Writer Randall Kenan—who spent eight years traveling the United States and gathering more than two hundred interviews to prepare for his book Walking on Water, Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century—is one of America’s finest fiction writers and commentators. Born in Brooklyn, New York, he spent his childhood in Chinquapin, North Carolina, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His first novel, A Visitation of Spirits, was published in 1989, when he was twenty-six. Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, a collection of short stories published in 1992, was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for fiction, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was among The New York Times Notable Books of 1992.
In Walking on Water, Kenan takes the reader inside the vast African American landscape to discuss such matters as what it means to be black, whether or not there is a black community, how to integrate, and, ultimately, what it means to be a human being. For the book, he spoke with an Air Force major whose father was lynched, an octogenarian farm woman, a church janitor, an ex-gang member in Los Angeles, a twelve-year-old girl in a racist classroom, a Republican congressman from Alaska, a vocal welfare mother, a gay AIDS activist, and a Baptist minister in Mormon Utah, among many others.
Kenan is also the author of a young adult biography of James Baldwin (1993), and he wrote the text for Norman Mauskoff’s book of photographs, A Time Not Here: The Mississippi Delta (1997). A frequent reviewer for The Nation, he has written for Spin, The New York Times Book Review, Callaloo, Emerge, and other publications.
In fall 2002 Kenan taught American Voices: Capturing Speech, Memory, and Culture, a seminar that focused on various modes of written reportage and oral history using a two-pronged approach. Students studied numerous texts, from historical narratives to popular contemporary oral history and reportage, and they researched and developed their own written documentary projects. In spring 2003 Kenan’s students in Modes of Documentary Writing explored various modes of nonfiction writing applied to representing actual experience, or what has been called Immersion Journalism. Unlike conventional journalism, this course focused on admittedly subjective modes of representation, and students actively discussed the relationship between author and subject. Through reading and discussion the students examined ideas and problems, such as an author’s persona in the work, the concept of “facts,” and the ongoing debate over subjectivity versus objectivity in nonfiction writing. Another goal of the course was to equip the student writer with a better understanding and approach to fundamental techniques of narrative nonfiction writing: character development, point-of-view, dialogue, language, narrative structure and organization, tone, and focus.