NABJ/NAHJ Virtual Convention

Posted Posted in Conferences, HBW, Uncategorized

[By: Victoria Garcia Unzueta]

Earlier this August, HBW gave me the opportunity to attend the National Association of Black Journalists/National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NABJ/NAHJ) Joint Convention in Washington, DC. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my plans were shifted around and I ended up becoming part of history by attending the first-ever virtual NABJ/NAHJ Joint Convention.

NABJ/NAHJ 2020 Convention Lobby
Photo credit: V. Garcia

Partnered for the first time, NAHJ and NABJ came together to host a week full of information, networking, and community. Though Covid-19 has affected our daily lives in many ways, it didn’t stop both organizations from hosting an event which helped bring together countless journalists of color. Not only that, but they also crafted panels and presentations designed to help journalists through these unprecedented times. With sessions exploring topics from how to cover Covid-19 within our communities to mental health and self-care, this convention helped build a guiding tool for journalists to use as we navigate our new reality. There were also panels addressing the social unrest our country has faced and how we as journalists can cover them while staying true to our identities and the people around us, which was extremely valuable and helped address some of the concerns that come from being both a person of color and a journalist.

NAHJ panel
Photo credit: V. Garcia

As a relatively new Hispanic journalist, being part of NAHJ has helped me immensely. Being able to attend so many panels that featured Hispanic women allowed me to see a level of representation I’d never seen before and helped reaffirm my belief that I belong in this industry. Seeing some of the journalists I’ve admired for years, such as Lester Holt and Jose Diaz-Balart, was the icing on the cake. I was able to see people who looked like me doing the work I want to do and it gave me a sense of hope and reassurance for the future.

NAHJ morning.
Photo credit: V. Garcia

Apart from all the great learning and work building I did, I also had a lot of fun attending the convention. The first night I attended the Convention Kick-Off presentation sponsored by Disney, which featured a live DJ, special Disney presentations, and panels with the creators of Soul. I then spent the week live tweeting the event, which proved to be a great way to network in such unusual times. With a simple Tweet about my traditional Mexican breakfast one morning, I made friends with another NAHJ member and bonded with many others who shared a similar connection. Though it felt silly, putting myself out there and staying true to my identity helped me find a community and make connections that I would not have otherwise made. Concluding the week was bittersweet, as I was grateful for the experience but sad to see it end. To wrap up the convention NAHJ hosted the “Gran Baile”, a virtual reimagination of the big dance party to close off the convention. A live DJ provided music and NAHJ provided a platform  which gave us a chance to end the convention as a community, enjoying good music and even better company.

Victoria Garcia Unzueta at NAHJ/NABJ 2020
Photo credit: V. Garcia

In the end, being able to attend this convention helped me grow as not only a journalist but as a person as well. I built connections, made memories, and prepared myself for a future in a growing industry. Though there’s still work left to do I am thankful to be part of something bigger than myself and I’m grateful to help add #MoreLatinosInNews.

 

 

 

 


 

Victoria Garcia Unzueta is a freshman here at the University of Kansas. Victoria is majoring in journalism with an emphasis in strategic communications.  Victoria is originally from Dodge City, Kansas where she was editor in chief of her high school’s newspaper and yearbook. For Victoria, these experiences helped shape her passion for journalism and community advancement and helped her to find HBW, where she hopes to continue the important work being done.

 

 

Afro-Latinae Reading List

Posted Posted in Uncategorized

[By: Kai Hansen]

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, HBW has compiled a reading list for the occasion. From memoirs to graphic novels, here are 10 fantastic books by Afro-Latinae authors you should read this month:

 

A Message From Rosa – An African Diaspora Novel in Short Stories by Quince Duncan

A Message From Rosa consists of a series of short stories describing historical moments for people of African descent. From enslaved African women on a slave boat, to Afro-Mexican troops standing against Spanish colonialists, to Afro-German women resisting Nazi rule, Duncan’s novel takes the reader on a journey through the lives of people who lived centuries apart and showcases the connections they all share.

Book collage
Credit: HBW

 

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Poet X is a young adult novel following the life of fifteen-year-old Xiomara. Using the moniker “X”, Xiomara writes poetry to understand the world around her. Acevedo’s novel uses the life of a young girl to explore themes such as cultural identity, family, and religion, in this coming-of-age novel.

 

Our Lady of the Night by Mayra Santos-Febres

Our Lady of the Night follows the life of Isabel “La Negra” Luberza, a Black Puerto Rican woman, who, after being born into poverty and abandoned by her mother, becomes one of Puerto Rico’s most feared businesswomen and “madam” of her brothel. Based on a true story, this novel explores themes of class disparities, female sexuality, and power.

 

I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina

I Am Alfonso Jones is a graphic novel focusing on Alfonso Jones, a teenager excited to play Hamlet in his school’s production of the play who never gets the chance. As Alfonso is going to buy his first suit, he is shot and killed by a police officer. The story follows Alfonso’s journey through the afterlife as well as his family’s fight for justice, examining topics such as police brutality, coping with death, and what it means to be Afro-Latino.

 

Book collage
Credit: HBW

The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao follows the life of a Dominican-American nerd from New Jersey named Oscar de León. Oscar dreams of becoming the next great fantasy author and finding love, but fears that the fukú curse, which has haunted his family for generations, will stop him. This book utilizes magical realism to portray themes of identity, sexuality, and oppression.

 

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Shadowshaper is a young-adult fantasy novel following Sierra Santiago, an Afro-Boricua teenager from Brooklyn, as she discovers the Shadowshapers, a supernatural order who connect with spirits via paintings, music, and stories. This fast-paced adventure explores themes of family, religion, and racism.

 

Mama’s Girl by Veronica Chambers

Mama’s Girl is a memoir told from the perspective of a young Chambers as she reflects on her relationship with her mother  -a Panamanian immigrant trying to raise her children on a secretary’s salary- and her desire to be the perfect child. An honest reflection on childhood, this book explores themes such as family, pain, and forgiveness.

 

Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas

Book collage
Credit: HBW

Down These Mean Streets is a memoir about growing up in Spanish Harlem and what that meant to Thomas. With discussion of what it means to be Puerto Rican in the United States and dark-skinned in a family that ignores its African heritage, Thomas tells the story of his early life in poverty, and his connection to drugs, street gangs, and crime, confronting themes such as racial identity, poverty, and drug use.

 

On Friday Night by Luz Argentina Chiriboga

On Friday Night is about a young girl named Susana who receives a bouquet of flowers each Friday night from a secret admirer, who is eventually revealed to be her white neighbor. The book follows Susana as she forms an understanding of herself as a Black woman living in a racist society and explores themes such as race, class, exploitation, injustice, and prejudice.

 

Song of the Water Saints by Nelly Rosario

Song of the Water Saints follows the women in a Dominican family through three generations. Traveling through the dreams and struggles of each generation, this novel explores themes such as freedom, responsibility, and family.

 

Happy reading and happy Hispanic Heritage Month from everyone at HBW!

 


 

Kai Hansen is a sophomore at the University of Kansas, double majoring in English & Biology with a minor in Dance. A member of the University Honors Program with plans to become an English professor, Kai is actively engaged in the study of  Black and queer literature.

 

Richard Wright’s legacy and remembering George Floyd – Part 3 (Final)

Posted Posted in Uncategorized
In August 2020,  members of the Richard Wright family wrote statements regarding the social unrest our country has faced and shared them in the “Richard Wright News Bulletin.” In honor of Richard Wright’s 112th birthday on September 4, 2020, HBW begins a three-part series as an inter-generational family tribute to Wright’s legacy.

Part III

Maxime Desirat.
Photo Credit: Maxime Desirat

For all those who are willing to go beyond a mere black square or a BLM hashtag and wish to explore or better understand what it is like to live with a black skin in a white world, I can only invite them to read the books written by my great grandfather, Richard Wright : “Black Boy”, “Native Son”, “White Man, Listen” — to name only the best known titles. He is one of the first African American authors to have lifted the veil on the living conditions of black people in the U.S.  His books offer a historical perspective on today’s Black Lives Matter movement. His writings contain the literary and historical soil enabling an understanding of the roots of the claims being made so articulately these past few weeks. Born in 1908 in the state of Mississippi to the son and daughter of slaves, he was able to transcend his hatred of white people to move, over the course of his life, towards a discourse based on tolerance albeit never giving up his activism to promote a social knowledge and recognition of the significance of the black experience in the 20th century. We can only conclude that the goals he set for himself are still being struggled for. Those of you who have seen the film “American History X” will remember that it is one of Richard Wright’s books that the High School Head, Mr. Sweeney, teaches in his literature class in order to give his students the opportunity to discover the other side of the coin of U.S. history : the narrative of the ethnic minorities. An initiative which causes one of the students’ father to become enraged and his son to become a notorious Neo-Nazi skinhead.

Being “white” myself, I have never been directly confronted with what a black man can experience in such a society. However, being Wright’s great grandson, the subject was always present in my family and in the education I was given. Although I did not understand everything immediately, the reading of his works at a very young age enabled me to immerse myself very early in a ramification of themes and concerns whose complexity I may still not completely fathom. I am not accustomed to finding words to say these things for I have never really been an activist, but the murder of George Floyd has turned the subject into a challenging reality and I am seizing the time to speak up about it. Keeping this heritage to myself would be self-centered, it seems to me. Meanwhile, if these issues interest you, you will easily find my great grandfather’s writings in any library.
Maxime Desirat,  June 6, 2020

Maxime Desirat, MA in Geography, Geographical Information Systems Analyst, great grandson of Richard Wright.

Selected Works by Richard Wright:  

Graphic: HBW

Richard Wright’s legacy and remembering George Floyd – Part 2

Posted Posted in Guest Blogger, Uncategorized
In August 2020,  members of the Richard Wright family wrote statements regarding the social unrest our country has faced and shared them in the “Richard Wright News Bulletin.” In honor of Richard Wright’s 112th birthday on September 4, 2020, HBW begins a three-part series as an inter-generational family tribute to Wright’s legacy.

Part II

I am grateful to George Floyd for reminding me of an important truth.
We do not understand the full meaning of our lives as we are living them.
This truth can serve as a powerful antidote to the frustrations and self-recriminations punctuating life-long struggles that yield a sense, more often than not, of slow progress.

Malcolm Wright Photo credit: Malcolm Wright

A tipping point is something that is built up to, and it is not given to us to understand how important our contributions are to the building of that edifice. Visionaries have some insight into this process, but most of us just do the work and operate on a core of faith that the immediate and local benefits of our actions are meaningful enough, and that the sum total of all of our efforts drives something bigger: a larger wheel of progress. Maybe. We hope. These efforts of communities across the nation, decade after decade, are a key ingredient to why the push for change, sparked by Mr. Floyd’s death, is sustaining itself month after month. Our culture of struggle is the foundation for why we have not stopped. Why we know this moment cannot be squandered. Many of us could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed with just keeping the bills paid, keeping our families fed. After the first weeks of marching, networking, conceiving of next steps, maybe we are entitled to consider the work done, and the demands of maintaining day-to-day, more pressing? But we’ve been taught by the giants that raised us up, that we must do more than just survive as individuals. Others among us with more fortunate circumstances might have decided by now that they can return to their hobbies, their private passions, their sports, fashion and Playstations, instead of continuing to push. But that same culture of struggle continues to speak to us all. What it whispers is: ‘Now. The time is now’. We may not have known in our daily lives what our efforts would amount to, but in this special window of opportunity, there is a great increase in focus and clarity: all of our cumulative actions are now visible, right in front of us, in the waves of diverse human beings come together for a purpose many of us believed, in our darker hours, most other Americans did not care about. In these waves of protesting Americans of all skin colors, I see the efforts of my mother, and the efforts of my grandparents, the efforts of their peers, and all their ancestors: the slaves, the Indigenous people, the abolitionists and anyone who ever fought for freedom and equality.

Julia & Malcolm Wright. Photo credit: C.B. Claiborne

These efforts are now visible in our waves of protesters, but also in the opposition, which is now manifesting daily in the form of unabashed Neo-Nazis and Klan ranting, marching, frothing at the mouth, spewing
their hatred compulsively in front of cameras across the nation. And in the form of daily police abuse that instead of being chastened by our efforts, is redoubling, also compulsively, in an effort to endure and remain the unspoken norm. The restraint of law enforcement in the face of heavily armed bigots storming the Michigan Capitol, yelling un-masked in their faces and threatening to lynch their governor. Gretchen Whitmer, is in stark contrast to the often vicious approach law enforcement has taken toward peaceful protesters and journalists. What once we alone saw, is now difficult to ignore for the entire nation. Most importantly, our efforts are now visible in the proximity of the goal itself. We are being heard, and a majority of ears are on our side. From our uncertain horizon, we woke up into a world with a national conversation, legislative action and the beginning of a palpable shift in how some police departments, school districts, businesses, branches of the military, and local government address race relations, policing and the Justice system. This moment of clarity is something some generations never get to experience: all they have, from the moment they understand that they must struggle until the moment they struggle their last, is the daily, slow march towards a hopeful but uncertain horizon: a notion that there must be a better way, a better era, a better world, a better version of us. Our present moment is precious. A gift created by our own efforts, and the efforts of countless before us. And created by George Floyd. Beyond the pain of knowing so visually, so audibly, how he left the earth, there is the pain of knowing that he did not know of this gift. He did not know that the confluence of all our efforts, a pandemic, a fascist leader, an election year, and his own death, would lead to these sustained moments of clarity. I’d like to think that had he known, the effect would have been deeply salutary for him. The moment is indeed now. We probably will not get another such moment within our lifetimes. And other global challenges await us with an urgency that signifies there may never be another such moment – at least not for our civilization. The unity we seek as remedy to the broken policing and Justice systems, is the same unity we desperately need in order to confront existential threats posed by a changing climate, massive non-human species extinctions, environmental degradation and a global slip away from democracy and international cooperation, towards isolationism and autocracy.

George Floyd Mural by Xavier Martinez, Lawrence, KS.  Photo credit: Mona Ahmed

Minorities and the poor suffer first, and suffer most from all of these wider-world problems. In the quieter moments of the night, when I cannot sleep for all of what is going on, I suspect it is not only our destiny to seize this moment for ourselves, but also to progress it to another moment of wider change, for all of life on earth. My way of thanking Mr Floyd, thanking all of you who read this, and all of us who throughout our earthly timeline have fought struggles small and large for balance in this world, is to sustain this moment in my mind, and in my heart. Like a meditation, should I lose it for a while, I simply return to it, and give it power again. Thank you to all of you who do the same.
Malcolm Wright
July 31, 2020

Malcolm Wright is a filmmaker, writer, conservationist, and grand son of Richard Wright.

 

More on Richard Wright from HBW

Richard Wright’s ‘Black Boy’ Celebrates 75th Anniversary

Richard Wright’s BLACK BOY and Seven Decades of Wisdom

Richard Wright – Kenton Ramsby

Richard Wright Revisited: A Collection of HBW Posts on Wright

Making the Wright Connection Website

 

Richard Wright’s Legacy: Remembering George Floyd – Part 1

Posted Posted in Guest Blogger, Uncategorized
In August 2020, members of the Richard Wright family wrote statements regarding the social unrest our country has faced and shared them in the “Richard Wright News Bulletin.” In honor of Richard Wright’s 112th birthday on September 4, 2020, HBW begins a three-part series as an inter-generational family tribute to Wright’s legacy.

Part I

Black Boy @ 75. Photo
credit: Harper Collins

A world ago, before COVID-19, before Ahmaud Arbery, before Breonna Taylor, before George Floyd, I was tying up my collaboration with Harper Perennial for the preparation of the 75th Anniversary Edition of Black Boy which was published on February 21st. Having obtained a “Foreward” from John Edgar Wideman and knowing that my son had agreed to contribute an “Afterword” to Harper, I sat on a beach for the last time I can remember and searched around for a theme for the “Post Scriptum” space allotted to me at the end of this milestone edition. Word allowance was restricted so I would have to be brief. For some compelling reason, I felt moved to focus on the experience of lynching as half-understood by a small black boy overhearing adults whispering about a graphic, wanton reality and — time slipping forward — remembering that same black boy, who had become my father, angry and restless when the news reached him in his Paris exile that yet another black boy, Emmett Till, had been lynched. The “eeriness” had run almost full circle, but then for us there is no eeriness in these matters : simply, basically the near prescience of death-bound, arbitrarily defined, savage, prescribed but always unannounced, and never abolished danger.

George Floyd Mural by Xavier Martinez, Lawrence, KS.  Photo credit: Mona Ahmed

Because of my father’s ability to focus on the taboo theme of lynching from “Between The World And Me” to Black Boy, from Uncle Tom’s Children to The Long Dream, because of his “sense of dread”  (as he confided to a correspondent) when confronted with the photo of the lynched Emmett Till in JET Magazine, I wish to dedicate this issue of The “Richard Wright News Bulletin” to George Floyd and all the others going, going, gone.

The Civil Rights icon, John Lewis, who just left us, wrote as he lay dying : “Emmett Till was my George Floyd.”  There is only an apparent contrast between the sadistic perfection of the circle of a tightly drawn noose — and the cruel imperfection of absence of closure to the practice of lynching in our country. It is as if we were to attempt to contrast the practice of colonialism with that of neo-colonialism. This double-bind affects, I believe, our very sense of time from one generation to the next, introducing a surreal sense of time slippage, of unfinished circles spiraling. We remain shackled to an inheritance of dread.

Rope-Choke

that unremembered

painful breath

drawn

when born from Mama

you inhaled

fiery air

from the icy white world

for the first time

 

that last

everlasting breath

withdrawn

when calling for Mama

you choked

as long as it takes

for a rope

to rob you

of your time

Julia Wright   June 30 2020

Julia Wright  Photo Credit: C.B. Claiborne

During the uprisings that took place after George Floyd’s lynching, not only were the numbers of protesters historically massive (quantitatively more important than at the height of the Civil Rights era), but several generations of a same family were in the street albeit in different areas, cities, countries. This has taken place in my family. Richard’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren continue to live in the expatriation their ancestor had proudly chosen –  albeit in different countries. But this has not prevented three generations of Wrights from coming together to find the words to say what George Floyd means to them.

Julia Wright, August 6th 2020

Julia Wright is the eldest daughter of Richard Wright and the executor of his literary estate.

THE RICHARD WRIGHT NEWS BULLETIN 

For years after becoming the literary executor of my father’s estate, I had been toying with the idea of putting out a bulletin updating his legacy. But distractions, in Pascal’s sense of the term, kept intervening. Then three catalysts suddenly made my idle thoughts become a pressing reality : COVID-19, George Floyd, and a message from my grandson. COVID-19 is pushing us to re-appraise our relationship with Time. Our dreams of creativity may well become unborn because we could be overtaken by the unknown at any time. Time nowadays has become a commodity with a short expiry date. Then George Floyd’s agony was forced on us as we woke up from the anesthesia of lock down. The finality of George Floyd’s torture also impacted, I feel, our sense of Time. So many minutes ending such a short life. There was a before and an after. Just as mourning unfolds over time, our loss of George Floyd created a sea change in our time-sensitive agenda, in the literal Latin sense of : How do we define our agency now ? Suddenly, out of the blue, on June 6th 2020, I received an email from my grandson, Maxime Desirat, a child I had been unable to hug for such a long time because he lives a continent away and COVID-19 has shut down so many borders. Mima, he wrote, sorry I was out of touch but here is a message I wrote in response to the protests in the U.S. following the death of George Floyd. As I read his youthful words, I felt he was driven, I also felt his fragilized sense of time. Shortly after, my son, Malcolm Wright, sent in a  message as moving as an improvisation of hope on a somber bass beat. Almost organically, I experienced the beginning of a sense of closure. Was it the ingrained memory of families wrenched apart before being auctioned off during slavery ? Was it the remembered reality of black families torn apart by the nighttime departure of its members threatened by lynching ? Was it the recognition that family reunions were an antidote against these attempts to dismember us as a people ?

Part One of this issue of the “Bulletin,” dedicated to George Floyd, uniting our family voices against the odds of racism, the pain of balkanization, the pathos of distance and telescoped time – was born. Other “Richard Wright News Bulletins” follow.

As “The Bulletin’s editor,  I hope to open it up to as many voices as possible in tribute to and in positive discussion of Richard Wright, his life, his ideas and literary descendants.

                                             Julia Wright, September 9th 2020

                                        richardwrightcentennial.jw@gmail.com

 

In Memoriam: Randall Kenan

Posted Posted in Obituaries

[ By: Kai Hansen ]

“Randall Kenan’s work was a beautiful thing.

Randall Kenan’s life was a rare gift.”

Dr. James A. Crank

                                             Photo Credit: University of North Carolina

The Project on the History of Black Writing mourns the passing of Randall Kenan, who passed away Friday, August 28, at the age of 57.

An award-winning author, he was best known for his short stories depicting life as a Black, gay man living in the South. Many of his works make use of Southern folklore and magical realism to explore themes such as sexual orientation, tolerance, and self-acceptance. 

Born in Brooklyn, Kenan moved to North Carolina when he was just six weeks old. There he was raised by his grandparents and eventually his great-aunt. A graduate of the University of North Carolina,  he earned a degree in English and creative writing before beginning his teaching career. Brief stints at Vassar College, Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University, the University of Memphis, and Duke University allowed Kenan to travel the country and collect stories that became the basis for Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century (1999).

Kenan eventually returned to his alma mater, where he taught for over 20 years,  in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. He was known by many not only as a writer and professor but also a mentor.

An Evening With Randall Kenan, Atlanta, March 2019. Photo Credit: James A. Crank

Kenan won numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Whiting Award, the Sherwood Anderson Award, the John Dos Passos Prize, the 1997 Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. In 2007 he became a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, where he also served as a former Chancellor. In 2018 he was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.

Kenan’s work inspired a generation of authors who saw themselves in his words. A talented author and a kind man, Randall Kenan will be remembered for his contributions to Black and queer literature, as well as the impact he had on those around him. Dr. James A. Crank, leading scholar on Kenan wrote,

“Randall was a critical bridge for understanding the complicated connections between African American and gay vernaculars; in the tradition of Baldwin and Du Bois, he was a preeminent voice articulating the mystery and magic of American blackness.”

By Randall Kenan: A Visitation of Spirits (1989), Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (1992), James Baldwin (1993), Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (1999), The Fire This Time (2007), The Carolina Table (2016), and If I Had Two Wings (2020).  

                

Remembering Randall Kenan

Crank and Randall Kenan at Oxford, Mississippi during book signing tour April 2019

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to overstate Randall Kenan’s importance to American literature and culture. Randall was a critical bridge for understanding the complicated connections between African American and gay vernaculars; in the tradition of Baldwin and Du Bois, he was a preeminent voice articulating the mystery and magic of American blackness; a passionate and stalwart advocate of preserving foodways, Randall celebrated the bounty and creativity of southern and American cuisines; he found music in muscadine, poetry in persimmons; he wrote about the complex nuances that attend belonging to but feeling disconnected from your home, your family, your region, your nation; he was a storyteller of an invented land, at once profoundly mythic and also positively mundane, a world he inhabited with people whom he loved desperately and with abandon; he gave us characters as vibrant, vivid, and alive in his Tims Creek as they were in his homeland of Chinquapin, North Carolina; he was, in the words of Terry McMillan, “our black Garcia Marquez,” a writer who seamlessly blended the spiritual world with the human; for Randall, all matters of the heart were as sacred as a church altar.

He was all of those things. But he was also a warm, funny, and deeply sensitive man who made family of his students, colleagues, mentors, and fellow authors. His laughter was infectious. He was deeply humble; he never spoke of his many successes or awards. He loved to give people nicknames to show them how dear they were to him—my mentor Linda Wagner Martin was “Funky Wagner,” while I was his “dear little brother.” He had an endless capacity for love and forgiveness. He was unfailingly patient and kind. His generosity to those working their way up through the academy and publishing was well-known, even though Randall rarely publicized it. His magic was his unceasing humanity.

He was my friend.

On August 28th, we lost him. I say “we” because, even though I felt the loss acutely, I know that Randall found his way into so many hearts across the world. For those of us who loved him, he was more than just his accomplishments, more than just a Guggenheim-winning, National Book Award finalist, more than just his stories. For a gay teenager growing up in the South, A Visitation of Spirits was not just a novel, it was an opening to a way of belonging; Randall didn’t just craft a beautiful story, he gave kids like me a genealogy to attach ourselves to, a critical perspective, a proud visibility. And though we might have lost Randall, we will never lose that.

As a professor at the University of Alabama, I had been teaching Randall’s books for years, and when I got the opportunity to write a monograph solely on his work, I was elated. When I began working on what would become Understanding Randall Kenan, I wondered if Randall might agree to an interview for the final chapter of the book. He graciously agreed, and from our first conversation together, we found deep kinship. In my first interview with him, Randall talked about how crafting intimacies was at the heart of all his writing, especially intimacies that crossed over various axes of race, sexuality, and age. Randall found that ability to fully and freely share one’s heart even though it meant willfully crossing lines, shunning constructed divisions, and knowingly breaking the rules was at the foundation of who he was as an author and a person. He said, “I think it takes a certain kind of person who’s willing to play like that. To extend themselves. And it’s something of a dance, a metaphor for intimacy. That they’re willing to dance with each other. And let go of a certain fear and not be so guarded. If you’re too guarded, you won’t be able to achieve that. And I see it happening, and it’s a beautiful thing when it does. But it’s rare when it happens.”

Randall Kenan’s work was a beautiful thing.

Randall Kenan’s life was a rare gift.

At the end of that December day, Randall told me that he felt lucky because he had so many books to look to for guidance on what it means to be human, especially when he was young. He said, “I’ve been so fortunate, because I feel there are so many. I mean I’m a poor boy from Chinquapin, North Carolina; when I say I had a really good education, I don’t mean I was Winston Churchill or anything. I wasn’t studying Greek and Latin, but I was given some good books to read. Enough to last me the rest of my life.”

What blissful luck that we have Randall Kenan’s books to help us understand the mystery and terror of being a human. They are enough to last us the rest of our lives.

James A. Crank, Associate Professor of American literature and culture at the University of Alabama

Let the Dead Bury Their Dead

When I was co-editing The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology with William L. Andrews, Minrose Gwin, and Fred Hobson, it fell to me to get permission to use one of Randall Kenan’s short stories. When I tried to do that, I learned that it would cost two thousand dollars. Well, we didn’t have that kind of money. I figured Randall would be receptive to appearing in the volume, so I set out to find him and ask his permission to use “The Foundations of the Earth.” After some detective work, I located him in Rome. Not caring a whit about phone charges that might be involved, I called him and was pleasantly surprised when he answered immediately. I explained the situation to him and ended by asserting: “This will help to make you famous!” He laughed in that pleasant way of his and gave us permission to include the story. He certainly became famous, though I have no way of measuring the impact of that publication upon his reputation.

More recently, Randall joined the Chair of the English Department at UNC Chapel Hill in inviting me to be a keynote speaker at the Department’s 225th Anniversary Celebration in October of 2021. When I said “Yes” on 13 August 2020, Randall wrote: “I think the song I would reference is from 1969: O Happy Day!” What a happy day it was when weeks-old Randall Kenan was brought to North Carolina, where he spent most of his career on the soil that claimed and fueled his creative imagination. And, despite our sorrow, it is now a happy day during which Randall Kenan is brightening the existences of those beyond this realm.

Dear sweet, wonderful, and always private Randall, may you sleep in peace with the angels.

Trudier Harris, University Distinguished Research Professor, Department of English, the University of Alabama; J. Carlyle Sitterson Distinguished Professor of English Emerita, UNC Chapel Hill\

HBW would like to thank Dr. Crank and Dr. Harris for their collaboration on this piece.

 

Randall Kenan at Southern Foodways Alliance 2018. Photo Credit: Brandall Laughlin

Obituaries

NC writer Randall Kenan, a voice of Southern literature, dies at 57

Randall Kenan: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

Randall Kenan Dies: Author Depicted Black, Gay Life in Prose

Videos

Randall Kenan, 2016 Sewaanee Writers Conference

Randall Kenan, NC Bookwatch, The Carolina Table

Southern Foodways Alliance 2018 Podcast, Visible Yam


 

Kai Hansen is a sophomore at the University of Kansas, double majoring in English & Biology with a minor in Dance. A member of the University Honors Program with plans to become an English professor, Kai is actively engaged in the study of  Black and queer literature.

 

In Memoriam: John Lewis

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[ By: Dr. Maryemma Graham]

 

“We want our freedom; we want it now”

 March of Washington, 1963

John Lewis (1940-2020)

My autographed copy of John Lewis’s memoir, Walking with the Wind, belonged to my mother, who stood in line to get it, she said, “just in case I missed it.”   “To Helen G. Moore, Keep the faith, John Lewis,” it read.  Icon, a national treasure, idol, moral compass – none quite describe the man whose name is imprinted in every memory I have of growing up in Georgia. He knew his calling early.  Intent on being a minister, a career on which he had already embarked, he left his hometown of Troy, Alabama headed for seminary in Nashville.  But the ministry was not his destiny, at least in the traditional sense.  His nation had called him into service, and once his family had given him their blessing, his people would give him their trust.  That was all he ever needed.  We know the popular outline of his story well.  He met Martin Luther King, he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, and he became the Congressman from Georgia for life.  The more he was brutalized during his early days as an activist, the more committed he became, a “ferocious fighter,” Cory Booker called him, for social justice.  Lewis was willing to bear the weight of a movement on his shoulders, to become the conscience of our nation, and he refused to stop until the job was done.

 

What John Lewis stood for and his accomplishments will fill volumes, hardly touched upon in his 1998 memoir.  The well-deserved eulogizing has already begun as we pause to give studied attention to his extraordinary life and legacy.  We are grateful for Lewis’s omniscience, his willingness in his final days to allow others to focus more on him.  John Lewis: Good Trouble,

the documentary by Dawn Lewis, is available now.  Jon Meacham’s biography His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope will hit stores in October.  We can be assured that there is more to come.

Like many, I knew of but had never met John Lewis.  As a native Georgian, however, I could not help but feel inspired by him.  We Georgians live in the shadow of our leaders, fallen and living, and there is no dearth of them.  Fortunately, I did meet John Lewis in 2007 at the University of Kansas, when he came to accept the Dole Institute Leadership Prize.  While the usual superlatives accompanied the introduction to the award, John Lewis’s acceptance speech was more than modest.  He settled into a conversation with the audience that felt like we were sitting around a table for Sunday dinner.  With his generous anecdotes and cautious optimism, he was the most accessible person I had ever met. I brought my autographed copy of his memoir to share when I greeted him afterward.  His first question was, “When are you coming home?  We need you.”  “Soon, I said,” admittedly startled but appreciative of his gentle push.

Credit: Dole Institute of Politics

A second opportunity came when I was passing through Hartsfield airport in 2016, on one of my regular visits to Mom in Augusta.  I had learned that he was doing a book signing for March, the graphic novel trilogy, which would become an award-winning bestseller. This innovative way of sharing the story of the Civil Rights Movement with a new generation was brilliant, I thought, and I wanted to thank him.  He autographed a full set of the books for the Project on the History of Black Writing, and, looking directly at me, added, “So you finally came home, right?” I nodded only, quickly descending into the lengthy crowd, happy not to have to say more.

These two brief encounters gave me all I needed to know about John Lewis.  I’ve never met a man so genuine, so plain-spoken, whose every word had special meaning.  I realized how easily one could feel his aura when you were in his presence.  And yet, Lewis was not an orator: he did not stand on empty speeches; he simply made it clear that he meant business. He was a man who believed in what could and should be done to make a more equal and just America for all people. That was always his goal, and it was the fight of his life.  Since I had waited so long to meet him, I had expected to see a traditional politician.  Instead, I met an extraordinary man of faith, whose sense of calm was contagious. His patience seemed to have grown with age.  No less fierce, he was simply more determined.  He knew that he was a long-distance runner, and the battle was far from over.  He also knew that he had bequeathed his legacy to others, like Stacey Abrams, who accomplished the remarkable feat of running and almost winning the governor’s seat in the 2018 Georgia election.

John Lewis fought, he endured, without bitterness or anger, no wounds that one could see.  He imparted a vision of what America could become, and much of what we have achieved, we owe to him. I believe the truth of the words in his autograph to my mother: John Lewis did indeed keep the faith in that vision for change and the future of America.

 

More John Lewis:

His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, forthcoming October 2020

John Lewis: Good Trouble, a documentary, 2020

Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America, 2017

March, (a trilogy) 2016

Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, 1998