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literature

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Kenan, Randall (b. 1963)  
 
page: 1  2  3  

More than a century later, Percy Terrell, patriarch of the current generation of a wealthy but mean-spirited white family to whom nearly everyone in Tims Creek is in debt, sexually blackmails the town's only black undertaker into selling him below market value his family's homestead ("Run, Mourner, Run"). Although he will level the property to build a new textile mill, he complains that "Niggers shouldn't own something as pretty as Chitaqua Pond," dismissing out of hand an African-American family's right to a "homeplace." His sons, for sport, kill a dog that is the only companion of an elderly black man ("Things of This World").

Little wonder that in A Visitation of Spirits Horace Cross's family is so embittered by white mistreatment of blacks that they cannot bear to see their beloved nephew and grandson socialize with whites at the integrated county high school, leaving him in a racial no-man's-land: "He [Horace] had heard the menfolk around the barber shop and in the fields talk about the white man; he had heard his aunts and the womenfolk hiss and revile the name of whites; he had heard his grandfather lecture and spin yarns about how black folk had been mistreated at the hands of the white man. He had heard. He was hearing. But did he understand?"

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Kenan's fictions are equally rich in acts of resistance to racism, however. Tims Creek was founded by a group of 18 runaway slaves who hid in a swamp so dangerous that it was avoided by whites. The "maroon community" (as the runaway slaves are called) eventually drained and farmed the area, building a town when it was safe to do so following emancipation.

That founding spirit of resistance continues through later generations. In A Visitation of Spirits the elderly Ezekiel Cross boasts that as a youth he had robbed at gunpoint the white man who had refused to pay him his wages for picking cotton, and of the white judge letting him off with just a whipping because, even though the boy had the right to his wages, the community could not allow a black person to pull a gun on a white man.

"Integrity," "pride" and "dignity" describe the quiet resolve of Mr. John Edgar as he avenges the death of his beloved dog by shooting one of the Terrell clan's favorite hunting dogs, and then returns home to wait on his porch to be arrested ("Things of This World").

Even Percy Terrell is impressed by black undertaker Raymond Brown's self-possession when an armed Terrell, accompanied by his three sons and his hunting dogs, bursts into Brown's bedroom to photograph him during a homosexual encounter. "Now, boys, I want you to look-a-here. I respect this man. I do. I really do. How many men do you know, black or white, could bluff, cool as a cucumber, caught butt-naked in bed with a damn whore? A white boy whore at that."

Brown may lose his land finally, but Terrell's victory is a Pyrrhic one, Terrell demeaning himself by the arrogant and disdainful way in which he imposes his will upon those less fortunate or less socially powerful than himself.

The consequences of such violent disregard for the elemental rights of blacks are dramatized in "Tell Me, Tell Me," in which Ida Perry, widow of a superior court judge, thinks she is being haunted by a boy of color who had been beaten, thrown into the ocean, and left for dead by her then-fiance over fifty years before when the boy stumbled upon her and Butch's first awkward attempt at lovemaking. Ida's inability to address consciously the consequences of her lifelong failure to resist Butch's destructive willfulness dramatizes in miniature the predicament of the post-civil rights movement South in which so many persons of good will who were not themselves motivated by racial bias must live with the consequences of their failure actively to resist racism.

Gay Self-Assertion

"Hatred is a form of fear," the historical Booker T. Washington allegedly observes in an "unpublished diary" that is the basis of Kenan's story "This Far." The statement, however, is less likely to have been made by Dr. Washington than by James Baldwin, Kenan's literary mentor, who likewise explored in his fiction the relation of fear to hatred, and of racism to . Like Baldwin, Kenan is especially adept at exploring the psychology of self-hatred.

"He used to say it was harder being black in this country than gay," Gabriel, the white lover of Edward, Mrs. Williams's late grandson, tells her in the course of a visit ("The Foundations of the Earth"). "Gays can always pass for straight; but blacks can't always pass for white. And most can never pass." The most complex situation in Kenan's fiction, however, is being both black and gay in an evangelical community that supports one in terms of race even as it erases the person in terms of his sexuality.

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