to run away and not hear it, all the while running with no head and blood just a-streaming red over its dusty white feathers" [Visitation 245]). It's a prophetic picture. But these six-and-a-half pages of rhythmic "I-remember" sentences seem to cascade like those in Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," to pile up like the instant whir of a life passing before one's eyes, a life with its own bad news, whose original promise has in some ways been butchered like a hog or decapitated like a chicken. This section ends: "I remember me" (251).
Surely, all that remains for the final segment, 7:05 a.m. on April 30, 1984, is that Jimmy Greene will find Horace behind Tims Creek Elementary School, naked inside his borrowed coat, will vainly and too late try talking him into life rather than death, only to witness the gunshot blast into Horace's head and to scream.
But then, surprise! Instead of "The End," there appears on page 254 another three-page segment, "Requiem for Tobacco," an essay in omniscient prose addressed to "you," a counterpart to the hog-killing episode that was called "Advent, or The Beginning of the End." Here, too, the process of harvesting and curing tobacco as a community enterprise is reproduced in quiet, factual narrative—the movements required in hard, hot work, the sensory detail, a harvesting long since taken over by machines, and also a recognition of the death of that way of life, a death that is as much worth remembering as Horace's. "It is good to remember," says the novel's final sentence, "for too many forget" (257).
The novel's summary has been lengthy because there is no good way to explain exactly what Kenan does except by seeing him do it, bringing his individual vision to bear on Southern folklore and local history.
After publication of this first novel, which he has called a "cautionary tale," Kenan became all writer rather than part-time editor, teaching creative writing at Vassar, Sarah Lawrence, and Columbia, receiving a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts and one from Reader's Digest to the MacDowell colony. He completed the twelve stories, also containing angels, ghosts, and demons, for his collection, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (1992), working with editor Alane Mason, another product of UNC's senior honors writing seminar. Some of these stories were originally potential sections of A Visitation of Spirits ; others develop the people and situations already set in motion there.
It is not only useful to read the volumes back-to-back, but some may wish that the title story of Let the Dead Bury Their Dead had been a preamble to rather than the final story in the novel, since these last fifty-one pages with footnotes, both real and invented, purport to be an oral history of Tims Creek (1854-1985) recorded in 1985 by the late Reverend Jimmy Greene (dead in a car wreck, 1998) in taped conversation with those same two Cross elders Ezekiel Thomas and Ruth Davis Cross, but made two months before Jimmy escorted them on the novel's long hospital trip December 8, 1985. Did Jimmy—who became the town's historian—respond in a small way to part of Horace's vision? The "R.K.," who with the aid of grants has organized and published Jimmy Greene's "papers," is identified as Reginald Gregory Kain and not author Kenan, although the story is dedicated to Kenan's real contemporaries, Nell Painter and Randy Page.
If the history of Tims Creek, with its mythologized black slave hero-leader (called Menes or Pharaoh), is an antidote to the lopsided mythology of Crosstown's pageant, it also recalls both Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and the historical Nat Turner. Part of the writer-reader game will be this very pursuit of texts within texts, facts within fictions, mixed myth and reality. I tallied a few points when recognizing (among footnote sources from John Hope Franklin, Arna Bontemps, and William Styron) the apparently dead-serious citation of scholar Joseph A. Cincotti. (Joe Cincotti, also a gifted honors writing student at Chapel Hill, is currently on the staff of the New York Times.)
This title story then (or oral history/legend/artifact) makes its own contribution to a standard theme in American literature: What is reality? But Kenan puts his own English on that ball—Southern English, Black English, gay English—and makes old questions new with his personal version of magical realism, causing Terry McMillan to call him "our black Marquez."
For example, the botanical footnotes supplied to the narrative by R.K. about the persimmon tree (not the chinquapin!) are accurate and "real"; Canaan Plantation, home to the white Crosses in York, may or may not resemble Turkey Branch Plantation or Liberty Hall, which were homes to white Kenans in Duplin; the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill is certainly real, and some volumes cited are, and are not, stored in it. Verbatim diaries of Rebecca Cross sound authentic but are invented, although they do mention the real chinquapin. The fictional white—and gay—Phineas Cross is said last century to have stumbled on what must have been the real Northeast Cape Fear River in Duplin and compared it with the Thames (Tims Creek—get it?) and so on. This "history" also introduces the Elihu McElwaine family, which figures in some of the other eleven stories set in Kenan's Yoknapatawpha, and who are destined to become central characters in his next novel.
As if serving as a corrective to Horace's suicide, the epigraph to Let the Dead Bury Their Dead is from Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider, in which Miranda—near death during the 1918 flu epidemic—nonetheless fights through to life. These dozen stories, often erotic, often crossing fact with fantasy, also move beyond defeat. For instance, "The Foundations of the Earth," a title taken from God's challenging question to Job, has a post-Horace Cross theme with a happier resolution. Here Maggie Williams, six months after her grandson's funeral, can accept the fact that he had a white male lover whose smile "would make cold butter drip" (67), and thaws out her bias. This story and "Cornsilk" are among Kenan's favorites because they are the oldest in the collection and he "worked on them the hardest." He calls "Cornsilk," a story about the incest taboo, an even more "cautionary tale" than the novel. Here a first-person, heterosexual narrator recalls his passionate but doomed love affair with his half-sister.
In March 1991, when Kenan read for one of the first times with his family in the audience, he chose to read "Angel Unawares," perhaps indebted to Max Steele's story about a woman who lays a large blue egg that hatches into an angel. Here an Asian angel named Chi, which in Chinese and Korean means both angel and personal spirit, falls out of the sky into John Edgar Stokes's front yard. When Stokes's old dog Shep is wantonly killed by the wicked white Terrells, Stokes, age eighty-six, shoots all their prized coon dogs and then is carried off to Heaven before he can be prosecuted.
Characters from the novel do reappear in the Tims Creek stories. The Reverend Hezekiah Barden, who is one of Maggie's visitors in "Foundations of the Earth," and who in the novel was the Baptist predecessor to the Reverend James Malachai Greene, is also the hypocritical narrator of "Ragnarok," an old Norse word equivalent to Armageddon. He is preaching a eulogy while his secret thoughts review his long, adulterous affair with the deceased.
In "The Strange and Tragic Ballad of Mabel Pearsall," the title character, a tormented school-teacher who believes her run-around husband has fathered a child by another woman, actually baby-sits that child and ends up heaving the infant to its death. This story is reprinted in The Christ-Haunted Landscape (1994) along with a Kenan interview.
In "This Far," the historical Booker T. Washington comes in 1915 to Tims Creek to visit the McElwaine twins whom he knew at Hampton. Excerpts from Washington's Up from Slavery depict him as an accommodationist to whites in contrast to the unrelenting activism of the McElwaines, who have apparently seen and adopted that responsible racial vision offered Horace near the end of A Visitation of Spirits and have responded by organizing local schools, also by supporting Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, and the new NAACP.
In other stories, a fifty-one-year-old woman in Newark, New Jersey (originally a McElwaine from Tims Creek), spends a vivid sexual weekend with a young boy; Essie cares for, and disciplines, a boy in her care. One white narrator, Ida Perry (in the story "Tell Me, Tell Me" ) is as haunted as Horace Cross ever was, but this time by the ghost of a small black boy who, by accident, witnessed her having sex with her boyfriend, Butch, back in 1937 at Emerald Isle Beach. Butch drowned him in the sea for punishment.
Not only does Kenan reverse the major white and minor black characters in his revised histories, but he also reverses stereotypes. In his York County, the blacks are usually educated, polite, civilized; whites on the fringes of their lives are the primitive savages. The Terrells kill an old man's dog. Percy Terrell in "Run, Mourner, Run" (whose title echoes a Harriet Tubman song) lies, steals, and blackmails to acquire more land and uses Dean Williams as if he owned him. Butch callously drowns a child.
One of Kenan's stories, "The Virtue Called Vanity," from The Boston Review (fall 1992), though not included in this collection, was chosen by Robert Gingher for his anthology of stories by North Carolinians, The Rough Road Home (1992). Here, another Tims Creek native, Geneva Hudson, age seventy-five, after witnessing a street-gang stabbing, decides to leave the safe Hillcrest Rest Home and take her chances on living a more vivid life outside. As Dean Williams once responded to rhymes, she is activated by the blues lyrics of Koko Taylor's "Earthshaker."
In the spring of 1994, Kenan published his first non-fiction book, James Baldwin, which opens a series of twenty-nine young adult biographies (edited by Martin Duberman for Chelsea House) subtitled "Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians." The frequent question in Baldwin's work is certainly echoed in Kenan's own themes: "Isn't love more important than color or gender?" Baldwin, whose mother would never tell him his father's name, giving his title Nobody Knows My Name an ironic double meaning, was—like Horace Cross—black and gay, pulled between judgmental religion and the youthful sexual desires it condemned and, said Baldwin, also "afraid of the evil within me." But unlike Horace Cross and much more like Kenan himself, Baldwin decided that "despair is a luxury only white men can afford."
Also during 1994, besides teaching and giving readings, Kenan was completing a second nonfiction book under option to Knopf, Walking on Water, an attempt to do with facts on a national scale what his fiction has already done in Duplin/York counties: redress the balance by presenting the untold story of black citizens as more than minor characters in a white society. For a year he traveled to Canada, New England, Alaska, and the desert Southwest, applying the techniques of V. S. Naipaul and Bruce Chatwin in delineating the diverse worlds of contemporary African-Americans. He has contributed numerous articles and reviews to magazines and has a second play in progress, the first having been performed in 1983 by a UNC student workshop.
Also under option to Harcourt is a novel tentatively titled The Fire and the Baptism, set in Tims Creek, Chapel Hill, and New York City. It will pick up the footnote from page 332 in the story collection stating that Elihu McElwaine, the last McElwaine of Tims Creek, killed a man in Chapel Hill while studying at UNC in 1963 and then disappeared. The projected plot involves McElwaine's kidnapping of two children—one black, one white—and his disappearance with the ransom money. In the novel, the lives of these kidnap victims will intersect twenty years later.
All these various fiction and nonfiction projects illustrate what Valerie Minor wrote of Kenan's work in The Nation, that "reclaiming life history—whether through apparition or scholarship—is a healing process of personal and cultural recovery" (28).
Kenan, in the fall of 1994 at age thirty-one, became the first William Blackburn Professor in the English Department at Duke University and, in 1995, received a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue that reclaiming and healing of myth and life history in his prose. Few American writers a decade out of college have produced so much, so fast, and so well. So meteoric has been Kenan's rise to authority that when Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize, the Los Angeles Times called him for a comment.
Unquestionably influenced by Morrison, he shares her sense of a writer's tribal responsibilities and has absorbed into his own vision and modified the way her characters, too, accept the supernatural while remaining firmly rooted in the real world. He has, also, a similar interest in how individuals do or do not fit into their communities. Both writers use elderly people as timeless markers of continuity and hard-won wisdom.
When Morrison, in Playing in the Dark, suggested that the story of "a black person, the experience of being bound and/or rejected" could become "a means of meditation—both safe and risky—on one's own humanity" (53), she might have been setting Kenan's agenda. And when she said that earlier literature had created the American as "new, white, and male," she might have been summarizing Kenan's York County historical drama about the white Cross family or, indeed, its real counterpart, the "Duplin Story" about the white Kenan family. White history, too, is mythological, lopsided, overblown. And Uncle Tom's Cabin, as Morrison has made clear, "was not written for Uncle Tom to read or be persuaded by."
Kenan brings to Morrison's "othering" his own high intelligence, a gift for lyrical prose as well as an ear for down-home speech, and an eye for earthbound reality. But he is also fortunate to be publishing his own first book a generation after Knopf had rejected James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room as "repugnant." In fact, Kenan's sexual scenes offer a broader, less restricted eroticism than Baldwin's, a joy of sex for straight as well as gay participants, in bodies not only black but white, within either young flesh or flesh that is older but ain't dead yet, an often celebratory sexuality lived out by very physical individuals whose specific genitals and skin become universalized. In Kenan, the sex, the family values, rural life, religious conflicts become—as Morrison advised—a means of "meditation … on one's own humanity" (53).
After his first novel was published, Randall Kenan answered one journalist's question in his home state by saying that his goal in life was "to be a good man," and added with a smile, "but I also need to find out what that means."
Whether in a Tims Creek church or in the mind of a troubled boy, in the biography of a writer who would never live in America after King's assassination, in the stories that pursue durable loves, close-knit families, a truer past history, and a more just present society, Kenan continues in his postmodern fictions to meditate—and to make his readers meditate—on their diverse humanity, on what being a good person really means.
Garrett, George. Rev. of A Visitation of Spirits, by Randall Kenan. Chicago Tribune Book Reviews (Aug. 13, 1989): 6.
Kenan, Randall. "Conversation with Randall Kenan." Interview by Dorothy Allison. Village Voice Literary Supplement 188 (Sept. 1993): 26.
———. James Baldwin. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.
———. Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1992.
———. "The Strange and Tragic Ballad of Mabel Pearsall." The Christ-Haunted Landscape. Ed. Susan Ketchin. UP of Mississippi, 1994. 261-77.
———. "The Virtue Called Vanity." The Rough Road Home. Ed. Robert Gingher. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1992. 131-50.
———. A Visitation of Spirits. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
Minor, Valerie. Rev. of Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, by Randall Kenan. The Nation 255 (6 July 1992): 28+.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1992.
Trudier Harris-Lopez (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Harris-Lopez, Trudier. "Transformations of the Land in Randall Kenan's ‘The Foundations of the Earth.’" In South of Tradition: Essays on African American Literature, pp. 160-74. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Harris-Lopez contends that Kenan challenges traditional Southern conventions related to religion, moral values, and tolerance by associating racism, hypocrisy, and sexuality with the soil in "The Foundations of the Earth."]
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This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Guinn, Matthew. "Signifyin(g) in the South: Randall Kenan." In After Southern Modernism: Fiction of the Contemporary South, pp. 138-60. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
Analyzes the ways in which Kenan manipulates the dominant themes of African American fiction in his work in order to distinguish himself within the black literary tradition.
Holland, Sharon Patricia. "(Pro)Creating Imaginative Spaces and Other Queer Acts: Randall Kenan's A Visitation of Spirits and Its Revival of James Baldwin's Absent Black Gay Man in Giovanni's Room." In James Baldwin Now, edited by Dwight A. McBride, pp. 265-88. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
Articulates the relationship between A Visitation of Spirits and James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, arguing that it is in "Kenan's imaginative revisioning of Baldwin's most maligned and forgotten novel that we can unearth a sense of the importance of Giovanni's most persistent and haunting images."
Hovis, George. "‘I Contain Multitudes’: Randall Kenan's Walking on Water as Collective Autobiography." Southern Literary Journal (2004): 100-25.
Contends that in Walking on Water Kenan positions himself as a black everyman whose personal journey represents that of all African Americans.
Kenan, Randall, and V. Hunt. "A Conversation with Randall Kenan." African American Review 29, no. 3 (fall 1995): 411-20.
Includes a discussion of the thematic and stylistic aspects of Kenan's work, influences on his fiction, and his creative process.
McKoy, Sheila Smith. "Rescuing the Black Homosexual Lambs: Randall Kenan and the Reconstruction of Southern Gay Masculinity." In Contemporary Black Men's Fiction and Drama, edited by Keith Clark, pp. 15-36. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
Examines Kenan's forthright depiction of black homosexuality in A Visitation of Spirits and his short stories.
McRuer, Robert. "Queer Locations, Queer Transformations: Randall Kenan's A Visitation of Spirits." In South to a New Place: Region, Literature, Culture, edited by Suzanne W. Jones and Sharon Monteith, pp. 184-95. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
Excerpted from a longer chapter originally published in 1997, this essay considers the significance of the small-town North Carolina setting of A Visitation of Spirits, arguing that "[q]ueer transformations can begin in the queerest of locations; as fabulist for our times, Kenan transforms a place on the so-called margins into a center of the queer world."
Additional coverage of Kenan's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 142; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 86; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 292; Gay & Lesbian Literature, Ed. 1; and Literature Resource Center.