Randall Kenan

Randall Kenan is an acclaimed author of fiction and nonfiction born in Brooklyn, New York. After he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kenan worked for several years on the editorial staff of the publishing house, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. His first novel, A Visitation of Spirits, was published in 1989. His collection of stories, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, was published in 1993 and hailed by The New York Times as “nothing short of a wonder-book: one of those striking literary anomalies, in the tradition of “Raintree County” and “The Country of the Pointed Firs,” that are nearly as difficult to classify as they are enjoyable to read and reread.” That collection was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was among The New York Times Notable Books of 1992. Kenan is also the author of a young adult biography of James Baldwin (1993), and wrote the text for Norman Mauskoff’s book of photographs, A Time Not Here: The Mississippi Delta (1997). Other publications include Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (2000) and The Fire this Time (2007), a work of nonfiction. He has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University, Duke University, the University of Mississippi at Oxford, and Vassar College. His many awards and honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, and the Rome Prize. He was awarded the North Carolina Award for Literature in 2005. He is currently a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


from Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century

What does it mean to be black?

In discussing Black America, on whatever level, be it politics, economics, music, food, I often use the word “we.” Aside from the necessity of sometimes making broad generalizations about broad groups, the more I think about African America, the more I cannot help but question what I mean by “we.” I’m not the only black person who does this. All through my growing up my relatives did it, my teachers, my ministers; in school, at work, whenever or wherever I encountered black folk talking about black folk–even when speaking to nonblack folk–the word “we” was used.

Do we mean race? Do we mean culture? Do we mean skin color? The more I thought of it, the more problematic the idea became–even as I persisted in using the word, becoming ever more uncertain of what I–what “we”–meant.

Did I mean race? If I did I was a hypocrite, because I don’t believe in “race” as a fact of nature. Biologically speaking there is only one human species, and though tremendous amounts of time and money have been spent on the classification and subdivision of human beings, classifications that go beyond mere skin color, no one has succeeded, scientifically, in demonstrating any significant difference among people who look different from others. Consider cats: A Siamese, a calico, and a tabby are actually of different genera–that is, they have specific genetic codes (even though they can mate); whereas Koreans, Botswanans, Apaches, and Swedes are all within the same genus. We humans are all calicos, despite visual persuasions to the contrary. But as a rule, human beings don’t think that way.

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Let Freedom Ring | April 17, 2008
Symposium IV | Advancing American Ideals: Democracy as a Goal for the Arts