Southern literature scholar L. Lamar Wilson observed that the rage that informed James Baldwin’s work emerged from the time he spent as a child preacher behind the pulpit of a Black church in Harlem.

“That rage you see in him, he had to get it out somehow,” says Wilson, an assistant professor at Florida State University. “And because he came from the pulpit, he was preaching all the time. Baldwin was a product of that tradition.”

By comparison, Wilson says North Carolina Randall Kenan was a little boy sitting in the back of a church in the rural South.

He “was observing and learning there was power, and it did not have to come from the pulpit,” Wilson told the INDY. “Randall was watching that and saying, ‘I don’t have to take that path.’”

Kenan, an award-winning, often-underappreciated gay Black writer whose fiction draws ready comparison to master storytellers of Black literature, Afro-futurism and the multi-ethnic literature traditions, died in his Hillsborough home on August 28. The Duplin County native was laid to rest on September 2 during a graveside service at the family cemetery in Chinquapin.

Family members say he had suffered a series of mini-strokes and had heart problems.

He was 57.

One day after Kenan’s body was found in his home, officials with UNC-Chapel Hill’s English and Comparative Literature program posted on Twitter, saying their collective hearts were aching with grief because of his passing:

“We lost an incredible friend, colleague, mentor, professor & literary giant.”

Durham native Cynthia Greenlee, an independent scholar, historian, journalist and 2020 James Beard Award winner also paid tribute to Kenan with an August 29 Twitter post.

“Randall Kenan taught me that Black kids from North Carolina could be writers,” Greenlee wrote. “I’m thankful for that, but more thankful for his words and his spirit. Long live Randall, but the colors of the world will seem washed out without him.”

Kenan earned his undergraduate degree from UNC in 1985. He went on to work on the editorial staff with Alfred A. Knopf in New York, where he eventually left before teaching at schools like Columbia and Duke before returning back to the state in 2013 to join the faculty at UNC Chapel Hill.

Kenan produced a body of nonfiction that includes a young adult volume about James Baldwin in 1993, followed by a 2010 work, The Cross of Redemption, that features an unpublished body of work by a man that’s arguably America’s greatest essayist.

Wilson first met Kenan in 2010 when he was a Ph.D candidate studying Black and multiethnic literature. Although Wilson never took a class with Kenan, the two became very close. Kenan was in attendance for Wilson’s defense of his dissertation when the late James W. Coleman, a professor in the Department of English & Comparative Literature, was unable to attend.

“Randall literally came to my rescue so I could finish my Ph.D,” Wilson says.

One year after graduation, Wilson’s produced a short film, The Changing Same, a reflection on the 1934 lynching of Claude Neal in his hometown of Marianna, Florida. Kenan, who served on Full Frame’s selection committee played a role in getting Wilson’s work a prominent showing at the prestigious film festival.

“I know Randall did what he could do to make sure it wasn’t ignored,” Wilson says.

Wilson said when he first met Kenan, he was “a cynical journalist with a feminized body,” and although he grew up in a world of men, he was wary of other gay, Black men as an adult.

“Gay men,” Wilson explains, “endure so much trauma and it destroys them. They become transactional, with the expectation of ‘what’s in it for me?’”

Wilson said Kenan dealt with his personal traumas by being kind.

“Randall believed in love,” Wilson says. “His characters usually met their fate in the pursuit to be loved. When he loved you, he gave so generously to you.”

Much of Kenan’s work is set in Tims Creek, a mythical township in York County, North Carolina founded by a slave named Pharaoh. Tims Creek was similar to the place where he grew up. In that unlikely hamlet, Kenan explored fabulism, magical realism, sexual identity, miracles, food, and an unforgettable cast of complex, full-bodied characters that readers identify with and recognize.

Kenan’s latest book, If I Had Two Wings, was released this year and is on the longlist for the National Book Award. The 10 stories that make up the collection include a visit to Tims Creek by billionaire Howard Hughes in search of a woman who cooked him ham hocks. Then there’s the pastor who beats up an adulterer and imagines the small-town gossip that will follow:

“Girl did you hear about that pastor over at Tims Creek? Said he took off his belt and whipped the shit outta boy who was humping his wife. Uh-huh. Said that nigger came up to him all drunk and told him the next time he calls his house he’d better put his wife on the phone.”

If I Had Two Wings is a worthy follow-up to Kenan’s first short story collection, Let The Dead Bury Their Dead, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction in 1992. One of the stories in that collection, “The Foundations of The Earth,” speaks to the universality of the human condition through the lens of homosexuality, when Maggie Williams struggles to accept Gabriel, her dead grandson’s lover:

“It it hard?” Maggie Williams asks Gabriel, “being gay?”

“Well I have no choice,” Gabriel answers.

“So I understand,” Maggie replies, “But is it hard?”

“Mrs. W., I think life is hard, you know?”

“Yes I know.”

After the publication of his 1989 debut, A Visitation of Spirits, observers thought he had emerged as the heir apparent to James Baldwin, who had written so vividly about homosexuality before he died in 1987.

“Randall respected Baldwin so much,” Wilson says, “because Baldwin paved the way so he could be himself. Baldwin was born in a time when he was expected to be a spokesman for the race. With Randall, there’s a different posture on the page that’s instructive.

“There are some Black writers who feel like they have to explain Blackness to white folks and that will make white folks love them more,” Wilson says. “That wasn’t Randall’s endgame. He was simply writing the truth he knew of rural southern Black folk.” 

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