The Assembly’s monthly literary column highlights all things books in the Old North State. Author Wiley Cash helms the newsletter, which includes older books with new relevance, new titles with timely appeal, reviews, author Q&As, and excerpts. You can sign up for the newsletter here.
This month’s book is Black Folk Could Fly: Selected Writings by Randall Kenan.
The first time I met Randall Kenan was at a fundraiser for the Wilmington Arts Council in 2013, where he joined Clyde Edgerton and Lee Smith, two of the best and funniest storytellers I know, for a wide-ranging discussion. Randall’s stories weren’t as humorous and his narration wasn’t as rambunctious as theirs, but I was struck by how intently he listened to the storytellers, and how easily he responded with his own insights on faith, regional identity, food, and literature. He took the conversation in new and interesting directions that arrived at moments of candor and honesty.
At the same time, there was something mischievous at the corners of his sincerity. It was clear that he was reaping as much joy from the conversation as the rest of us, but also that he was thinking more deeply.
After the event, Randall signed a copy of his 2007 book The Fire This Time for my wife and me. Part memoir, part cultural analysis, its title references James Baldwin’s vital 1963 text.
My wife and I had just returned home to North Carolina after graduate school and our first professional jobs out of state. My first novel had been released the year before, and I was desperate to be welcomed by the towering cadre of esteemed North Carolina authors, of which Randall was one of the most respected. I recently came across the book, in which he’d inscribed: “Godspeed and welcome home.”
Randall died in 2020, at just 57. His death has left a gaping hole in the North Carolina literary community.
Randall’s fiction is often described as magical realism, but the nonfiction essays in his new book, the posthumously published Black Folk Could Fly, portray an uber-realistic view of issues like Blackness, foodways, rural life, and masculinity. That’s not to say that some of the essays aren’t funny, and it’s also not to say that a realist’s eye makes Randall’s writing any less magical.
Alane Salierno Mason, who was both a friend and editor to Randall, first met him in a creative writing class in college. “We had been expected to write something over the summer since it was a thesis class, and Randall had written from the point of view of a bluebird,” she said. The professor, she recalled, told him, “No, Randall, we need you to be the voice of Black North Carolina.” Mason added, “Fortunately, Randall shrugged that off and wrote what he wanted.”
In many ways, the new collection is a delicious miscellany of Randall’s various interests, interests that were born out in the communities of readers and writers he connected with over his career. Recently, at an event that celebrated the publication of Randall’s book and his life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a professor and alumnus, author Tayari Jones made clear that the spaces Randall inhabited—Black, queer, Southern—created spaces for others to inhabit, too.
In the book’s opening essay, “Letter to My Godson,” Randall seeks to create space for a young man whose life is ahead of him. He encourages him to embrace his past and the community he comes from, writing, “you will need to know a great deal about your past, where you come from, what your people were like—really like—what they thought of you, in order to better understand yourself. You need to know how your own blood lived and faced adversity and of what their character was composed.”
Randall’s character was composed of science fiction novels, church suppers, long days spent in the tobacco field, and nights spent at the movie theater, all of which he covers in these essays. In “Chinquapin,” which is the name of the community where a great aunt he called Mama raised him, he writes that “memory is a Polaroid.” As you read, you can see his home in rural eastern North Carolina and the landscape around it developing slowly. This is a place where people are so interconnected that, as he writes in another essay, “It seems like a lot of people are dying because you are acutely aware of every death—you probably ate Sunday supper with that person at one point, you probably visited their sick bed, went to school with them, certainly went to church with them.”
Randall’s first two books, the novel A Visitation of Spirits (1989) and the story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (1992) were both set in a fictionalized Chinquapin that he called Tim’s Creek, and to which he brought a journalist’s eye to rural Black life. Later in his career, he would turn his eye on the expanse of Black life across the continent with his seminal nonfiction book Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Twentieth Century (1999).
Two of the new collection’s most penetrating essays, “Come Out the Wilderness” and “Blackness on My Mind,” are taken from Walking on Water, and in them Randall confronts what it meant to him to be Black as a student in the predominately white Chapel Hill—“I was struggling to be a ‘real’ Black person”—and later with what it meant to have gathered so many examples of Blackness after finishing his research —“The manuscript was to be my bone; I had to chew on it.”.
The collection also uses the lens of Blackness to survey the career of Eartha Kitt through a very charming story about when Randall had the chance to meet her, as well as the photography of Gordon Parks and the work of James Baldwin, about whom Randall often wrote and under whose legacy as a gay Black man he sometimes struggled.
Salierno Mason, Randall’s friend and classmate, also recalls how the demands of identity and purpose weighed on him: “Everybody wanted a piece of him. And he was so generous.”
Long before Randall’s death, a close friend and colleague in the English department at UNC-Chapel Hill, Daniel Wallace, asked him what he hoped would happen to his work after he died. “I think of my uncollected stories and/or my occasional writing coming out in a collection after I die,” Randall told Wallace. “Publishers don’t do that much anymore unless you have won the Nobel Prize or some such. I would be dead, but it would make me happy.”
I recently asked Wallace how it felt to go through Randall’s manuscripts after his death, knowing it was his wish. Wallace said the process helped him grieve.
Reading his collected writings will help other fans and friends of Randall grieve as well, but it will also help us to come to terms with the towering literary and cultural legacy he leaves behind. I couldn’t help but feel that Randall was welcoming me home again.
Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.