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.

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.

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.

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.