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Walking on Water


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About the Author

Randall Kenan lives in Memphis, Tennessee.


Chronicling a journey to self-identity, North Carolina-born writer Kenan‘author of the novel A Visitation of Spirits (Grove, 1989) and the story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (LJ 2/15/92)‘reports on four years of travel through North America to discern what it means to be black here and now. Testing stereotypical attitudes, Kenan explores perceptions of race, region, and more. His ostensible travelog inquires into his self and into the heart of the places and persons of his sojourn. He offers fertile commentary on contemporary America, ripe not simply with questions of what it means to be black but of what it means to be American and to be human. Recommended for collections on the contemporary United States and on black America.‘Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe

"A masterwork....Pulsates with the multilayered rhythms of an epic."--Chicago Tribune

"Fascinating, maddening, illuminating, and revelatory....Novelists would commit murder for material this juicy and topical." --The Village Voice

"A work of insight and compassion." --The New York Times Book ReviewRandall Kena

Kenan styles himself as the heir of W.E.B. Du Bois and Gunnar Myrdal, but this massive collection of 200 interviews is ultimately not as enlightening as either The Souls of Black Folk or An American Dilemma. In his preface, Kenan (The Visitation of Spirits, a novel) puts his finger on the problem when he admits that the book is more of an attempt to answer questions about his own blackness than to figure out what it means to be black in the U.S. But his efforts on this score suffer from an apparent self-absorption born of his fear that he is "not black enough, inauthentic"‘a fear that could conceivably anchor a short memoir but not a tome of this size. Kenan spoke with the young and the old, the middle and the working class (though rarely with professionals). Strong points include informative local histories (a passage about the Black American West Museum in Denver, which has archives on black cowboys, is particularly good). The book's fundamental flaw is that Kenan is determined to think about black culture as monolithic, but the form of the book itself, with its interviews of people from diverse places and backgrounds, shows readers that black American life is multifaceted, shaped as much by class and region as by race. Indeed, Kenan's own childhood in rural North Carolina speaks as much to rural Southern culture as to black culture. In the end, Kenan, faced with the diversity of black lives, finds very little of substance to say about black identity: "being black is a desire toward some spiritual connection with some larger whole, an existential construct: Who am I? Where do I belong?" How this differs from "being" anything else, Kenan doesn't say. (Feb.)

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