Looking Blackward

Kenan is a formidable reporter and portraitist, but far less engaging or fully engaged when he speaks as a race philosopher. Frequently when life throws him a racialized American curveball, especially in the realm of relationships and intimacy, he appears flat-footed, a mute witness to that hard knot of twine gone flying over his head. When, for example, Kenan touches on the touchy subject of a male versus female maturity and accountability crisis in our communities via a conversation with one Edith Jackson of Las Vegas, a literacy tutor and mother of three, he incomprehensibly retreats from giving us his opinions on the topic— instead recalling his sinus headache that day— after she drops a heavy load on him:

As far as she was concerned black men no longer advocated for black women— regardless of their status. Whether they were Colin Powell, the president of the NAACP, school principals, bankers, doctors, lawyers, ditchdiggers— she never saw them standing up for the black woman. "They don't have a commitment to my plight or my community or my children. I have to do everything, the feeding, the earning, the advocating. That leaves me in a quandary.''

Deeper still, this woman is in a relationship with a young Black man she calls an "experiment," not just because he is a former gangbanger studying sociology, but because she wanted to see if she could manage her issues with Black men enough to sustain a nurturing relationship with him.

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Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century
By Randall Kenan
Knopf, 670 pp., $30
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Novelists would commit murder for material this juicy and topical, but Kenan presents it without exploring what that bizarre domestic contract says about what it is to be black and in a relationship today. Again and again, Kenan seems to have asked pro forma questions about racism and race-consciousness more appropriate to the '60s and '70s than now, blind to the issues that distinguish the racial present from the racial past— not just hiphop but Black Feminism, and sexual politics of other kinds as well.

Walking on Water is both fascinating and dull-edged at the same time because as preoccupied as Kenan is with race, he seems remarkably, if not disingenuously, disinterested in its constant historical companion, sex— not just his own feelings on the subject but anybody's.

My mother believes that the most important thing you can know about another Black person is "Who are her or his people?" Kenan is very forthcoming on his small-town southern roots, his education at Chapel Hill, but repressively modest about his own life as a New York intellectual. To be honest, Kenan is so reserved on the subject of intimacy that I, typically enough for a Voice writer, began to wonder whether he was either asexual, closeted, prudish— something. Kenan, who greatly admires the work of Prince and Isaac Julien, Star Trek (because it presented a future free of racism and diseases), and everything about New Orleans, certainly seems to lead a more multifarious life in mind, body, and soul than that of the indefatigable and reserved gentleman race reporter he gives us in Walking.

For middle-class Black intellectuals the racial present is probably best defined by what we do with our leisure time, what we think about when we're not thinking about race, and how well we're paid for representing the race these days. Our sexual, spiritual, and family lives, our relationship to therapy and healing, are also primary focuses. As Kenan never goes interpersonal excepting one college friendship, the "I" echoing through his sentences strikes one as faint and hollow, making for an oddly bloodless book about bloods. Kenan's writing never provides the sense of a spiritual and emotional connection to the race issues he explores, instead imparting a sense of his soul running deeper in the rivers less traveled. From this angle the book's title begs to be read as self- critique, an admission of skimming on surfaces posing as a drag of the muddy bottom.

As a paddle into the heart of Black American darkness Walking is something of a fizzle if only because Kenan doesn't seem to have come back with more than some amazing snapshots from the diasporic heartland. The author's mandate to search for the Everyman from Zora Neale Hurston is an honorable pursuit: working Black folks bent on raising their families and putting in the overtime to pay the costs are nearly invisible in the media. But the virtual absence of voices from the lower frequencies also creates an imbalance on the side of the bootstrap stories. It means that once again so-called poor Black folk are spoken about rather than being allowed to tell their own stories and strivings within the context of a diverse Black America à la the great Ellison model.

What Kenan does provide us with is an invitation into the hearts, minds, and homes of some rather remarkable citizens of the republic, who don't just happen to be people of African descent. In their geographic dispersal and isolation they remind us of how psychically connected all African Americans remain, and of how alien and alienated our lives in this land continue to be.

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