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literature

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

"[T]he possibilities of his being a homosexual frightened him beyond reason," the narrator of A Visitation of Spirits explains of young Horace Cross. In fact, Horace is initially so devastated to understand the nature of his attraction to an unabashedly gay high school classmate named Gideon that he cannot even imagine telling Gideon of his attraction. "It was then that he would realize that he was different and vulnerable and that the simple joy of being in love and expressing it with straightforward passion was denied to him."

After praying to be delivered from what his family and church have taught him is a life of sin, Horace dreams of becoming a bird so that he might remain a part of the land that he loves so much, while soaring above it. His internalized homophobia will not allow him even this fantasy of escape, however: "Horace had no alternative but to retreat into a world of guilt and confusion, not understanding the reasons for his exile" from "the shining city of no limits." He kills himself with a hunting gun belonging to his grandfather.

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The difficulty of a black male who eventually accepts his homosexuality but remains unable to come out to those people whom he loves most is dramatized in "The Foundations of the Earth." Following the death in an automobile accident of a beloved grandson who in recent years had unaccountably kept his distance from his family, Maggie Williams is devastated to learn that not only was Edward gay, but that he had been living for several years with a man who is white.

After steeling herself to confront her grandson's surviving partner, she is stunned to witness in the depth of Gabriel's grief the evidence of his love for Edward. A small incident becomes the occasion whereby, by putting two members of her hypocritically self-righteous church community in their places, she frees herself of the shame that she had felt in Edward's sexuality. "How curious the world had become that she would be asking a white man to exonerate her in the eyes of her own grandson; how strange that at seventy, when she had all the laws and rules down pat, she would have to begin again, to learn."

Homosexuality does not always carry such potentially tragic weight in Kenan's fiction, however. "Clarence and the Dead" tells of the "unnatural affection" of Ellsworth Batts, a grieving widower," for five-year old Clarence Pickett, whom Ellsworth believes is channeling the spirit of his dead wife. Uncomfortable with "what begun to look more and more like courting and sparking," the boy's grandfather, Mr. George Edward, "had to clear his throat to reacquaint Ellsworth with the impropriety of doing what he was doing."

Ellsworth's attempt to abduct Clarence is foiled when Miss Eunice, the boy's grandmother, tackles the fleeing pair. Well might the people of Tims Creek get riled at the thought of Ellsworth's "crimes against nature." But in a narrative in which a congregation accommodates a pig at Sunday church services, an elderly farmer is only slightly stymied aiming his rifle after a bucking tractor amputates one of his hands, and a five-year old boy dispenses marriage advice to the community's middle-aged women, such an "unnatural affection" seems perfectly natural.

Such a strategy allows Kenan to undercut the religious prejudices of a rural, southern African American community while still showing respect for that religion's power to hold an oppressed community together. Significantly, the three qualities that members of the older generation instill in Horace Cross ("Integrity. Dignity. Pride") are also the names of highly visible American homosexual rights organizations that work within religious affiliations.

As much a folklorist as a fabulist, Kenan finds in the kinds of stories that he first heard in his rural North Carolina childhood a richness of character and a sharpness of psychological insight that cut to the bone and expose the marrow of human experience. Fascinated by the complexities of human identity, particularly the ambiguities of sexual orientation, Kenan has found in African American oral tradition an acceptance of the irrational upon which all human experience, but particularly black gay experience (on Kenan's authority), is based.

Raymond-Jean Frontain

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    Bibliography
   

Betts, Doris. "Randall Garrett Kenan: Myth and Reality in Tims Creek." Southern Writers at Century's End. Jeffrey J. Folks and James A. Perkins, eds. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997. 9-20.

Harris, Trudier. "Southern Voices, Southern Tales: Randall Kenan's 'Clarence and the Dead.'" The Power of the Porch: The Storyteller's Craft in Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor, and Randall Kenan. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996. 105-36.

Hunt, V. "A Conversation with Randall Kenan." African American Review 29.3 (Autumn 1995): 411-20.

Kenan, Randall. James Baldwin. Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians Series. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.

_____. Let the Dead Bury Their Dead and Other Stories. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, 1992.

_____. A Visitation of Spirits: A Novel. New York: Grove, 1989.

_____. Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Knopf, 1999.

McKoy, Sheila Smith. "Rescuing the Black Homosexual Lambs: Randall Kenan and the Reconstruction of Southern Gay Masculinity." Contemporary Black Men's Fiction and Drama. Keith Clark, ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. 15-36.

McRuer, Robert. "A Visitation of Difference: Randall Kenan and Black Queer Theory." Critical Essays: Gay and Lesbian Writers of Color. Emmanuel S. Nelson, ed. New York: Haworth Press, 1993. 221-32.

Tucker, Lindsey. "Gay Identity, Conjure, and the Uses of Postmodern Ethnography in the Fictions of Randall Kenan." Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (Summer 2003): 306-31.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Frontain, Raymond-Jean  
    Entry Title: Kenan, Randall  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated September 8, 2004  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/kenan_r.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  
 

 

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