Randall Kenan, Juneteenth and Pride Month


By Laurie Paolicelli

The late Randall Garrett Kenan.

 June marks the beginning of Pride Month, a time dedicated to celebrating the LGBTQ+ community and the federal holiday of Juneteenth.

Pride Month reminds us of our progress toward LGBTQ+ equality and how far we have to go to achieve it. Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States. It originated on June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of slavery, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

The late Randall Garrett Kenan was a UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus, master storyteller, and professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC. His stories and novels dramatized through the art of fiction the ongoing struggle for equality, justice, and the importance of honoring and understanding marginalized communities. Kenan passed away at his Hillsborough home in 2020.

In June, the town of Chapel Hill installed a bus wrap featuring Kenan. This bus represents some of Chapel Hill’s queer activists and the artists who shaped the community and its politics and enriched the creativity and culture of the area. Some are nationally known, such as Kenan, Rev. Pauli Murray, as well as Gerald Unks, Lightning Brown, and Joe Herzenberg, the first openly gay elected politician in North Carolina. Read more here: https://www.chapelhillarts.org/arts-experiences/public-art/#queer-leaders-of-chapel-hill

Randall Kenan was an award-winning gay Black writer whose fiction blended myth, magic, mysticism and realism. In his novel, A Visitation of Spirits (1989), and in two short story collections that were published 28 years apart, Kenan created the fictional town called Tims Creek, a backwater founded by a runaway slave named Pharaoh.

The inhabitants include Horace Cross, a straight-A high school student from a prominent Black family whose torment over being gay leads him to believe he is possessed by the devil.

In his review in the New York Times, the novelist Howard Frank Mosher wrote that “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead,” Kenan’s first collection of stories, was “nothing short of a wonder-book.” Kenan died three weeks before his short story collection, “If I Had Two Wings,” was selected as one of 10 nominees for the National Book Award for fiction.

Randall Garrett Kenan was born on March 12, 1963, in Brooklyn, to Harry Lee Kenan and Clara Dunn. As an infant, he was taken in by his paternal grandparents in Wallace, N.C., but it was his great-aunt Mary Kenan Hall, who had doted on him at her home in nearby Chinquapin on weekends, who raised him.

He studied engineering in high school and initially studied physics at the University of North Carolina, but, under the guidance of professor and writer Max Steele, he was lured to writing fiction. When he was a senior, James Baldwin and Alex Haley, the author of Roots, spoke to one of his classes. This chance encounter with two great Black writers sealed the deal: he would dedicate his life to fiction, and this is what he did, and did it in ways few before him have.

Kenan graduated in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and found work in publishing, joining Random House, eventually rising to assistant editor at Alfred A. Knopf.

Leaving publishing to teach, he took posts at Vassar College, Duke University, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of Mississippi, Oxford, before joining the faculty at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 2003.

Randall with Tayari Jones, American author and academic.

In Kenan’s last published piece, which appeared on the website Literary Hub, he wrote about the increasing outcry against Confederate statues in the South and their removal, specifically “Silent Sam.”

In the mid-1980s, he said, it would have been as improbable as science fiction to imagine that any Confederate monuments would come down.

“Still, what I most would have struggled to imagine is that certain people would be up in arms were it to ever happen,” he wrote. “That they would quite literally take over a state capital building, bearing arms, in anger to keep monuments up. That we might have another civil war over the matter.”

The novelist Tayari Jones, who met Mr. Kenan at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2004 and became a close friend, said he had not resisted being characterized as gay, Black, or Southern.

“He embodied all of them, but he’d be loath to make a hierarchy of them,” she said. “He did not say, ‘Don’t label me.’ He wore them all as ornaments.”

Randall Kenan & Author Daniel Wallace.

To wear our differences as ornaments. To glory in them, to be admired for them. If this is not the ultimate goal of Pride Month, and the goal of all marginalized people struggling for equality, it would be hard to say what is.

Soliloquy Elizabeth Moose, Dean of Arts and Sciences at NCSMS, Randall Kenan, Miranda Cambanis, and Daphne Athas (Photo taken in 2016).

For events taking place in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and through the Orange County Arts Commission, visit:

Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
This reporter can be reached at Info@TheLocalReporter.press

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