The Southern Literary Journal 36.2 (2004) 100-125
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"I Contain Multitudes":
Randall Kenan's Walking on Water as Collective Autobiography
After winning widespread acclaim for a novel, A Visitation of Spirits (1989), and a story collection, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (1992), Randall Kenan undertook a very different sort of project, a book that would blend the genres of travelogue, biography, oral history, and spiritual autobiography. Whereas his fiction is almost exclusively set in the postage stamp of soil around his rural hometown of Chinquapin, North Carolina, in his next major work, Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (1999), Kenan turns his gaze outward to take in an entire continent. Walking on Water chronicles six years of intermittent travel, between 1991 and 1997. Kenan begins by heading northeast as far as Maine, then travels westward across the country via the Rust Belt and the upper Midwest all the way to western Canada and Alaska. Afterward he records his experiences along the west coast and the western "promised lands" of Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Cheyenne, Wyoming. Finally, he makes an abbreviated tour of the South, stopping in Louisiana, Georgia, and North Carolina, before ending his journey with a brief look at New York City, the place of his birth.
Throughout his journey, Kenan interviews a vast variety of black Americans, asking them about their lives and the histories of their respective [End Page 100] communities—ultimately in pursuit of an answer to the question: what does it mean to be black in America today? At the same time, he steadily pursues the question of what it means to Randall Kenan to be black, while remaining conscious of how an answer to this second question always depends upon the variety of answers he receives to the first. In his preface Kenan candidly admits,
[M]y sojourn in North America had more to do with my sojourn in myself, into my own dark soul, and...I had used—perhaps selfishly—the multitude I encountered to reckon on my own being, my own notions, my own heart, more than it had anything to do with my folk. My people? That was the dynamic that informed this work: Do I have a people? Do I belong? And to what?...From the beginning to the end, this is more a book about me than anyone else, and I beg tolerance and understanding in this chronicle.
To further emphasize the subjectivity of his exploration into the black American experience, Kenan frames his travelogue with opening and concluding chapters devoted largely to the farming community of Chinquapin, in eastern North Carolina, where he grew up. He shows the reader his home, thereby allowing us to understand the perspective from which he views the rest of the continent. The extent to which this perspective is thoroughly agrarian becomes clear fairly early in the book, and becomes even more so after his visits to black communities in America's major cities. But before considering his reaction to urban America, it is instructive to consider the autobiographical frame Kenan provides.
Born in Brooklyn in 1963 to young parents, at the age of six weeks Randall Garrett Kenan was taken to live with his paternal grandparents in the coastal plains town of Wallace, North Carolina. Over the next several years, the boy gradually came to spend more and more time with his great-aunt Mary and great-uncle Redden, who lived in the nearby farming village of Chinquapin. Mary and Redden still lived in the family's ancestral homeplace, on land that had been in the family for five generations (15). After his great-uncle's death when Randall was six, the boy remained permanently with his now widowed great-aunt, whom Kenan grew up calling "Mama" (607). Reflecting upon his childhood, Kenan revises the West African aphorism that "it takes a village to raise a child," remarking that "in my case, it was largely done by four people, with a...