One Writer’s Love Letters to the Forces That Shaped Him

Written by
Kinohi Nishikawa
Oct. 5, 2022

“Black Folk Could Fly,” a posthumous book of Randall Kenan’s collected essays, provides a window into his life and heart.

Ever since James Baldwin published “Letter From a Region in My Mind” (later retitled “Down at the Cross”) in 1962, the missive by a Black writer to a young relative (or, in Imani Perry’s case, to both her sons) has been used to reflect publicly on the state of race relations in this country. The genre allows the writer to survey past indignities and reflect on ongoing troubles with the wisdom of lived experience. But the choice of correspondent also summons hope: that things can get better, that the next generation will realize more from this moment than the rest of us.

Randall Kenan’s letter to his godson begins this collection of his selected nonfiction, and it rings a different note. Other works like this — think of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Letter to My Son” — express the urgency of now, and their calls for accountability reverberate widely and immediately. Kenan’s, on the other hand, was originally published in 2007 and appears here posthumously: He died in 2020, at the age of 57. When he offers hopeful words to his godson, the caveat he inserts — “barring some racial cataclysm between now and then”— hits like a boomerang.

Kenan, as this book demonstrates, never aspired to be the next Baldwin in any literal sense, and much as he admired him, he had a complicated relationship, as a standout Black, gay, male writer, to the inevitable comparisons. More inclined toward the ancestral, the numinous and the folkloric, Kenan poses a question to his godson: “Did you know, once upon a time, Black folk could fly?” Referencing the legend of Africans who escape enslavement by flying home, Kenan’s letter dreams a path forward using resources that lie deep in the past.

This applies to the whole of “Black Folk Could Fly,” a collection of essays that, while less known than his celebrated fiction — many appeared as introductions or in small magazines — provide rare insight into Kenan’s life and mind, while retaining the humor, humanity and elegant power for which he is loved. In a sense, the collected pieces function as memoir, or as a series of love letters to the forces that shaped the writer.

The Southern hamlet in which Kenan spent his formative years becomes in his hands a site for remembering the present. Chinquapin, in Duplin County, N.C., was “unincorporated and rural, largely tobacco fields and cornfields and hog farms.” Kenan fictionalized the town (as Tims Creek) in his books, the 1989 novel “A Visitation of Spirits” and the story collections “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead” (1993) and “If I Had Two Wings” (2020). Here, though, Chinquapin is seen for what it is: the place where Kenan’s tightknit extended family took him in, raised him as their own and nourished him with both love and — not incidentally — good food.

Graham Terhune

Graham Terhune

Saturday barbecues at the volunteer fire station assemble the community to enjoy platefuls of chopped pork drenched in the “vinegary, peppery” sauce that North Carolina pitmasters guard with “guile and wit.” Famous for her cooking in a town of fine cooks, Aunt Clem serves up a “mischievous T-bone” that schools Kenan in the delectable indices of gastronomy and anatomy. But it is his great-aunt Mary — Kenan’s “Mama” — whose cooking leaves the most indelible traces. Her lemon meringue pie is “performance art and sorcery.” Her freshly cooked mustard greens are fed from her fingers to his open mouth; received, birdlike, “salty, bitter, alive.” And the scuppernong grapes with which she makes wine cause him to marvel at the contrast between their “mighty thick hull” and “mucus-like sweet interior.” The sense memory is powerful: “Mr. Proust had his cookies; I have my grapes.”

Kenan also recalls family instilling in him a love for reading. Mama starts him off with Beatrix Potter and then quickly graduates him to a children’s adaptation of “Moby-Dick.” From this follows a library of classic adventure stories, which leave the adult Kenan slightly embarrassed about his attachment to “blond kids marooned on a tropical island.”

Yet that experience of deeply felt isolation sticks with him. It grows as he embraces the subcultures of comic books and horror movies, and it marks the countless hours he spends watching “Star Trek.” Running through Kenan’s childhood is a tension between the comforts provided by home and the wonders promised by the world outside of its safety.

Kenan matriculates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is there at the same time as Michael Jordan, but Tar Heels basketball is barely a blip on his radar: Instead, Kenan throws himself into the Comic Book Club, the Black Student Movement Gospel Choir and physics.

But an introduction to creative writing changes his path — suddenly he can explore feelings about Chinquapin that he struggled to express in Chinquapin. Sam Shepard’s plays sensitize him to the cultural valences of bruised manhood. Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez and Zora Neale Hurston give him permission to write about the hauntings he now sees were part of his everyday life in the backwoods.

But the most moving recollection is that of a class visit by James Baldwin in 1984. Kenan had long resisted acknowledging the author as an example: He recoiled from the “Dickensian” world of “urban poverty and desperation” of which Baldwin wrote. He found the essayist’s damning indictments of Jim Crow to be far removed from his own life as a self-described “affirmative action baby.” But there was also a touch of shame associated with Baldwin; Kenan recalls the scandalized reaction of his small, religious community when they heard that “man-on-man stuff” appeared in Baldwin’s “Just Above My Head.”

Kenan doesn’t remember life-changing advice or encouraging words. It is the fact that Baldwin embodied his whole self, without apology: “There he stood before us, as wondrously strange as I had imagined, with electricity and a command of language breathtaking and arch and overwhelming.” The Black, gay writer making his home in St.-Paul-de-Vence emerges as a superhero: a model for the literary life Kenan now wanted for himself.

So he does the most Baldwinian thing he can: his own thing. He moves to New York, working under García Márquez’s editor at Alfred A. Knopf, and takes up magical realism as a mode of exploring queer sexuality in the rural South. In one piece, he describes transforming his schoolboy fascination with Eartha Kitt as TV’s Catwoman into an adult appreciation for Kitt as cabaret chanteuse. And he deepens his appreciation for Baldwin by pursuing less obvious parallels, such as an admiration for the films of Ingmar Bergman.

All of this is recounted from the place where he started. In 2003, Kenan moved back to North Carolina to teach creative writing at his alma mater. But we haven’t come full circle; Kenan is changed by the journey he has made, and he lives out the idea behind his fellow North Carolinian Thomas Wolfe’s posthumous 1940 novel “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Yet “Black Folk Could Fly” proves that the one who returns is in an enviable position: He has felt that “intense desire to be elsewhere,” and he knows, for a fact, that he will always possess that “funky good allegiance” to home.

Kinohi Nishikawa is an associate professor of English and African American studies at Princeton University. He is the author of “Street Players: Black Pulp Fiction and the Making of a Literary Underground.”