Looking Blackward

 Walking on Water was culled from a heroic enterprise: the author's six-year crisscrossing of these United States in search of the meaning of Blackness today. What It Doth Feel Like Being Black Right Now. Randall Kenan's interviewees (born from 1910 to the 1980s) represent African American identity's evolution from a period to an exclamation point to a question mark— that historical movement from the Jim Crow Era to the Black Is Beautiful Era to the present, perhaps best described as The Nigga Realness Era, where one's ethnic legitimacy is determined by psychic and physical proximity to all my peoples in the projects.

Hiphop and Black youth culture are noticeable by their absence in Kenan's book, as they generally are whenever middle-class Black people get serious about the condition our condition is in. Kenan purports to wonder whether "television and technology and expansion robbed black culture of any inherent meaning." Since hiphop represents Black culture throwing that taxonomy of globalization back in whitey's face, how can any Black thinker try and sweep it under the rug? When even Time magazine acknowledges that hiphop culture is changing the way We Live and that "we" ain't referring to you and me, how can Black intellectuals continue to act like hiphop can still be reduced to That Rap Shit The Kids Like?

My hiphop issues aside, Walking contains hell-a-material that is fascinating, maddening, illuminating, and revelatory. Some of Kenan's target sites alone function like epiphanies. Besides the usual suspects— Martha's Vineyard, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles— we are also treated to such unknown oases of New World Afrikan flava as Burlington, Vermont; Bangor, Maine; Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; Maidstone, Saskatchewan; and Anchorage, Alaska.

Details

Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century
By Randall Kenan
Knopf, 670 pp., $30
Buy this book

It is in such assumedly race-barren outposts that Kenan encounters his most striking subjects. Folk who might best be described as Ralph Ellison's people, that genus of self-starting, self-sufficient, race-minded African Americans who never believed in asking white people for nothin', were raised to believe they could do anything, took no guff, and generally excelled in whatever their chosen profession was with the understanding that to get half as far in life as a white man they'd have to be three times better qualified.

The subjects of Kenan's book therefore weigh in more from the Talented Tenth side of the culture than from the proletariat quarters. Partly this is due to a mandate the author adopted from Zora Neale Hurston— documenting the forgotten middle of the race over the parade of petty criminals and sucker MCs that mainstream media generally flashes across the screen— partly this is due to the author's own angst about not being Black enough. In one vulnerable anecdote he relates being dissed online for not being a real nigga after hand-wringing over his lack of skills on the basketball court. It's enough to tell you how deep his approach-avoidance issues are with real-life Negroes who might lay the same charge on him.

There are some riveting volleys of the Black shuttlecock dialectically tossed throughout Walking's pages, though. On the subject of Are We an African or an American People, for example, Walking contrasts cultural nationalist John Tucker with Edward Gordon, a historian of the Black West, and the Irvins, a married couple from Oakland. Tucker's a return-to-Africa advocate, Gordon felt anything but African while he was there, while the Irvins, after an academic year in Ghana, cried upon leaving. There's also the cases of two Anchorage teens: Eugene Helfin adroitly details how he resolved his identity crisis over whether it was blacker to be a petty criminal or aspire to state senatehood, and the unnamed young man of mixed parentage, living in Burlington, elides his racial identity crisis with a mohawk and a cello.

Perhaps the most poetic, poignant, Ellison-ian, and ironic of Kenan's experiences involves his incredulous encounter with a man in Burlington named Jack Guilles, who claimed to be Black.

He kept talking, but I had stopped listening, latching onto that word: us: looking at his unmistakably yellow hair and reddish white translucent skin and profoundly Teutonic features; he could have been a Viking. . . . If I had closed my eyes I would have sworn he was as dark as I. . . . Was Jack black?

Kenan is savvy enough to know the liquid and mercurial nature of Black identity makes his a fool's task and his self-mocking epiphanies throughout, when his own blackness, masculinity, and machismo rear up or are threatened, lend the book some of the psychological dimension you'd expect from a novelist. Yet there is a disembodied quality to Kenan's reporting that is to some degree a matter of his real-nigga anxieties and to a larger degree a reflection of the problem serious Black writers face now in being able to construct compelling narratives about Black consciousness, Black struggle, and Black alienation, be they essayists or fiction writers. There is a chasm between Great Literature about race and Good Writing on the subject that Kenan never crosses in the manner of a James Weldon Johnson, Du Bois, Ellison, Baldwin, Hurston, Walker, Morrison— a gulf requiring the writer's race obsessions and obsession with language to result in work that makes those obsessions our obsessions and their language our racial lingua franca. Walking is not epochal, then, and mainly because the author undershot the zeitgeist, musically, metaphysically, and existentially. Therein lies the rub— Walking is good on what some isolated Black people feel about being Black now, but less informative on what it feels like being a Puffy Combs, an Allan Iverson, or a Randall Kenan right now.

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