Books by Randall Kenan

Released: Aug. 24, 2010

"There are too many ephemeral or weakly written pieces to appeal beyond Baldwin's devoted admirers, but the best of the '60s essays underscore the reasons his work endures."
A grab bag of pieces from novelist and firebrand Baldwin (1924-1987), varying in quality but marked by his trademark ferocity. Read full book review >
Released: Feb. 1, 1999

A personal meditation in the guise of a search for the essential nature of the black community in America. Kenan, an award-winning writer (and author of the novel A Visitation of Spirits, 1992, etc.) travels across the country looking for what it means to be black. He interviews an eclectic assortment of people, interspersing the conversations with his own reflections, with discussions of relevant writings drawn primarily from the black intelligentsia, local history, and stream-of-consciousness observations about everything he confronts along the way. In the unlikely surroundings of Vermont and Maine, Kenan's assumptions about black identity are challenged by Jack, an obviously white man who has grown up in and continues to live as a part of black culture. California would seem to be a more likely place to find the heart of the black community, and there, not surprisingly, Kenan confronts the movie industry. While his own reflections focus on the distortion of black reality represented on the screen, his conversation with Charles Burnett suggests more that distortion is a Hollywood reality across the board. This is a long book, and there are scores of such encounters with very interesting people. In the end, however, the interviews are sidebars; the presentation is first-person throughout, and as Kenan ultimately notes, what he presents is not a compilation of the thoughts of others, but rather "my personal history of the last five years." What saves the volume from pretentiousness is that for the most part his personal musings merit reading and reflection. While his conclusion is predictable, it is also profound: there is no one element that defines the black American soul. Taking a close and serious look at black Americans unveil their essential individuality, Kenan ends up appreciating the diversity of black America rather than celebrating distinguishing characteristics. Definitely worth reading, even though it's not always clear whether this is powerful introspection or self-indulgence. Read full book review >
JAMES BALDWIN by Randall Kenan
Released: March 1, 1994

A vivid, intelligent portrait of the outstanding author and African American, first of Chelsea's Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians. The series' 29 announced subjects range from Sappho to Bayard Rustin, from Jane Addams to Liberace; its general editor, scholar Martin B. Duberman, describes it as providing young gays and lesbians with role models and ``a continuum of experience and achievement into which they can place themselves and lay claim to happy and productive lives.'' Kenan, an award-winning novelist (Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, 1993), presents Baldwin as a subtle, extraordinarily gifted man who realized early that bitterness toward his abusive stepfather—or toward whites—was deeply damaging to himself; reconciliation was his most persistent theme, though the love he experienced, and portrayed, was almost always conflicted. Kenan discusses Baldwin's groundbreaking early fiction and essays and his role in the civil rights struggle in some detail and is forthright but unspecific on his many, mostly anonymous, liaisons and about the alcohol and celebrity lifestyle that apparently diminished his creativity later on. Like his generously quoted subject, Kenan can be eloquent, though his complex sentences occasionally pose a challenge. The big lack here is sourcing, especially for the many quotes from those who knew Baldwin—inexcusable in an otherwise carefully wrought book. Still, a carefully nuanced overview of a fascinating figure. B&w photos; list of Baldwin's books; ``Further Reading'' (adult); chronology; index. (Biography. YA) Read full book review >
Released: April 1, 1992

Kenan follows his first novel (Visitation of the Spirits, 1989) with a captivating, baroque history of fictional Tims Creek, North Carolina, whose citizens—both black and white—have experienced more than their share of unearthly wonders. Tims Creek looks to outsiders like a dull North Carolina backwater settled by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders, now farmers, shop owners, factory workers, and general layabouts. But locals, as Kenan makes clear in the telling, know that nearly every dwelling in this fertile country houses a fascinating, if rarely flattering, tale. The Pickett house harbors the legend of three-year-old Clarence, who foretold his neighbors' fate (whether or not they wanted to hear it) and communicated with the dead until they called him to join them at the age of five; the rundown Williams shack shelters young Dean Williams, who foolishly agreed to seduce the town's richest black man in exchange for the promise of a job as a factory foreman; in the Pearsall home, a middle-aged mother unravels to the point of infanticide; and on her own front porch, old Maggie MacGowan Williams tries to come to terms with the fact of her beloved grandson's homosexuality. In coloring in the background of a town founded by runaway slaves, sustained by hypocritical preachers and ambitious exiled intellectuals, and taken over by bloodless modern-day manipulators—a land in which the dead live side by side with the living and the good fraternize with evil as a matter of course—Kenan switches unpredictably from the seductive rhythms of traditional folk tales to a drier, more distanced narrative voice, and even, in the title story, to a playful takeoff of a scholarly oral history, complete with lengthy footnotes. A wildly uneven but always original portrait of a southern community—and a stimulating collection of tales by a courageous and humorous author. Read full book review >