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  • Haunting and Haunted QueernessRandall Kenan's Re-inscription of Difference in A Visitation of Spirits
  • Maisha Wester (bio)

Randall Kenan's A Visitation of Spirits isn't your typical novel about African American family and community. A Visitation of Spirits is, in fact, a text that explicitly revises the traditional American gothic novel; its demonic hero seeks salvation from the exorcising church, the "heroines" are all oppressive, and the only safe haven in the novel is a ruinous, "haunted" house. As a queer African-American novelist, Kenan performs revisions of the Gothic that prove particularly noteworthy and complex. Kenan uses the genre to reveal the archetypal depictions of racial, sexual, and gendered Others as constructions useful in the production of (white) patriarchal dominance. A Visitation of Spirits repeatedly illustrates how formulations of black identity based upon sexual othering are problematic and how contemporary black refusal to challenge these formulations perpetuates oppression within their community. The text suggests that contemporary black identity is still dependent upon defining and containing bodies marginalized according to sexuality, gender, and colorism. Kenan implies that black selfhood dependent upon policing boundaries between normative and "monstrous" identity proves oppressive to the Other the self is defined against. Such a definition of black self likewise perpetuates erroneous mythologies of normative identity that inevitably prove destructive for the entire community.

A Visitation of Spirits narrates the events leading to and surrounding the suicide of Horace Cross, the text's homosexual protagonist. The novel alternates among Jimmy's narrative documenting the impact his young cousin's death has had upon him, the nightmarish adventures Horace undergoes the night of his death, and Horace's flashbacks to his life in Tims Creek. Briefly, Horace Cross is the youngest member of Tims Creek's founding family. Realizing that his homosexuality dooms him among his family and community, Horace attempts to cast a spell to summon a demon who will transform Horace into a bird.1 The demon, however, takes Horace on a nightmarish tour through his past; the night culminates with Horace's suicide in front of Jimmy. Jimmy's confession is interwoven with Horace's story, and the structure suggests that what we are really reading is Jimmy's own remembrance of Horace's death. Kenan never reveals whether Horace's nightmare with the demon is real or imagined—the text suggests its actuality doesn't matter because the nightmare points to the real, lived horror of Horace's existence among Tims Creek.

Through the tragedy and terror of Horace's death, Kenan's novel interrogates the horror of being forced to align yourself with a group that demonizes homosexuality and that defines itself by a singular, stable identity. Horace's memories illustrate that any part of self that departs from the group's concept of its identity is banished into tortured silence, [End Page 1035] and the self comprised of such unacceptable components is eventually damned and irrevocably damaged. While the spiritual turmoil and psychological torture Horace suffers are among the traditional tropes of gothic fiction, the reason for his suffering—the conflict between his homosexual and imposed normative identity—indicates that the community's turmoil results not from the presences of transgressive identities and bodies, but from the community's inability to accept them. Consequently, Tims Creek's mythic wholeness, and the unity it implies, proves damaging and inevitably damning both to those who do not fit within the parameters of the community's identity and to the community itself.

In A Visitation of Spirits the black, fundamentalist, and separatist community distorts and destroys Horace's queer body by encapsulating him within gothic tropes of otherness, madness, and haunting. Tims Creek grounds its communal definition of survival in rigid patriarchy, fixed racial identity, and normative sexual desire. The community's construct of self inevitably results in attacks upon racially and sexually transgressive bodies. Yet Horace haunts back and defies the silence his community imposes upon him.2 This essay articulates the problems of constructing black (normative) identity through concepts of fixed racial identity and deviant sexuality by exploring Kenan's revisions of the Gothic genre. I specifically examine well-known gothic tropes and ideologies of fixed racial and...


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pp. 1035-1053
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