To say that Randall's work changed my life is an understatement; Randall's work saved my life.
On August 28, 2020, Randall Kenan became an ancestor. As he took flight, local newspapers paid tribute. Southern writers mourned. And the Black queer southern writer who grew up in Chinquapin—a community woven together by hogs, Bibles, and tobacco—garnered praise from the likes of the New York Times and O Magazine. A few of us—Black graduate students and alumni from the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC-Chapel Hill—wanted to speak our piece. So here, we circle up Baby Suggs style. We gather in our own Clearing to honor a man who lit up a room with his beaming, boundless smile. We gather to, as Nikki Giovanni says, “spin a soft Black song” for the writer and mentor who nourished our lives, work, and spirits. He moved us with his first novel, A Visitation of Spirits, a Black, postmodern “faithful vision,” as the late Dr. James Coleman would say, that gives equal voice to the sacred, spiritual, and supernatural. We are faithful to Randall’s vision as we offer these reflections, poems, and meditations as an altar for our newest ancestor and eternal friend.
In the Spirit of Visitation*
Reading Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits (1989) In Memoriam
by Andrew R. Belton
Always more inviting than anticipated, Randall Kenan’s ready-smile brightened the hallways, stairwells, and offices of Greenlaw Hall, where he began teaching literature and creative writing at the University of North Carolina in 2003—making those he encountered feel all-at-once familiar and quite-at-home in his presence. Between our brief visits, cordial hellos, and too-often hurried goodbyes before and after classes, there inevitably came a point when my announcement of teaching his beautifully conceived first novel drew out his wry smile, trailed in all modesty by the exclamation, “Oh God!,” followed by genuine self-deprecation about the imagined short-comings of this great writer’s first major work and introduction to the literary world.
After receiving word of Randall Kenan’s homegoing, I immediately recalled this moment of his discomfited smile in response to my teaching A Visitation of Spirits as a graduate student at UNC. Set in the fictional town of Tims Creek, North Carolina, the novel recounts the harrowing tale of Horace Cross, a sixteen-year-old whose struggles—to account for the spirits and demons both internal and external to his pursuits of love—reveal the vital necessity of self-love as a resource for sustaining Black queer life in rural North Carolina. In this earliest representation of Tims Creek, Kenan’s Carolina is alive with the protective spirits of Black ancestors, and haunted by demons as vile as white supremacy and repulsive as persistent phobias over Black queerness. Discovering Kenan’s debut novel one cannot help but be deeply affected by the beauty of its prose—But the ghosts of those times are stubborn: and though the hog stalls are empty, a herd can be heard, trampling the grasses and flowers and fancy bushes, trampling the foreign trees of the new families, living in their new homes. A ghostly herd waiting to be butchered—and transfixed by the heartwrenching story of the Black gay teenage protagonist at the center of the world Kenan envisions.
Lyrical and haunting, his narrative captures the peculiar social conditions that continue to inform the circumstances of Black queer life. It challenges the world given and inherited, creating in its space of speculation a necessary thinking through and feeling for home within the endless state of emergency that circumscribes Black life in this country. Perhaps this is why, after reading the novel for the first time as a new transplant to the state of North Carolina, I desired so badly to share with Randall my thoughts and deep appreciation for his work. And why, likewise, his expressed reluctance at my teaching this first novel always struck me as a sign of the turmoil of his great genius—brought on, perhaps, by a lingering dissatisfaction with yielding too easily to the seductive narrative trope of Black death rather than pursuing other forms of Black metamorphosis hinted at throughout the novel as a possibility for Horace.
With the news that Randall Kenan has taken his place among our most honored ancestors, I feel overwhelmingly indebted to him for this first novel, which provides both sacred text and provocation to remember the Black queer lives that always exceed the pages of authorship. I invite those who cannot experience (again, or for the first time) the full warmth of Randall’s voice, smile, and the otherworldly vitality of his laughter, to visit with him within (and perhaps beyond) the pages of his first novel—a work that from its earliest inception prepares a vision of Black Carolina worthy of the life its author was able to live. Rest in all your profundity and power, Randall Kenan. And please feel free to visit with us anytime soon.
Peace in Meaning
by James Cobb
Just north of UNC-Chapel Hill there’s a sandwich shop frequented by grad students and faculty as a place of quiet reflection. I can’t remember if it was in the spring or the fall but the English department ran a tab for us. We were meant to discuss Silent Sam. We were all Black and were supposed to come to terms with something. The first moments were silent and awkward. Some had ordered and others hadn’t. There’s this weird iPad ordering system where you assemble whatever your heart desires. Was there a limit per sandwich? Could we perhaps take a sandwich home? Conversation sprang from nothing.
It was here that I met Randall. I had seen him before. Spoken to him. But only in the most casual way. Those past events were department mixers or job talks. Events with definite ends where people are polite because they are on the clock.
This was different.
As a Black intellectual, you spend your career contemplating community. How does your work and your position speak to, oppose, or depict Blacks? How might you help those younger than you or when do you look to the aid of the wise? How do any of us navigate this world? Does searching for help acknowledge that I am lost?
This was different.
I knew Randall was a writer. I had seen him walk the halls and wondered how he numbered amongst the Black faculty. Could I go to him for advice? Would the difficulties that he experienced be an aid to me? Would he help me in my own career?
But in sitting with him, talking to him that day, I did not ask myself these questions. The need to be Black for others dissipated. In talking to Randall and engaging in conversation about nothing there was a comfort that for the first time since earliest youth I could be both Black and a scholar without deciding between the one and the other. Randall offered me a glimpse into what that world could be. I do not remember what we talked about. I was going to write that I sadly don’t remember, but, honestly, it isn’t sad. If the content of the conversation was constructive, it would have made me feel less of a Black human because it would have, in some way, been working to prove that point. During that lunch, Randall listened to me in a way that I didn’t know was so consequential, but which has had a profound impact on me and my work.
A lot of my peers knew Randall well, they have shared stories of his kindness and warmth—of the love and resilience that he fostered in them, how his stories showed that theirs also mattered. In many ways, my story differs from Randall’s. I am not queer or from the South. But in the brief time I had with him, he let me know that my existence mattered. That being where I was in the room with him was enough, and for that moment, there was no need to prove that my blackness needed explanation.
Thank you, Randall.
Two Wings and a Remembrance
by Jameela F. Dallis
for Randall Kenan
I remember Stephen King
and feeling seen
in your office with
I remember your laugh filling
space rooms hallways porches gardens galaxies
your smile with
You anointed me “Ms. Gothic”
wished me “Godspeed” and thanked me
when I was
We talked Gothic this and horror that
and haunting and my proclivity for
……………………..in grey spaces
I remember that afterparty
you snuck me in saying say
you’re with me
……………………..oh, Randall, keep making mischief
now you have
I never took a course Randall taught, but I was a graduate student eager to connect with the author of A Visitation of Spirits. After meeting, Randall became an instant mentor and, over the years, he also become a cherished friend. His door was always open and his office was a haven—especially for Black students of all interests and levels. Early in my graduate career, I often felt out of place because I was a Black woman studying Gothic and horror literature, and those times we just talked helped me know that my work was worthy.
After I began teaching, Randall visited several of my classes where he talked about his work, answered enthusiastic students’ questions, and graciously signed all of their books. Randall was always so generous with his time.
I taught several stories from Randall’s collection, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, but my two favorite stories to teach have been “Clarence and the Dead” and “What Are Days?” Both stories are Gothic, magical, and romantic in their own peculiar way. Just as Randall would have them be.
Randall’s Clarence helped my students understand how communities can work to preserve the norm to a fault. The story encouraged them to think about what it means to make space for difference, what it means to know and see more than the average person, and what it means for a community to reckon with justice. My students were in awe of how real the characters of Tims Creek felt—how even if they’d never set foot in hog or tobacco country, they had been given an invaluable glimpse into another way of being and, at the same time, insight into unexpected parts of themselves.
In “What Are Days?” we meet Lena, a fifty-one-year-old woman reawakening her sexual desire and (re)discovering self-love. This story often shocked my students and when we explored why, many understood their shock as a function of ageism and, for some, their inexperience with different forms of intimacy in their own lives. After we sat with and held the story for a while, my students marveled at how beautifully Randall had rendered Lena—how real she became to herself and to them.
These two stories are also about haunting, as are many of Randall’s stories. Haunting that imbues his words with presence, flesh, resonance. Haunting that’s tied up in love—that transformative, magical state of being that can unravel fear and shame. And haunting is always about history and its persistence into the present. That’s also the Gothic.
I am no stranger to haunting and before I lost two older lovers, I had Let the Dead Bury Their Dead to help prepare me for grieving, and what it means to let myself be haunted and live to love again. I don’t know if Randall knew that. But, now, I do.
Now, we are left with Randall’s words, and for those of us that knew him and loved him, we also have memories of his laughter, his quirks, his kind eyes, and his open office door. And, I think he’d want us to feel haunted—filled up with his stories and memories of times together—in the best possible way.
Remembering Randall, Remembering Kin
by Gale Greenlee
Some folk are blessed
with the gift of sight
an ability to peek
sift through words
and uneasy laughter
read gestures of habit
land on nuance
and speak truth
with a knowing wink
and an easy smirk of a smile
Some folk just have it
the gift of sight
that bears witness
listens to secrets, longings
telling all truths
the devils among us
naming that which we don’t wish
but need to see
Randall, you had
and we know.
I can’t quite remember when Randall first entered my world. He was not the kind who burst through doors with loud talk. He never waltzed around dripping with unnecessary bravado, though he probably could’ve pulled it off. Rather, my experience of Randall was often quiet—a passing hello, a warm and genuine, “How are you doing?” or that simple nod of recognition that Black folk are wont to share when we find ourselves in overwhelmingly white spaces.
If I sit still, I can coax memories of hearing him at the Greensboro Public Library, where I worked before entering grad school at UNC. The Touring Theatre of North Carolina had adapted one of his short stories for the stage. I sat in the crowd and listened to his words, watching and witnessing. A Black southern grandmother who grieves her dead grandson and struggles to reconcile his being gay. And then, she meets his white lover who brings her grandson’s body back home. I don’t know for sure if Randall was in the room. Maybe he stood in the corner. Maybe he addressed the crowd after the show. I see him clearly in my mind’s eye. But memories are fickle and can’t always be trusted. Maybe I conjured him that day.
I officially met Randall in my first semester in graduate school. He breezed into our seminar as we sat in a semi-circle discussing his novel, A Visitation of Spirits. I asked if he had conjured Horace and the characters of Tims Creek who felt oh-so-real to me. “Did they come to you?” I wanted to know. He chuckled. Dabbling in magic and understanding the power of Black folk belief, he acknowledged the mystery. But he also underscored the work, the solitary hours at his desk, working sentences and shaping worlds. Writing was a balance, I learned, between the inexplicable and the mundane. Between holding the unknown, the real, and the imaginings of what is yet to be. He spoke to the otherworldliness, as well as the discipline, his work required. He seemed to toggle two worlds.
That dance and discipline produced the world of Tims Creek, the fictional community that he would develop in many of his stories. When I first read Randall’s work, I simply got caught up. He grabbed me with the everyday drama and the complicated legacies of the South. He wooed me with rural Black folkways and old wives tales that are nothing but religion by another name. Mostly, I got caught up because I see myself in his stories, and I see my kin. His stories transport me to summers on my grandfather’s South Carolina farm. I read and my body remembers the scent of tobacco barns and the stench of the hog pen as I carried slop for their dinner. I see my grandfather Bruce in his overalls and muddy work boots. I see my grandmother Sylvester—yes, that’s her name—tending to hogs and a passel of dogs, cats, chickens, and guinea hens. I see relatives who, like Horace, wrestled with what it means to be Black and queer. Today, only one barn remains, and the hogs are gone, too. Gone are my grandparents and oh-so many kin. But reading Randall always roots me and brings me home, to my people and myself.
I imagine Greenlaw Hall feels hollow now—not because of COVID, but because Randall is gone. I never took a class with him. He never served on my committee. Still, he was always courteous, greeting me with a smile and that gift of an always open door. I did not know Randall well, but I cherish these snatches of memory and the moments we walked the same orbit. I return to his words as I mourn. I revisit “Clarence and the Dead,” with its talking pig and a clairvoyant three-year-old child. I sit with “Angels Aware” that delivers retribution and peace. I drop by Tims Creek. I have his words, and my kin have renewed life. And for that, Randall, I am grateful.
The Lasting Fruits of Randall Kenan’s South: A Memorial Reflection
by Don Holmes
I met Randall Kenan a year after I arrived at Carolina. Before then, I knew little about his writings and the positions he took to retell the important narratives of Black rural life. As a gay Black man from rural Mississippi, I never really thought about such narratives as being interesting to anyone other than the folks who came from that experience. But Randall’s vivid telling and retelling of these truths provided for me an important avenue to understanding the fullness of the South and the fruits of his labor will continue to inspire other little boys and young men just like me.
Randall’s collected works give to us versions of the South so rarely touched. Visions of brilliant, yet ominous purple skies that represent the absurdity and sickness of the South’s racism. Institutions, such as the preacher’s pulpit and the deacon’s pew, so full of hypocrisy and judgment that never considers the hate little boys like me endured. Narratives of common folks that could have been my grandmother, my father, and me. I have always felt that in Randall’s bold mapping of the South he had a little piece of me in there. That I have always felt so close to his work because I could see how I struggled, how I overcame, and how I knew it was okay to be me in part because of his words.
The first time I had a personal conversation with Randall was in his office. The space was always warm and cozy; Randall kept the lights down so as to always have that inviting atmosphere. He also kept his door open, so anyone could walk in. One day I took that leap and poked my head in the door. We talked about our shared experiences and discussed our own personal stories. We talked about the struggles of Black rural life, but we also discussed what we can stand to learn from these moments.
Of course, I was struck by the humbleness of such a literary giant. He seemed so interested in me not because of my research or my ideas or my thoughts. He just wanted to know me and all that entails. I have learned that such sentiments are rare in academia, so his ability to make me feel welcome is a feeling that I will never forget. That was the Randall I knew and will remember for years to come. Knowing Randall felt like coming home.
What I love most about his narratives of our South is his methods to disrupt our thinking about what the South is supposed to look like. He so meticulously drew out the frustration, doubt, and guilt in a character like Horace in A Visitation of Spirits. I told Randall that the stars aligned so perfectly because he would introduce Horace to the world the same year I was born. He smiled at me when I told him that I saw so much of my own struggles represented in Horace—a southern, rural, gay Black teenager, yearning for knowledge all while hiding his sexuality. Indeed, part of Horace’s narrative is my own.
Randall continues to teach us what it means to live wholly in the South as Queer Black men. We note the obvious struggles, but we see possible avenues of escape. We recognize the fullness of the South, and how our stories are just as much a part of the collective narrative. His legacy continued the work of James Baldwin in The Fire This Time (2016), reminding us of how far we’ve come as a nation, yes, but reminding us that the uphill battle towards equity continues. Perhaps no writer in his generation so brilliantly took up the mantle that Baldwin left behind. He had this unique ability to, as the old folks would say, tell it like it is. That’s an important piece to why his writing will remain captivating, challenging, and inspiring.
Randall’s lasting fruit is that he gave agency to so many young and aspiring Black writers. While I am not a creative writer in the traditional sense, Randall encouraged me to be active in recording my own truths. To tell it like it is! He reminded me that my southern narrative is vital to my sense of identity. That in so many ways my feelings of hurt and pain reveal pieces of the South that could invite others to tell their stories and reveal their truths.
We mourn the passing of a man whose words crossed boundaries, and I hope that my small reflection on what he meant to me does his legacy justice. We are in debt to Randall not because he was a literary giant or a stellar teacher or because he smiled so big and loved so openly. We are indebted to him because he taught so many of us to see just how useful our own narratives are. Now that Randall is among the ancestors, we will continue to look to him for guidance and direction. I am so glad that I am part of a generation of readers who have ready for them the gifts of Randall’s labor.
Thank you, Randall.
A Gathering of Old Men
by Al-Tariq Roberson (né Eddie Moore)
granddaddy was different. lived alone
in north carolina. gradmama lived
up north. the mason-dixon drew a line
between them when mouths to feed
made a difference and love was the work.
above and below, divided union
men in the kitchen played checkers,
drank whiskey, waited for sweet potato pie.
granddaddy tied a towel around his waist, a cincture
to hold it all inside, a leaf for his loins.
he stirred steaming pots and laughed
like it wasn’t a crime.
between them moved a feeling.
grandmama hid behind glasses
thick enough to see souls. peeked through
windows of men and always knew when
and where she was needed. it was not down
south. or in the kitchen. or at the table playing
checkers. she went north needing work and
needing. north to look up from down. north
to know life after labor and seven babies. north
when love was always the work.
he ladled his love into old bowls: pigfeet,
collard greens, peas and cornbread, washed
with whisky and swallowed with pride in a room
where the only secrets between them lived at
the bottom of the bowl when there was nothing
left to do except raise their eyes from the table,
look into one another, and feel what it meant to be full.
in the kitchen where there was no woman
they were full of themselves. their odors, mixed
in the open air with the smell of food, was nourishment
for some part of themselves for which there were
outside the room, they were men with full bellies
who needed no one and stayed down south
where wild things are both dangerous
and beautiful too.
“Well my Lord! You really know the world is changing when a Black gay man gets married in Chocowinity, North Carolina, wearing a black feathered shawl cape with a choker collar!”
That was Jessica, the local florist who did the arrangements for my wedding. We laughed heartily at that statement and the absurd truth of it. Chocowinity has a population of 800, split almost down the middle racially. People are polite in that well-known southern way, but their politics are no less rigid because of their silences and “Bless your heart” smiles.
There I stood in a black tuxedo and black satin shirt, with plumes of black feathers tickling my face. I was thinking of Randall Kenan that day. Before walking out in front of friends and family, I looked in the mirror and said to myself, this is for all the Black boys who ever dreamed of flying when the world was just too much. Before we knew he would be leaving us, it was my tribute to Randall and the impact he had on my life.
July 11, 2020 —or “7/11”—was the luckiest and most unimaginable day of what has been a quite awful year. In part, Randall was responsible for putting flesh on my imagined possibilities for marriage, and for freedom.
I wanted a hoodoo wedding—not anything traditional. So we washed our hands in hyssop water to signify a clean entry into our union. We buried a time capsule as a means of giving ourselves back to the earth and asking for protection. In the bottom of the time capsule was a mojo bag, and in it, hyssop, lavender, rose petals, money, rose quartz, a slip of paper declaring our inseparability, and an alligator paw. I suspect 99 percent of the attendees were Christian and had no idea what was going on. I was fine with that.
Randall and my grandfather both figured prominently in my thoughts. I thought of Randall because Horace Cross made me want to fly and taught me the meaning of magic. It was Randall, by way of Horace, who impressed upon me that if we want to do anything badly enough—even become birds—it is possible.
The first time I finished reading A Visitation of Spirits, which was also my first year of graduate study, I couldn’t stop thinking about magic and mortality. To be honest, I grieved Horace’s death for a few weeks. Why did he have to die? Is there no other ending? I didn’t want to let him go . . . so I didn’t. At the time, I hadn’t yet accepted that I am queer. It took mourning the loss of Horace, who felt like a friend, to get to that. But I ultimately arrived at truth because I understood that the life and death of Horace Cross reflected the inevitability of a violent and unnecessary end for me if I didn’t learn to fly. So I got free and embraced the material reality of magic in everything.
A Visitation closed the door on thirty-eight years of religious oppression and presented me with options. To say that Randall’s work changed my life is an understatement; Randall’s work saved my life. I thought of him a lot that day, filled with gratitude. I remembered the many days I sat in his office rocking chair and shared my life, my interest in his work, and our related remembrances of the South, religion, and blackness. Randall was always kind and calm in a way that inspired me to make finding that kind of peace a life mission. In his company there was such a warm and overwhelming feeling of quiet safety. Without a doubt, I think it was because Randall knew that for so many of us the world is just not a safe place. What I found so moving about it is the fact that he didn’t appear to be working at it; it was just his nature.
This morning I drove twenty miles just to take a rocking chair to my office and return back home. One day, when the pandemic is over, someone will sit in it with curiosities and unspoken burdens. I hope I provide them with safety.
On the day of the wedding I thought of my Grandfather as part of a genealogy that, in my mind, is tangled with the history of the Crosses. Every family has secrets; the Cross family had theirs. Shortly before getting married, I learned that my grandfather (whom I only met as a baby) was queer. Like the people of Tims Creek, my family just never talked about it. So that day I thought, I’m doing what grandpa Josh couldn’t. They clipped his wings back then, but I’m here to fly for him today. I had plans to share that information with Randall. I never got to. I thought it would be cool to connect it to our discussions of Black families, communities, and Black homophobia. I thought he would raise his eyebrows in the way that only Randall could. I laugh now because what Randall didn’t say with words, he could always say with either bright eyes or a furrowed brow. One way or the other, you knew that you had either intrigued him or that you sounded a bit silly or plain old wrong. But Randall wasn’t into crushing people’s inspiration; he nurtured it. In retrospect, I realize it never really felt like I was only sitting with him. I sat with all men and women who made him who he was. The people who taught him to believe in himself were teaching me.
I have finally learned to fly. My wings are made from the feathers of every kind of bird there is. I haven’t tested them out to see how high I can go just yet, but I am trying and training. Don’t want to be Icharus, you know.
You got me off the ground. You taught me the beauty of Black Man Magic. Somehow your words wove a spell—a freedom spell—that I imagine will liberate black queer boys into perpetuity. The week of your passing, I added a candle for you to my ancestor altar. I surrounded it with sage leaves because your wisdom is still living, just like your light. We are not blood relations, but we will be connected into eternity because you were kind enough to share your spirit with me.
Yesterday I chastised myself because it never occurred to me to get you to autograph my book. I suppose it’s enough to be able say I knew you though. Sometimes I sit the novel next to the candle and say your name. You know what an awful year this has been, almost unbearable and filled with grief and loss. A few weeks ago I told someone, When mankind has exhausted the grace of the divine—when we are in need of universal realignment—whatever “great beyond” there is begins assembling teams of qualified ancestors to put us back on course. It seems you made the cut, and though we are sad to have lost you in the material sense, I can never be convinced that you are gone. When my mother passed away a few years ago, a student who sensed my grief took me to lunch. After asking how I was doing, she said, “I’m Greek. In my culture we don’t believe anyone is truly dead until the last person says their name. Say her name.” She shifted my grief into a living relationship.
We are still saying your name.
You are far from gone.
Let the dead bury their dead;
you yet live, Randall Kenan.
In Admiration and Eternal Gratitude,
Thanks for the magic.