"Black Folk Could Fly," in partnership with The Fernando Pullum Community Center

9 March 2024

A literary & musical event celebrating the legacy of the late author, Randall Kenan at the Fernando Pullum Community Center!

Black Folk Could Fly: On the Wings of Randall Kenan


9 March 2024 Saturday 6:30pm to 9:30pm (LA)

In partnership with the Fernando Pullum Community Center, 351 W 43rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90008, WORDTheatre is proud to present:

Black Folk Could Fly, a literary & musical celebration of the late, great Southern author, Randall Kenan, featuring actors Tracie Thoms, Eugene Byrd, Dohn Norwood & CG,  along with student musicians from the Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center !

Cash Bar opens at 6:30. Performance 7:30pm -9:00 pm.

Books will be available for sale, courtesy of Small World Books.

Randall Kenan (March 12, 1963 – August 28, 2020) was born in Brooklyn, New York. At six weeks old, Kenan moved to Duplin County, North Carolina, a small rural community, where he lived with his grandparents in a town named Wallace. Many of Kenan’s novels are set around the area of his home in North Carolina. The focus of much of Kenan’s work centers around what it means to be black and gay in the southern United States. Some of Kenan’s most notable works include the collection of short stories Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, named a New York Times Notable Book and shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award, A Visitation of Spirits, and The Fire This Time. Kenan was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, the John Dos Passos Prize, and the Lambda Literary Award. There is now a literary prize in his name, The Randall Kenan Prize for Black LGBTQ Fiction.


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CG, Eugene Byrd, Tracie Thoms & Dohn Norwood

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A superb introduction to a writer deserving much greater recognition.

Stirring, deeply thought-through essays and letters on topics ranging from sexuality and racism to foodways and the sense of place.

“You were born rich in identity—Black, Southern, Queer. Don’t ever let anybody tell you any bit of it is a burden.” So writes Kenan (1963-2020), author of If I Had Two Wings, in a letter to his younger self, imparting lessons born of decades of self-awareness. The author knows all too well the oppression and indignities borne by Black people in America. As a bookish boy in the sports-obsessed South with a dawning awareness of his sexual identity, he knew early on that his future lay elsewhere. Consequently, he moved to New York to work in publishing and academia. Yet, this anthology makes clear that he never forgot his home, and he would return south to teach English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina. He writes with an exquisitely tuned ear about the blues, the folk music of the oppressed. In a long essay on racism that merits a place on high school and college required reading lists henceforth, he recounts injuries large and small: being singled out as the only Black person at a college frat party, being rousted by the police for no reason. For all that, he writes, he never felt ashamed of being Black. Even as Kenan asserts that the color of the future will be a rainbow, not Black or White, he writes with deep intelligence and a discerning palate about the one thing that perhaps shapes Southern Black culture most definitively: its food, picked fresh from overflowing gardens, cooked to perfection, and served up on groaning boards to enjoy in good company. “Mama’s ingenuity and resolve and green thumb made us wealthy when it came to nourishment….As boy, I took all the work and time and energy to accomplish all this bounty for granted; now I look back in wonder,” he writes. Tayari Jones provides the introduction.

A superb introduction to a writer deserving much greater recognition.


BLACK FOLK COULD FLY: A Posthumous book of Randall Kenan’s collected essays

Ever since James Baldwin published “Letter From a Region in My Mind” (later retitled “Down at the Cross”) in 1962, the missive by a Black writer to a young relative (or, in Imani Perry’s case, to both her sons) has been used to reflect publicly on the state of race relations in this country. The genre allows the writer to survey past indignities and reflect on ongoing troubles with the wisdom of lived experience. But the choice of correspondent also summons hope: that things can get better, that the next generation will realize more from this moment than the rest of us.

Randall Kenan’s letter to his godson begins this collection of his selected nonfiction, and it rings a different note. Other works like this — think of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Letter to My Son” — express the urgency of now, and their calls for accountability reverberate widely and immediately. Kenan’s, on the other hand, was originally published in 2007 and appears here posthumously: He died in 2020, at the age of 57. When he offers hopeful words to his godson, the caveat he inserts — “barring some racial cataclysm between now and then”— hits like a boomerang.

Kenan, as this book demonstrates, never aspired to be the next Baldwin in any literal sense, and much as he admired him, he had a complicated relationship, as a standout Black, gay, male writer, to the inevitable comparisons. More inclined toward the ancestral, the numinous and the folkloric, Kenan poses a question to his godson: “Did you know, once upon a time, Black folk could fly?” Referencing the legend of Africans who escape enslavement by flying home, Kenan’s letter dreams a path forward using resources that lie deep in the past.

This applies to the whole of “Black Folk Could Fly,” a collection of essays that, while less known than his celebrated fiction — many appeared as introductions or in small magazines — provide rare insight into Kenan’s life and mind, while retaining the humor, humanity and elegant power for which he is loved. In a sense, the collected pieces function as memoir, or as a series of love letters to the forces that shaped the writer.

The Southern hamlet in which Kenan spent his formative years becomes in his hands a site for remembering the present. Chinquapin, in Duplin County, N.C., was “unincorporated and rural, largely tobacco fields and cornfields and hog farms.” Kenan fictionalized the town (as Tims Creek) in his books, the 1989 novel “A Visitation of Spirits” and the story collections “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead” (1993) and “If I Had Two Wings” (2020). Here, though, Chinquapin is seen for what it is: the place where Kenan’s tightknit extended family took him in, raised him as their own and nourished him with both love and — not incidentally — good food.

Saturday barbecues at the volunteer fire station assemble the community to enjoy platefuls of chopped pork drenched in the “vinegary, peppery” sauce that North Carolina pitmasters guard with “guile and wit.” Famous for her cooking in a town of fine cooks, Aunt Clem serves up a “mischievous T-bone” that schools Kenan in the delectable indices of gastronomy and anatomy. But it is his great-aunt Mary — Kenan’s “Mama” — whose cooking leaves the most indelible traces. Her lemon meringue pie is “performance art and sorcery.” Her freshly cooked mustard greens are fed from her fingers to his open mouth; received, birdlike, “salty, bitter, alive.” And the scuppernong grapes with which she makes wine cause him to marvel at the contrast between their “mighty thick hull” and “mucus-like sweet interior.” The sense memory is powerful: “Mr. Proust had his cookies; I have my grapes.”

Kenan also recalls family instilling in him a love for reading. Mama starts him off with Beatrix Potter and then quickly graduates him to a children’s adaptation of “Moby-Dick.” From this follows a library of classic adventure stories, which leave the adult Kenan slightly embarrassed about his attachment to “blond kids marooned on a tropical island.”

Yet that experience of deeply felt isolation sticks with him. It grows as he embraces the subcultures of comic books and horror movies, and it marks the countless hours he spends watching “Star Trek.” Running through Kenan’s childhood is a tension between the comforts provided by home and the wonders promised by the world outside of its safety.

Kenan matriculates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is there at the same time as Michael Jordan, but Tar Heels basketball is barely a blip on his radar: Instead, Kenan throws himself into the Comic Book Club, the Black Student Movement Gospel Choir and physics.

But an introduction to creative writing changes his path — suddenly he can explore feelings about Chinquapin that he struggled to express in Chinquapin. Sam Shepard’s plays sensitize him to the cultural valences of bruised manhood. Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez and Zora Neale Hurston give him permission to write about the hauntings he now sees were part of his everyday life in the backwoods.

But the most moving recollection is that of a class visit by James Baldwin in 1984. Kenan had long resisted acknowledging the author as an example: He recoiled from the “Dickensian” world of “urban poverty and desperation” of which Baldwin wrote. He found the essayist’s damning indictments of Jim Crow to be far removed from his own life as a self-described “affirmative action baby.” But there was also a touch of shame associated with Baldwin; Kenan recalls the scandalized reaction of his small, religious community when they heard that “man-on-man stuff” appeared in Baldwin’s “Just Above My Head.”

Kenan doesn’t remember life-changing advice or encouraging words. It is the fact that Baldwin embodied his whole self, without apology: “There he stood before us, as wondrously strange as I had imagined, with electricity and a command of language breathtaking and arch and overwhelming.” The Black, gay writer making his home in St.-Paul-de-Vence emerges as a superhero: a model for the literary life Kenan now wanted for himself.

So he does the most Baldwinian thing he can: his own thing. He moves to New York, working under García Márquez’s editor at Alfred A. Knopf, and takes up magical realism as a mode of exploring queer sexuality in the rural South. In one piece, he describes transforming his schoolboy fascination with Eartha Kitt as TV’s Catwoman into an adult appreciation for Kitt as cabaret chanteuse. And he deepens his appreciation for Baldwin by pursuing less obvious parallels, such as an admiration for the films of Ingmar Bergman.

All of this is recounted from the place where he started. In 2003, Kenan moved back to North Carolina to teach creative writing at his alma mater. But we haven’t come full circle; Kenan is changed by the journey he has made, and he lives out the idea behind his fellow North Carolinian Thomas Wolfe’s posthumous 1940 novel “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Yet “Black Folk Could Fly” proves that the one who returns is in an enviable position: He has felt that “intense desire to be elsewhere,” and he knows, for a fact, that he will always possess that “funky good allegiance” to home.

Review by Kinohi Nishikawa

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Students from the Fernando Pullum Conmunity Center

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