In Memoriam: Randall Kenan

[ By: Kai Hansen ]

“Randall Kenan’s work was a beautiful thing.

Randall Kenan’s life was a rare gift.”

Dr. James A. Crank

                                             Photo Credit: University of North Carolina

The Project on the History of Black Writing mourns the passing of Randall Kenan, who passed away Friday, August 28, at the age of 57.

An award-winning author, he was best known for his short stories depicting life as a Black, gay man living in the South. Many of his works make use of Southern folklore and magical realism to explore themes such as sexual orientation, tolerance, and self-acceptance. 

Born in Brooklyn, Kenan moved to North Carolina when he was just six weeks old. There he was raised by his grandparents and eventually his great-aunt. A graduate of the University of North Carolina,  he earned a degree in English and creative writing before beginning his teaching career. Brief stints at Vassar College, Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University, the University of Memphis, and Duke University allowed Kenan to travel the country and collect stories that became the basis for Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century (1999).

Kenan eventually returned to his alma mater, where he taught for over 20 years,  in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. He was known by many not only as a writer and professor but also a mentor.

An Evening With Randall Kenan, Atlanta, March 2019. Photo Credit: James A. Crank

Kenan won numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Whiting Award, the Sherwood Anderson Award, the John Dos Passos Prize, the 1997 Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. In 2007 he became a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, where he also served as a former Chancellor. In 2018 he was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.

Kenan’s work inspired a generation of authors who saw themselves in his words. A talented author and a kind man, Randall Kenan will be remembered for his contributions to Black and queer literature, as well as the impact he had on those around him. Dr. James A. Crank, leading scholar on Kenan wrote,

“Randall was a critical bridge for understanding the complicated connections between African American and gay vernaculars; in the tradition of Baldwin and Du Bois, he was a preeminent voice articulating the mystery and magic of American blackness.”

By Randall Kenan: A Visitation of Spirits (1989), Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (1992), James Baldwin (1993), Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (1999), The Fire This Time (2007), The Carolina Table (2016), and If I Had Two Wings (2020).  


Remembering Randall Kenan

Crank and Randall Kenan at Oxford, Mississippi during book signing tour April 2019

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to overstate Randall Kenan’s importance to American literature and culture. Randall was a critical bridge for understanding the complicated connections between African American and gay vernaculars; in the tradition of Baldwin and Du Bois, he was a preeminent voice articulating the mystery and magic of American blackness; a passionate and stalwart advocate of preserving foodways, Randall celebrated the bounty and creativity of southern and American cuisines; he found music in muscadine, poetry in persimmons; he wrote about the complex nuances that attend belonging to but feeling disconnected from your home, your family, your region, your nation; he was a storyteller of an invented land, at once profoundly mythic and also positively mundane, a world he inhabited with people whom he loved desperately and with abandon; he gave us characters as vibrant, vivid, and alive in his Tims Creek as they were in his homeland of Chinquapin, North Carolina; he was, in the words of Terry McMillan, “our black Garcia Marquez,” a writer who seamlessly blended the spiritual world with the human; for Randall, all matters of the heart were as sacred as a church altar.

He was all of those things. But he was also a warm, funny, and deeply sensitive man who made family of his students, colleagues, mentors, and fellow authors. His laughter was infectious. He was deeply humble; he never spoke of his many successes or awards. He loved to give people nicknames to show them how dear they were to him—my mentor Linda Wagner Martin was “Funky Wagner,” while I was his “dear little brother.” He had an endless capacity for love and forgiveness. He was unfailingly patient and kind. His generosity to those working their way up through the academy and publishing was well-known, even though Randall rarely publicized it. His magic was his unceasing humanity.

He was my friend.

On August 28th, we lost him. I say “we” because, even though I felt the loss acutely, I know that Randall found his way into so many hearts across the world. For those of us who loved him, he was more than just his accomplishments, more than just a Guggenheim-winning, National Book Award finalist, more than just his stories. For a gay teenager growing up in the South, A Visitation of Spirits was not just a novel, it was an opening to a way of belonging; Randall didn’t just craft a beautiful story, he gave kids like me a genealogy to attach ourselves to, a critical perspective, a proud visibility. And though we might have lost Randall, we will never lose that.

As a professor at the University of Alabama, I had been teaching Randall’s books for years, and when I got the opportunity to write a monograph solely on his work, I was elated. When I began working on what would become Understanding Randall Kenan, I wondered if Randall might agree to an interview for the final chapter of the book. He graciously agreed, and from our first conversation together, we found deep kinship. In my first interview with him, Randall talked about how crafting intimacies was at the heart of all his writing, especially intimacies that crossed over various axes of race, sexuality, and age. Randall found that ability to fully and freely share one’s heart even though it meant willfully crossing lines, shunning constructed divisions, and knowingly breaking the rules was at the foundation of who he was as an author and a person. He said, “I think it takes a certain kind of person who’s willing to play like that. To extend themselves. And it’s something of a dance, a metaphor for intimacy. That they’re willing to dance with each other. And let go of a certain fear and not be so guarded. If you’re too guarded, you won’t be able to achieve that. And I see it happening, and it’s a beautiful thing when it does. But it’s rare when it happens.”

Randall Kenan’s work was a beautiful thing.

Randall Kenan’s life was a rare gift.

At the end of that December day, Randall told me that he felt lucky because he had so many books to look to for guidance on what it means to be human, especially when he was young. He said, “I’ve been so fortunate, because I feel there are so many. I mean I’m a poor boy from Chinquapin, North Carolina; when I say I had a really good education, I don’t mean I was Winston Churchill or anything. I wasn’t studying Greek and Latin, but I was given some good books to read. Enough to last me the rest of my life.”

What blissful luck that we have Randall Kenan’s books to help us understand the mystery and terror of being a human. They are enough to last us the rest of our lives.

James A. Crank, Associate Professor of American literature and culture at the University of Alabama

Let the Dead Bury Their Dead

When I was co-editing The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology with William L. Andrews, Minrose Gwin, and Fred Hobson, it fell to me to get permission to use one of Randall Kenan’s short stories. When I tried to do that, I learned that it would cost two thousand dollars. Well, we didn’t have that kind of money. I figured Randall would be receptive to appearing in the volume, so I set out to find him and ask his permission to use “The Foundations of the Earth.” After some detective work, I located him in Rome. Not caring a whit about phone charges that might be involved, I called him and was pleasantly surprised when he answered immediately. I explained the situation to him and ended by asserting: “This will help to make you famous!” He laughed in that pleasant way of his and gave us permission to include the story. He certainly became famous, though I have no way of measuring the impact of that publication upon his reputation.

More recently, Randall joined the Chair of the English Department at UNC Chapel Hill in inviting me to be a keynote speaker at the Department’s 225th Anniversary Celebration in October of 2021. When I said “Yes” on 13 August 2020, Randall wrote: “I think the song I would reference is from 1969: O Happy Day!” What a happy day it was when weeks-old Randall Kenan was brought to North Carolina, where he spent most of his career on the soil that claimed and fueled his creative imagination. And, despite our sorrow, it is now a happy day during which Randall Kenan is brightening the existences of those beyond this realm.

Dear sweet, wonderful, and always private Randall, may you sleep in peace with the angels.

Trudier Harris, University Distinguished Research Professor, Department of English, the University of Alabama; J. Carlyle Sitterson Distinguished Professor of English Emerita, UNC Chapel Hill\

HBW would like to thank Dr. Crank and Dr. Harris for their collaboration on this piece.


Randall Kenan at Southern Foodways Alliance 2018. Photo Credit: Brandall Laughlin


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Randall Kenan, 2016 Sewaanee Writers Conference

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Southern Foodways Alliance 2018 Podcast, Visible Yam


Kai Hansen is a sophomore at the University of Kansas, double majoring in English & Biology with a minor in Dance. A member of the University Honors Program with plans to become an English professor, Kai is actively engaged in the study of  Black and queer literature.