On Randall Kenan, 1963–2020

It was the wrong moment in American letters to be a gay, Black man writing about the South. It didn’t matter if you could write a sex scene of the kind that would, twenty years in the future, earn Garth Greenwell a national book award nomination, while also channeling the blues cadences of Alfred Murray. If you weren’t Toni Morrison or, on the mass market side, Terry McMillan, you weren’t anybody. Publishing had no room for a diversity of diversity.

There are writers who should not be allowed to vanish and go silent for so long, much as they might prefer to do so

Randall Kenan was my fiction writing teacher in the spring semester of 1994, at Columbia University. In those days, the Ivies, or at least core-curricular Columbia, still sneered at undergraduate creative writing, while the expensive MFA program was a closed shop. Ambitious or—according to our advisors—misguided undergraduates like me had to cross-enroll at Columbia’s School of General Studies, at Lewisohn Hall, a parallel night school universe for irregular students under the rubric of “continuing education.” Our workshop included at least three Upper West Side Jewish ladies in their early 60s or 70s; a recovering heroin addict who’d also been in the navy; Ken Foster, who’d co-founded the original KGB Bar reading series the year before; and a couple undergraduates. I do not recall any Black students. The class met for two hours, in the evening, from 6 to 8, sometimes with a brief break for a dinner snack. “We begin in darkness and end in the light,” Randall said, the January day of our first meeting. It’s a line I’ve used in any spring semester afternoon or evening class I’ve taught since. Although often tempted, I didn’t copy his next move: He asked each of us to go up to the chalkboard and draw a horse. I was both terrified and indignant: I was prepared to be judged on my writing, not my skills with chalk and line. When Randall took his own turn, he did one of those neat Ernst Gombrich semiotic sketches of a horse’s ass, an arch with a daintily swishing tail.

Back-dating things, once I learned he was 57 years old when he died, last weekend, he must have then been only 31, although some combination of my youth or his preacherly gravitas made him seem older. His first novel, A Visitation of Spirits, had been published in 1989, when he was 26, and had been followed by a collection of stories and a short biography of James Baldwin, for Chelsea House, in 1993. Baldwin had died, nearly forgotten by all but “specialists,” in 1987, and it was Randall’s misfortune to have been Baldwin’s immediate heir-apparent at a moment in American publishing when no one cared. Visitation . . . is now out of print. A sample page is available on Amazon, who’s mined the data, but Random House hasn’t put in the effort to spend a few bucks to actually digitize the book and sell it to people. The copy I bought with my employee discount at Shakespeare & Co., on 81st Street, is somewhere in my mother’s apartment, libraries still pandemic shut, so I was afraid I’d have to go on memory until n+1 associate editor Elias Rodriques sent me a PDF of the first chapter from his phone: biblical epitaph, the no-nonsense voice of 92-year-old Ruth, and a graphic description of hog killings in the Southern winter, a literal scene of how the sausage is made that ends with a kind of casual but expert homage to the entire Southern and Black Southern literary enterprise, “But the ghosts of those times are stubborn.” The novel went on to hit all the right notes, shades of magical realism in the manner of Morrison’s Beloved, a Faulkneresque fictional southern county—Tim’s Creek, North Carolina—the Baldwin-like emplotment of African-American Christianity, its liberatory cadences and rhetoric and its restricting, inhibiting social mores when it came to desire, especially homosexual desire.

Back then, I still believed that successfully writing a novel of clear literary merit and in earnest conversation with one’s literary precursors was like a golden ticket. I couldn’t understand how someone of Randall’s obvious gifts and warmth and intelligence had ended up teaching night school. (Actually he was teaching at three night schools—also part time at Sarah Lawrence and Vassar.) I still had this unstated feeling and have to this day that being sentenced to read the mediocre or juvenile writing of others was a kind of punishment for one’s own mediocrity—those who can’t do, teach, etc.—Faulkner never had to lead a workshop, nor Proust, nor Virginia Woolf. Across the quad, in another world, we were enmeshed in Arnoldian discussions of “the best that was thought and said” without paying much attention to the means of that kind of production. We pronounced and debated like connoisseurs of fine dining who’d never seen the slaughterhouse. The model of literature as a kind of middle-class craftsperson “job of work,” a profession rather than a vocation, was far from my thoughts. Also far from my thoughts were the more obvious reasons why Randall was where he was and why he wouldn’t appear on Oprah’s book list anytime in the following decade. It was the wrong moment in American letters to be a gay, Black man writing about the South. It didn’t matter if you could write a sex scene of the kind that would, twenty years in the future, earn Garth Greenwell a National Book Award nomination, while also channeling the blues cadences of Alfred Murray. If you weren’t Toni Morrison or, on the mass market side, Terry McMillan, you weren’t anybody. Publishing had no room for a diversity of diversity.

I’d always assumed that Randall had many more books in him, so the twenty-eight-year break between his story collections Let the Dead Bury the Dead (1992) and If I Had Two Wings, released this summer, caught me by surprise. In the interim he’d returned to his regional roots, a full professorship at UNC, had conducted and edited an oral history of southern Black life at the turn of the millennium and written again on Baldwin—but the gap still startles, and should shame us. Even if it’s the case, as Elias suggested to me, that Randall might have ultimately preferred his life down home, might never have really taken to the vanities of New York. Still there are writers who should not be allowed to vanish and go silent for so long, much as they might prefer to do so. Letting them subside in this way without a fight is a cultural crime.

In the first story of Kenan’s new collection, he almost seems to be commenting slyly on his early brush with a fleeting fame that deserved to be longer. A successfully middle-class plumber in his late middle years, settled in the universe of Tim’s Creek, returns to New York for the first time since his stint in the Marines, during the Korean War. It’s the late 1980s and he’s attending a baptist convention with his churchy wife, when he finds himself, through a right-place-at-the-right-time accident, conscripted by Billy Idol to play the role of “The Deacon,” a legendary but obscure southern bluesman, in a kind of bored celebrity prank. Ed takes it all as it comes, playing along with Idol’s idyll “two boys who together and without words recognize and acknowledge the Dangerous Thing, and, being like-minded, imagine assaying said Thing, and with each passing moment feel the Thing exert greater gravitational force upon the two, each to each, and along with the weight comes glee, anticipation, heat, so much so that the Dangerous Thing becomes the Irresistible Thing, the Inevitable Thing.” Billy Idol, minstrelsy, fame, and, ever slyly, a wink at Henry James in a story about a moment of bottled up homoeroticism, but also playfulness, always playfulness. This is how Randall drew horses; this was also what his horse-drawing game was about. That moment of mischief that had tormented me into a cold sweat of incipient humiliation as an overly serious sophomore burst back on me when I read that passage, even as I also read into it something about what those intervening lost years might have meant for him. What reservoirs of joy and patience does it take to accept that one has become Ed Phelps, who measures his happiness in his distance from and recollection of his grandfather’s labor in a tobacco field? Randall ought to have lived long enough to have enjoyed the moment of flourishing in queer Black American letters that he indirectly helped bring into being, coming so soon after Baldwin and yet carrying his work on through the decade and a half that had determined to neglect him. But, so often, in African American literature as with African American history, even the generation that follows the prophet doesn’t get to set foot in the Promised Land.

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