Far too often, the Black queer canon is said to begin and end with James Baldwin. More than a few miss out on the Black gay writers for whom Baldwin was both friend and foreigner. Randall Kenan is a timely example of such a writer. In his posthumous collection of essays, Black Folk Could Fly, he engages with James Baldwin, but also with two larger questions — What is Blackness? and What is Southernness?
Through a profound analysis of food, music, film and literature, Kenan explores the many aspects of African American life in the American South. In doing so, he puts his own history up for observation (bravely admitting that he, at times, has felt not Black enough). The book opens with an introduction by Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage and Silver Sparrow. Jones admonishes the reader not to forget Kenan. These first pages also serve as a eulogy. She gathers Kenan’s memories and musings like brush and twigs for a fire. But she doesn’t light them ablaze. Instead, she invites us all to take what we will. A piece of Randall Kenan will go with us all for our own fires.
It is worthwhile to note Kenan’s extended discussions of language, which emerge from their chapters as a commentary on the entire collection: “We use language; language does not use us.” In this instance, he appraises the use of the N-word in African American communities. He begins with a review of the work of comedian Richard Pryor, who often employed the word as a sword of humor. Kenan then recounts how, in 1982, Pryor had an enlightening trip to Africa that caused him to omit the N-word from his comedic routines. By Kenan’s assessment, this was an oversimplification of the history and complexity of the N-word — its uses in both daily Black life and literature communicate levels of affection and disdain that white America can never comprehend. Surprisingly though, in this fraught racial conversation, Kenan finds a middle point between those who do and do not use the word. Rather than this being a neutral place, it is a factual one. Kenan takes on the role of a linguist, offering: “At the end of the day it really is just a word, children.”
The profound editorial consideration with which these 21 works of nonfiction are woven together is evident. Several of the essays reintroduce material that was omitted during previous publications. For instance, consider the essays “Ghost Dog” and “Swine Dreams: or, Barbecue for the Brain.” About the latter the editor notes, “Meanwhile the previously cut material about hog gelding, too riveting to ignore, is now restored to an essay that takes a more personal form and includes Kenan’s original subtitle.”
The collection opens and closes with two letters. The first is a letter to Kenan’s godson titled “A Change Is Gonna Come.” He uses this hybrid letter-essay to recount his personal history to his posterity. It is an old Black church tradition — the business of answering the question, “What do these stones mean?” In doing so, he apprises his godson of a larger Black lineage, one that includes Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan. He closes the letter with a chain-breaking question: “Did you know, once upon a time, Black folk could fly? … Remember that when you think you are stuck in the mud.”
Kenan’s letter to himself at the end of the book is no less tender and inspiring. He addresses the letter to Garrett (his middle name). He places a wide breadth of advice before his younger self — everything from buying Apple stock to romantic endeavors. But the most salient of these is to “fly where you want to fly.” It is a sweet thing when we can give ourselves the encouragement we give others.
Randall Kenan is now with the ancestors. With our Black gay fathers. With Reginald Shepherd, with Essex Hemphill and with James Baldwin. In his estimation, the time when Black Folk Could Fly is past, present and future. It is all about how we consider ourselves and the world.
For more local book coverage, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.