Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Disturbing the African American Community: Defamiliarization in Randall Kenan's "Let the Dead Bury Their Dead"

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Disturbing the African American Community: Defamiliarization in Randall Kenan's "Let the Dead Bury Their Dead"

Article excerpt

Signifying on diverse black, white, and Hispanic writers, Randall Kenan creates in his fiction a world of belief, disbelief, tragedy, and triumph, which establishes for his characters a sense of what it means to live. (1) In his fictional central community Tims Creek, a southern community replete with a strong tradition, the inhabitants are either in harmony with their surroundings or victimized by them. The institutions or cultural artifacts that help define the South as arguably the most distinct geographical region in America--family, religion, racial tension, folklore--all appear in the stories set in Tims Creek. Interestingly, Kenan, as a gay writer, adds to these social spaces a unique focus on gender and sexuality, which challenges specifically the long-standing institutions of the family and the church in this predominantly African American community. Kenan recognizes that communal beliefs and traditions can prove compromising for those who support them; quite often, the African American community can leave its members tragically mangled and marginalized when they have chosen to participate in less than normative activities. In an interview with V. Hunt, concerning his "coming out" as a homosexual, Kenan revealed the debilitating influence of the African American community in general:

    I really liked Aristotle's Poetics
. I like the things he has to
   say about tragedy, and what tragedy can do. In terms of the
situation, if
   you're looking at it [coming out] from a political angle--which
is what I
   do at the very last moment--the situation has not gotten that much
   better. For a lot of people. It seemed, and it seems--because I think
it
   is still true that for that community to change they have to
understand
   the devastation that they're wreaking on certain people. And I
felt that
   tragedy was much more effective at disturbing, and moving, people.
(416) 

Hunt's question and Kenan's response specifically concern the author's first novel, A Visitation of Spirits, which he seemingly deems the Aristotelian tragedy of Horace Cross. In the novel, Horace's private gay life conflicts with that of his public persona, and he must come to terms with a "family and community history that gives the characters strong identities while also pointing them inevitably toward tragedy" (Roark 245). Kenan's reference to the community's reaction to Horace's homosexuality provides a subject to further investigate in Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, since Tims Creek also serves as the center of Kenan's short story collection. In Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, Kenan shows how the situation for not only homosexuals but also others ostracized from the community "has not gotten that much better." Kenan exposes this community to show the tragedy it introduces into the lives of its members. Consequently, he disrupts the binary of normative and deviant behavior in the community as he unveils its familial and Christian hypocrisy. (2) That is, Kenan defamiliarizes the lives of the inhabitants of Tims Creek as a way to point to the false sense of community that it constructs for its inhabitants. Through his estrangement of communal reality, Kenan reveals a more realistic and harmonious sense of African American community, one not limited by Western beliefs and norms that have seeped into African American culture, but one existing out of differences.

In the introduction to Reclaiming the African American Community in Contemporary Literature, Philip Page discusses at length how, as a result of constant displacement in Western culture, African Americans continuously search for an identity, one intricately connected to the African American community. Page claims that African Americans "are simultaneously African in appearance and mores, in America without American status, and, like all Americans, alienated from Europe" (4); such a position leaves African Americans perpetually displaced. (3) Historically, however, "[o]ne response to these displacements was an emphasis on creating and maintaining a cohesive African American culture" (4). …

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