A Visitation Of (Kindred) Spirits: Friends And Colleagues Remember Randall Kenan

Sep 8, 2020

Randall Kenan, an important Black, queer, Southern author, died last week at age 57.
Credit UNC Chapel Hill English and Comparative Literature Department

Last weekend, the literary community was rocked by news of local giant Randall Kenan’s passing. He died in his Hillsborough home late last week at the age of 57. 

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Kenan’s family relocated to Duplin County, N.C. when he was six weeks old. He was the author of several books, including “A Visitation of Spirits,” “Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century,” “The Fire This Time” and “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead.” His latest short story collection, “If I Had Two Wings,” was released in August.

A longtime professor of English and comparative literature at UNC-Chapel Hill, Kenan was beloved by students, colleagues, and the North Carolina community. He was world-renowned as a important Black, male, queer voice and as part of the Southern gothic tradition. Host Frank Stasio pays tribute to him with two of his friends and colleagues: Rebecka Rutledge Fisher, associate professor of African American studies and Black critical theory at UNC-Chapel Hill and E. Patrick Johnson, dean of the school of communication at Northwestern University. 

Interview Highlights

On Randall Kenan, the private person:

Since the news of Kenan’s passing broke, remembrances of his work as a professor and a public figure have centered his generosity and gentleness. His friend E. Patrick Johnson echoes this: “For as much impact that Randall had on the literary and African American studies world, he was very shy and kind of a recluse. He didn't come out a lot to events or anything, but one-on-one, he was amazing. A quiet, gentle soul with a fierce spirit, and I just cannot imagine the world without him.”

On the importance of Kenan’s debut novel, “A Visitation of Spirits”:

Kenan’s first novel was considered groundbreaking at the time of its publication in 1989. On a personal level, it was also groundbreaking for Johnson: “I first read ‘A Visitation of Spirits’ when I was a first-year graduate student at Chapel Hill. I was still not out,” Johnson explains. “I'm from a small town in North Carolina, Hickory. And so, reading a book like ‘A Visitation of Spirits’ for me was like expanding my own world, and it gave me the courage to stand in my own truth. That book gave me permission to do so, because it took place in a small, rural town in North Carolina. It was about a Black gay man struggling with spirit duality and sexuality. I can't tell you how impactful that book was to my own personal journey coming into my sexuality and trying to reconcile my sexuality and my spirituality, but it also opened up so many doors to me as a scholar.”

On the intersections of identity Kenan inhabited:

Kenan’s UNC Chapel Hill colleague Rebecka Rutledge Fisher reflects: “From the earliest moments in his career, we understood the intersectionality of his consciousness of the identities that he inhabited. But he had a willingness to explore at once what it means to be a Black, gay male writer, a southern writer, a writer who was born in an urban space but quickly grew up in a rural space, and he was also a thinker who moved between humanist thought and scientific thought. His first three and a half years as an undergraduate at UNC were spent as a physics major. And he recounts back in ‘95 that somehow fiction just took hold of him, and he began from there.”

On Kenan’s influence and legacy within the Black, queer male community:

Though Kenan’s loss is felt throughout the literary community, it has a distinct impact on the Black, queer literary community. “There would be fewer Black, gay writers if it weren't for Randall Kenan. The work that I've done on oral histories of Black, gay men of the South, the work that so many others of my colleagues who are working in Black literary, Black queer literary, and cultural studies would not have been possible without Randall Kenan. His light will shine on through his work, and through those of us who have been impacted by it.”