A Close Reading of Randall Kenan, Who Paid Rare Attention to Black Complexity

Omari Weekes and Elias Rodriques in Conversation About the Late Writer

Dear Omari,

You were the first person to tell me. I was scrolling through Twitter, reading tributes to Chadwick Boseman, wondering about the fate of the Black children who finally had a superhero to imagine would rescue them, about how parents would break the news, about how they would cradle them to sleep. “Did Randall Kenan die too?” you texted. “Jesus fuck! He did!!” I didn’t believe you. I googled his name but couldn’t find anything. It was only on Twitter, you said and sent me the link. I wouldn’t see a newspaper mention his death until a little while later.

It was cruel but telling that he passed without an immediate announcement in The New York Times. Born in 1963, Kenan entered the world of publishing as quietly as he left it. After graduating from UNC Chapel Hill in 1984, he moved to New York and found a job at Random House, as he put it, “to increase their minority numbers.” He worked as a temp, a receptionist, and then as assistant to the executive vice president at Knopf. He was one of those many workers who do the labor, in other words, that goes unseen in the making of a book.

How unsurprising, then, that his first novel, A Visitation of Spirits, published in 1989, revered books. It’s full of them, and not just the Bible, which the Black rural family at the novel’s center reveres. The sometimes-pastor, sometimes-principal Jimmy considers reading Foucault or Fanon or Augustine, among others, before falling asleep. The protagonist, Horace, lines his walls with posters of various comic book characters and searches through old arcane books for a spell to transmogrify himself into a bird. The novel gestured to an author who did not just love books but was made of them. Its story of Black queer life, applauded by critics upon its publication, was also a story about the stories we read and the ones we tell.

This investment in storytelling makes the small amount of literary texts he wrote all the more striking. Between 1989 and this year, he published several books, but only one work of fiction: the 1992 short story collection Let the Dead Bury the Dead. Aside from If I Had Wings, a short story collection that just came out, and the novel that he was working on at the time of his death (which I hope will be published posthumously), it seems there is no more Kenan out there. He left behind so few books. How painfully ironic that the author of Visitation—a novel replete with nona- and octogenarians—would die at 57, well before the age of retirement. His was not like the deaths of Toni Morrison or Paule Marshall: Authors who had lived long lives, published vast catalogues, and laid the grounds for fields of literature. His was a career prematurely shortened, one I fear I will always think of in terms of what it could have been.

I’m tired, Omari, of marking time by the number of people who have passed (170,000 lost to the pandemic in the US since March and counting). I want to say something optimistic. I want to summarize Visitation’s first chapter, which ends with a description of the tradition of slaughtering hogs, and to quote the end of that scene—“But the ghosts of those times are stubborn”—in the hopes of suggesting that he lives on in text and tradition, in the hopes of providing some sort of palliative, but I can’t. What relief does a metaphorical afterlife provide the living when thinking of the good, dying young?

Yours,
Elias

*

Dear Elias,

I sent you that text in stark disbelief. 2020 has been cruel in so many ways; I couldn’t believe that it had this much destruction left in it. I had to let Chadwick Boseman’s death affect me quietly. Among the outpouring of personal grief on Twitter, I could only muster large existential questions about how much more we, as Black people, would need to endure. With over 1,000 people dying every day from Covid-19, I have not become inured to death but it has become a fact of the everyday in ways that I have previously been unable to fathom. Boseman’s death—tragic, unexpected, wretched—festered in an already open wound that has needed to be properly dressed for months.

“Today is impossible,” Kenan wrote a few weeks ago. “We all must now readjust our thinking. The war has only just begun.”

I woke up the next morning to a tweet that I read as a casual reference to the immense generosity of Randall Kenan as a colleague and a friend. Through half open eyes, despite the tweet’s clear indication that he had passed, my heart warmed at the thought of such an esteemed writer being confirmed as a good person working as a professor in the Creative Writing program of his alma mater, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I made coffee, turned back to that tweet, and realized, it was a requiem for a writer that really has given us so much, despite your point that the quantity of his output could never match the quality.

A Visitation of Spirits lives on my nightstand. I taught it for the first time in an African American literature course in the spring even though it has been a part of my thinking ever since Kenan was first introduced to me shamefully late in my first year of graduate school. The novel ends with a Black queer boy killing himself in front of his older cousin after a long night of being possessed by demons and forced to relive some of his formative experiences at school, church, and as a crew member for a local theater company in Tims Creek, the rural, imagined community in North Carolina that is the setting of much of Kenan’s fiction. Though considerably younger than 57, I read that novel as being about the snuffing out of Black queer life, the ways in which the intersection of Black and queerness is often always subtended by death.

When the boy, Horace Cross, takes the shotgun he has been travelling around with all night to his forehead, Kenan slows down time, describing in excruciating detail how the organs of the body shut down one after another. But even as the time of death may decelerate when you describe how it happens, this harrowing section of a novel about the vicissitudes of Black queer rural life makes very clear that time never stops, that human life goes on around immense loss: “Most importantly, the day did not halt in its tracks: clocks did not stop. The school buses rolled. The cows mooed. The mothers scolded their children.”

I know this is true; time is unyielding in its pursuit of the future. As I’ve told you before, for someone in his early 30s, I may be inadequately equipped to handle death but I know how it cannot stop the sands through an hourglass. Even so, part of what that novel has helped me better understand is a famous idea from another Southern writer who has obviously influenced the Southern Gothic landscapes of Kenan’s oeuvre: Faulkner’s dictum that the past is never dead, that it has not even past. Horace’s possessed stroll down rememory lane pushes us to think about the continuities between Blackness and sexuality, religion and sex, the South and queerness. I’ve wrestled a lot with the idea that Horace’s death does not mark the ending of that novel with simply a calamitous death but rather with a more complicated interplay between memory and dying. Though Horace kills himself toward the end of the novel, the text doesn’t end with Horace’s final living act. Rather, it ends with a section called “A Requiem for Tobacco.”

The section laments the technological shift brought about by the industrial turn in tobacco production—from hand labor to machinery around the middle of the 20th century—and the ways in which this change has direct implications on Tims Creek’s ability to not only remember, but to come together in a constructive manner, based on the shared memory cultivated in how human labor used to drive that a small town’s economy. People knew each other better when men labored for the production of tobacco, fostering a communal ethics of care that diminishes with the rise of mechanical production. This former economic model, which would have privileged a narrow flavor of rugged masculinity, could nary make a space for a boy like Horace Cross, the Great Black Queer Hope. However, by ending with nostalgia for a bygone time, Kenan asks us to wonder about what could have been possible by merging the promise of a queer future with the wistful recollection of a time in which bodies worked toward a common goal. He may not have published as much as other writers that we revere but he built a world for us: a complicated world full of death and demons and magic and hope, but an entire world in which sexuality is not simply a trace of a particular set of intimate relationships but the structure of a region that often fails at the normativity that it wants to cling on to.

As the last sentence of A Visitation of Spirits reminds us, “It is good to remember, for too many forget.” I will never forget Randall Kenan; perhaps it will now be our duty to make sure no one does.

Yours,
Omari

*

Dear O,

I agree with much of your reading of Visitation. As Sharon Patricia Hollands reminds in Raising the Dead, Horace is othered not just because he is Black and queer and poor and country and nerdy; he is also othered because he speaks to us from beyond the grave. By the time we read his autobiography, he is long gone. Black queerness reaches us through death.

Because of death’s omnipresence, I’m not so sure about the nostalgia for the past. For much of the book, history isn’t viewed through rose-tinted glasses. Jimmy, for instance, recalls both his brutal insistence that Horace will grow out of his queerness and his witnessing of Horace shooting himself. His worry that the former produced the latter, among other things, leads him to “fear” the dead, to fear that a ghostly Horace will kill him for the wrong he has done. Jimmy is not nostalgic for the past; he is afraid of it.

Horace’s ruminations on history are no less bleak. Late in the night, just before Horace shoots himself, he recalls the beginnings of slavery:

Men and women hunted by their own kind … and they are shackled up and loaded onto ships like barrels of syrup and made to sit there crouched in chains … and they will bring forth children who will die, who should die, rather than be born into this wicked world.

After slavery, Horace recalls the Civil War, the Nadir, lynching, the Great Depression, world wars, and the atomic bomb. In Horace’s eyes, history is a record of violence. By the time we read of tobacco farming at the book’s end, it’s unclear if the nostalgia for that old agricultural past can overcome that same past’s violent horrors. I am not certain, in other words, that nostalgia in the final section resolves the past’s violence. I don’t know that any such resolution is possible.

I suspect Kenan, as of recent, had felt similarly. Perhaps this is why the stories in If I Had Two Wings are so concerned with the present. The collection’s first story casts Ed Phelps, as Marco Roth memorably wrote in n+1, as a fictional, mid-life Randall Kenan: A southerner turned big-city northerner returning home. What should he do now? the story essentially asks. In another story, “Ain’t no Sunshine,” a preacher named Lazarus beats the man sleeping his wife and notices the crowd “only seeming to ask with their eyes: Now what you gonna do?” Throughout the collection, Kenan’s stories are concerned with action in the present.

This is not to say that the present is divorced from the past in the collection. Far from it. “I Thought I Heard the Shuffle of Angel’s Feet” insists that the past helps to determine the answers to that all-too pressing question of the present: What do we know? The story begins when Cicero Cross returns to North Carolina after the death of his partner. His car breaks down and an old high school friend named Tony, with whom he once had sex, tows his car. “Good to see you bro,” Tony says when Cicero clambers into the truck. “So I been hearing all about you,” Tony later says, the word “have” being dropped in the vernacular, unnecessary because the present tense is assumed. After a long night of drinking, Cicero cannot sleep; he keeps thinking about Tony. Overcome with those thoughts, Cicero “realized not only that he had forgotten all the burdens of the last few months, but that he was feeling teetotatiously alive.” Finally, after the death of his lover, Cicero feels, in the present, alive.

“I’ll imagine you, as a queer Black literary critic, also thought his future and your own were intertwined. What do we do now?”

When he has breakfast with Tony, Tony reveals he has HIV, which Cicero assumes means Tony is bound for death and that he and Tony cannot sleep together. “I ain’t been sick since I tested positive,” Tony tells Cicero. The recently developed pill cocktail keeps him safe. His diagnosis is not a death sentence. Tony and Cicero might still have a life together. Their meeting ends with a kiss before Cicero departs. “I can’t leave stuff like this,” Cicero thinks about his home, about Tony. Though Cicero has experienced tragedy and triumph, though he and Tony have a romantic past that was curtailed, and though Tony is HIV positive, Kenan gives reason to think there is more to Cicero’s future life in his hometown with an old lover than he, or we, once thought.

“Today is impossible,” Kenan wrote a few weeks ago. “We all must now readjust our thinking. The war has only just begun.”  He was writing from Chapel Hill, describing the tearing down of Confederate monuments, the presidency of Donald Trump, nationwide unrest against police violence, and the coronavirus pandemic, all of which were “unimaginable decades back.” But his words are applicable to Cicero, Ed Phelps, Lazarus, and so many other protagonists in his most recent book. This change in thought and walking down new paths are the climax of so many of the stories in If I Had Two Wings. He was haunted by the question of what we do now, perhaps especially because his return to North Carolina so immersed him in his past that he knew the preciousness of the present, the possibilities it affords, the unending futures it might lead to.

It will come as no surprise to you, O, that I’ve been pondering the same question for some of the same reasons Kenan was. Another is that I wanted to be Randall Kenan. At the time of his death, we shared an agent and an editor. I wanted a future that was his past. I could do far worse than becoming a second-rate Randall Kenan. I’ll imagine you, as a queer Black literary critic, also thought his future and your own were intertwined. What do we do now?

Stay safe from COVID and cops,
E

*

Dear E,

Sometimes nostalgia is less an attempt at resolution and more a provocation about what now can never be. Part of what Kenan’s work teaches me is that nostalgia does not have to be perfect or even pleasing. I would not say the work that I do comes from a place of healthy nostalgia for bygone eras, for instance; I do study African American literature after all. It’s strange. Before I started doing this for a living, I came to Black literature in moments in which I needed to find myself in a past I could never experience. And one of the things that Kenan makes me think about constantly is the present’s responsibility with regards to the past.

I’ve read Kenan’s last essay a few times since his passing and I continue to be struck by its last line: “Even ghosts can teach us a thing or two.” As you mentioned, Kenan is thinking about the unfinished nature of the Civil War as evidenced by the fact that the infamous Silent Sam statue on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus was only destroyed by student activists in 2018 and that such a moment is finally being reproduced all across the country in the recent protests for Black lives. Unveiled in 1913 as a tribute to UNC students who fought for the Confederacy and, thus, a tribute to white supremacy, students have opposed and demonstrated against Silent Sam’s presence since at least the Civil Rights Movement; unfortunately it took violence to correct what should have always been seen as a grievous harm. The last line of this essay about the pedagogy of spirits calls to the fore how the radical change that was the Reconstruction period after the Civil War can tell us something about the steps we must take after the Trump presidency has wreaked havoc on every marginalized group and especially Black people.

“We are lucky to be like Randall, to live in a home that Kenan renovated, if not built.”

What we can learn from both the Civil War and Reconstruction, a period that featured a number of social, economic, and political gains for Black people at the same time that the first instantiation of the Ku Klux Klan was formed, is perhaps how best to navigate a time that brought with it equal parts terror and promise. Much in the same way those of us interested in anti-racist futures can be nervous about what Kenan calls the coming war and what will unfold in its aftermath, I see his narrative traipses through the past not to be about whether the past is salvageable but if it, I think as you’re suggesting, better informs what we know about the present than living through the present does.

The problem, however, is that the past can never be truly knowable. Rather, what we think of when we think about history can be radically different from what actually happened. This reminds me of the last story in Kenan’s 1992 short story collection, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. The story, which shares its name with the collection itself, is written as an authoritative history of the town of Tims Creek. Jimmy Greene, the uncle that watches his cousin kill himself at the town’s elementary school, is also the town’s local historian and “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead” is written as a chronicle of the town’s past from its origins in the 19th century as a maroon colony to the present day. By weaving together oral history, epistolary fragments, archival materials, and extensive footnotes, Cross’s monograph on town history occludes almost as much as it elucidates. So even as we learn that queerness suffuses the land of this rural North Carolinian town with the inclusion of an 1859 letter written by a member of one of the town’s most prominent families to his male lover, footnotes attempt to correct the oral history relayed by Jimmy’s aunt, Ruth, through appeals to secondary source materials. By including a number of different sources of knowledge that interrupt and correct each other, “proper” and “accurate” town history feels impossible to ever really know.

But this is what history is: impossible to know even though it shapes the world and our relationship to it. Kenan’s death has devastated because I had no chance to prepare. I obviously cannot pretend that I knew that Toni Morrison would pass on last summer but I had at least thought about what the world would look like once she had left us. I’m left bereft and rudderless without the promise of more from Kenan. I’m currently in the midst of revising a chapter of my book manuscript that thinks through how his work re-maps the geographies of Southern space in order to better account for how sex, sexuality, and religion deeply intertwine there. Maybe he never would have read it but I would have spent the rest of my days hoping that he had. I wish I knew what we’re meant to do now other than console each other in the twisted lives that he so lovingly depicted over the course of a life taken too soon.

O

*

O,

I agree that Kenan’s work foregrounds the entanglement of the past and the present. As Thadious Davis puts it in Southscapes, “Kenan exhibits a determination to understand … how a racial past continues to live in the present, even when that past is not represented.” But if we can’t know the past, as you put it, isn’t this in tension with our responsibility to it? In other words, how can we repay a debt without the bill?

For Kenan, I think the answer was to pair skepticism toward the histories we are told with utilizing many methods for learning about the past. He obviously read written histories, and he wrote a biography of Baldwin for young adults. But he was also an oral historian who toured the country in a car he named Bucephalus, interviewing Black Americans about their lives, the bulk of which became his 1999 book Walking on Water. He trusted his memory, including his memories of the stories his elders told, and drew on it heavily in his 2007 essay collection, The Fire This Time. And he saw history in work: The way people once picked tobacco or slaughtered hogs, as he described in Visitation. His oeuvre encourages us to look for the past in many ways, to learn our responsibility to the past, and to act on it.

Where our knowledge fails, Kenan advocates for turning to faith. Consider the short story “Resurrection Hardware; or, Lard & Promises,” published in his most recent collection. A meta-fictional tale about a writer named Randall, the story revolves around the history of Randall’s North Carolina house. “I felt I’d been to this place before,” Randall narrates when first approaching the home. “I wasn’t sure at once, for I’d first been there at night.” Hoping to learn about the house, he talks to someone at the local Historical Museum, who tells him it was built as an inn in 1790 by Quakers. “I have no evidence,” she tells him. “But I strongly believe that inn was used to smuggle slaves to freedom.” Upon returning home, Randall finds a compartment that he assumes fugitives hid in and then begins to see people whom he assumes to be ghosts. It’s important that Randall can’t be sure these are ghosts or that his home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Randall is as unable to discover the identity of fugitives who might have stopped at the home, in part because their life depended on leaving no trace, as he is unable to confirm that he did see a ghost. Randall doesn’t know the past, in other words, but it affects his present in a way that Kenan can only describe as spiritual.

“So few people have written about Black life with the kind of attention that he did. So few writers could capture the various sides of Blackness as he could.”

It’s not simply a matter of us having a responsibility to the past; as Kenan reminds, the past drives us, whether or not we are aware of it. While this might be horrifying when considering the history of oppression in America, “Resurrection Hardware” reminds that America’s radical history also laid the roads we walk down. This is a hopeful vision of the past’s relationship to the present, one in which the slack of our faults might be picked up by history’s momentum at the same time that history urges us to make a better present and future. We are lucky to be like Randall, to live in a home that Kenan renovated, if not built. When his ghost returns, as I’m sure it will, it will do so to guide us forward.

E

*

E,

History comes to us in many guises, under many names, translated through many rhetorics. In my classes, I constantly tell students that there’s a major difference between History and history; the former should always be met with skepticism as we do our best to probe and cultivate the latter. If History—that which has been sanctioned by those in power—is written by the victors, history—the accumulation of all of the events that took place before the current moment—has the potential to speak for (and to) those of us on the lower frequencies. As physics tell us, the lower frequencies travel further and penetrate materials better. Attuning ourselves to such waves gets us to witness that which History refuses to represent.

Your question about how to pay a debt when you’ve never seen the bill is obviously the right one but I put my ear to the ground and all I hear are Black people wrestling with this query with no definitive answer. The best response we’ve come up with is exactly what you pinpoint: faith. But faith can be just as difficult and life-affirming and unavailing and cumbersome as anything else when you still seem to be arbitrarily living through the curse of Ham. What is faith for Clarence Pickett, the young protagonist of “Clarence and the Dead” who can speak to the deceased, is largely shunned by Tims Creek for such weirdness, and then dies before entering kindergarten? How wretched is faith as the pastor in “Ragnarök! The Day the Gods Die” delivers a eulogy about hope in Christ at the same time that he privately and explicitly mourns the loss of the woman with whom he has been having an entangled affair? Kenan reminds us that even faith has its limits, its own undiscerning and destructive eye.

I only have this left to say: the world is worse off without Randall Kenan in it. So few people have written about Black life with the kind of attention that he did. So few writers could capture the various sides of Blackness as he could. Even fewer would lay bare the antagonisms within us as he so luminously did. As we continue to barrel through history and the world with fewer and fewer safeguards, not having one of our fiercest observers of the present should make us feel even less prepared for the coming war.

Omari Weekes and Elias Rodriques
Omari Weekes and Elias Rodriques
Omari Weekes is an assistant professor of English and American Ethnic Studies at Willamette University. Elias Rodriques' writing has been published in The Guardian, The Nation, and other venues. His first novel is forthcoming from Norton.





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