Journey to the Center of a Race

Fetzer Mills, Jr. interviews Randall Kenan, author of 'Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.'

By Fetzer Mills Jr.
Published February 24, 1999 9:36AM (EST)

Prize-winning African-American novelist Randall Kenan ("A Visitation of Spirits") was once dubbed "our 'black' Garcma Marquez" by Terry McMillan, but his new nonfiction book, "Walking on Water," is heavy on the realism, skip the magic. Kenan spent more than four years on the road interviewing black Americans from Louisiana to Alaska, the West Coast to the Northeast and all points in between, including black enclaves in Canada. Part travelogue, part sociological, political and historical study, "Walking on Water" is both broad and deep, an unusually sensitive portrait of black America at the end of the 20th century.

He writes, "The truth is there are over thirty-six million ways to be black, from the curious guy who raises pigeons on the roof across the street from me, who wears the same jacket 365 days of the year, to the Tennessee mountain minister who teaches Greek and Latin to high school students, to the NBA player from Lake Charles, Louisiana, who loves his mother to death, to the matriarch of an apple orchard in Washington State who hates to see her children go off to school, to the crack addict in some Philadelphia alley, with a hard-on and thirty-seven cents to his name, just wanting to stay up and UP, to the congresswoman, to the cowgirl, to the fisherman to the dogcatcher, to the young lovers, at this very moment, engaged in that ancient act that will undoubtedly bring, nine months hence, yet another brown-skinned girl or brown-skinned boy into this world, into this country, into this city, into this block, into this building, into this room where they shall learn their own uniqueness, and, one fine morning, say softly, I am."

"Walking On Water" is written with a journalist's eye, a novelist's flair for language and a rare candor. Salon spoke with Kenan about the state of black America in his top-floor apartment overlooking the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis.

"Walking On Water" is not just a minor diversion from fiction. You spent seven years of your life on it. What inspired you to undertake such a massive project?

I don't like fiction that is polemical, that tries to prove or solve something in a political arena. These questions I felt could only be dealt with through nonfiction. This is something I've been interested in all my life. I've seen books written about certain regions or cities or a particular element of African-American life, but I've never seen anything done on this scale before. It's something I've wanted to read and something I think should exist. But when I set out to do it I had no idea it would take almost eight years to complete.

Researching this book you went into a whole lot of very different black communities. You were in the Northeast on Martha's Vineyard, in Vermont and Maine; in Creole country down in Louisiana; on the West Coast in San Francisco and Seattle; up in Alaska; the Midwest. These are all very different areas, culturally, geographically. You also interviewed blacks from all walks of life, from Dorothy West on Martha's Vineyard to a black prostitute in Salt Lake City. Within this large variety of black communities, what did you find people had in common and what were their differences?

One of the things that got me on the road was this habit that most of my black friends and teachers and students and employers have, when we're speaking amongst ourselves, of saying "we." And at some point I began to ask myself, "Who is this 'we'? Is there such a thing as 'we'?" Especially in the era after the civil rights gains of the '70s, there were a lot of changes in the material lives of black folk. But I didn't see the rhetoric, the language, the terminology catching up with it. By going to the places where black people had lived for a long time and talking to them, I wanted to see if such a community still existed, if there was still such a thing as "we" or if that was an anachronistic term.

Did you find an answer to that?

What I found ultimately was that black folk in this country, as political beings, still find a need for a "we" to exist. Because I don't care if
you're a multimillionaire basketball player, a fisherman in Louisiana or the matriarch of a New England family, there still comes a time when your existence as a black person in this country can be threatened. Organizations like the NAACP, the Urban League, PUSH, anything like that, exist for a reason. And that is a very strong element of African-American identity. At the same time, but a little murkier, are all the cultural elements. Now, I think those things have changed, in the '70s in particular. Television and mass media helped to disseminate cultural icons that were often very market-driven, from hip-hop music to hairstyles, clothing styles. Which is not the way it was before segregation ended. For instance, in Salt Lake City there are black Mormons. You have black kids growing up who are descendants of the men and women who came west with Brigham Young. So, they have a real black culture in Salt Lake City. At the same time there's someone back in Washington, D.C., or New York City telling them who they are. It's a very odd cultural dynamic we're going through.

You hear a lot about white flight in urban areas from the city to the suburbs, but there's starting to be an exodus of middle-class blacks as well. In poor rural areas most young blacks who get an education go off to college and never return to the community. Do you see the upper socioeconomic and educational group of blacks still maintaining their ties to the lower income and working poor segment of the black community? Or is there a widening gulf between rich and poor?

I think the black middle class gets a bad rap for that because in truth it's an American phenomenon. You don't see many whites who go off to college returning to impoverished rural areas either, or if they grew up in a white slum, returning to the slum they came from. It's just not the way things happen. Maybe they should in some ideal world. But the black middle class is behaving now the way the American middle class has always behaved. As to whether that has changed their connection to the community -- well, there are two separate questions here as I see it. One is how they see themselves in terms of their political identity and the other is how they see themselves in terms of their spiritual identity. Spiritually, you see this burgeoning market of middle-class black people doing things like Kwanzaa, buying black books for their kids, going to all these seminars and that sort of thing. So there is recognition of this desire to belong to something, whether it's a church -- and the black middle class is one of the things that's holding the black church together, always has. And the black middle class is still largely Democratic and there isn't a big rush toward conservatism.

I think black folk get saddled with this idea. Ideally you'd want people to live up to that. You want people to do more volunteerism, to be more active and participatory in the things that are going on around them, to care, to be good human beings. But it's not happening all over. I don't think the black middle class is particularly callous. I think Americans have a particular difficulty in dealing with the class system. Fifty percent of African-Americans are "middle class," which means they earn more than $25,000 a year. It doesn't mean they have any savings or property. They're making a living now, supposedly. We're talking over 50 million people who are in that situation. If all America did what people are asking black middle class America to do, this would be a wonderful country for everyone.

You said that on a recent visit back to Chinquapin, where you grew up, that you were horrified to find that the black community treated the Mexican immigrants the same way they'd been treated by the white community -- like they didn't exist. Did you find similar situations elsewhere in your travels?

In the Midwest you'll find it between blacks and Native Americans -- in Alaska, too. In Louisiana it's the Cajuns vs. the black folk. Who is the lowest man on the totem pole? In Los Angeles there's a strong tension between blacks and Chicanos, but there's not the open warfare I'd been led to expect. Out there, black people talked about Asians, and the same is true in New York. It's a cauldron all over with people fighting not to be the lowest man on the totem pole. Last year for the first time Hispanic-Americans outnumbered blacks as the largest minority in the country, sort of a dubious honor. I think that's going to mean more tension. At the same time I hope the two groups will get to know one another and ally themselves and avoid some of the things we've seen in the past.

You're a gay black man. Do you see the black community being more homophobic than or about the same as the rest of America?

I'd like to say it depends on where you go. But I think the truth is a lot of it has to do with the strength of the African-American church. Whether or not people are going to church doesn't matter. The church and its teachings ruled their early thinking. With a lot of African-American men, and this is true all over the country, machismo is very important in terms of identity. Homophobia is a direct result of that. We're talking about the military, we're talking about the labor force, and in most blue-collar situations in this country you have this problem. And I don't think it is more marked with blacks than with white folk. But black communities are a bit more vocal (in their homophobia), I would say, and guilty of a lack of support. A case in point is the black church's response to AIDS, which was to ignore it. As an institution, for all the wonderful things black Christendom has done in this country, for it to totally ignore such a large segment of the population is one of the most unchristian things I've ever seen.

In your travels have you found any major differences between blacks and black communities in the South and in the North and other parts of North America?

Most African-Americans in this country can't trace their roots back to Africa, but they can certainly trace them back to Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, the Southern states. There's an interview I really enjoyed with a judge in Brunswick, Ga., who had lived in the North and come back, had gone to school in both the South and the North. His perspective spoke most eloquently to how a lot of blacks who left the South and went to the North are returning to the South. Before the end of institutional segregation you had some really vibrant black communities all over the South: Nashville, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Fla., Savannah, Durham, N.C. The list is enormous. We have not yet dealt with how desegregation destroyed these communities, these physical communities. You have to ask the question, "Does this mean we did something wrong with integration, with desegregation?"

And the answer is it was a necessary evil. These places had to be sacrificed. Black people had to move out, into a larger culture. It seems to be, now, that the tide is turning back. People are recognizing bit by bit how important these places were. In their time we hated them but we also idealize them because you had black doctors living next door to black postal workers and institutions like the church were very active and very powerful. Now, you have people coming back and recognizing that these communities served a purpose. And I think black Southerners can glom onto that reality much swifter than someone who never knew about black theaters and black banks and black insurance companies and black hospitals and all of those things that made these black communities great. I think that is the primary difference between black Southerners and someone who never knew these institutions and communities. There is a certain pride in these communities, and now that Jim Crow has been stabbed in the heart, there's a great potential for these institutions to be reborn. They're not going to be the same.

What's your take on the differences in race relations in the North and South, and how do you think race relations are faring overall since the demise of Jim Crow?

Despite the traditional fears of things like miscegenation, socially black folk and white folk in the South know how to interact. Because white people and black folk have been seeing one another all their lives. We're not these exotic, bizarre creatures that they get around and don't know how to respond to. At the same time, and it's a clichi by now, but Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in this country, as Martin Luther King said. That to me is indicative that there is not a lot of real interaction outside of work, outside of professional relationships. So, in the South people get along, but they still largely don't know each other. I have black friends that have one or two white friends and white friends that have one or two black friends. Things are getting better all over but it's remarkable to me that things haven't progressed further.

There's a lot of anger in black America. An undercurrent of anger runs through much of the fiction and nonfiction about the black experience by black writers. Yet, you and your work seem to be remarkably free of anger.

Well, let me say I've figured out that what it means to me to be black at the end of the 20th century is a combination of politics, culture and emotion. There is a huge psychological component, too, which has not been given a lot of attention. For a long time, beginning in the '70s, anger became a part of the notion of black identity. When I was living in New York in the 1980s a lot of black men I knew would flippantly describe themselves as, "I'm an angry black man." They melded emotion to this political and cultural identity. Faulkner, a Mississippian, said, "Being a white Southerner is an emotional condition." I think the same holds true for black folk, too. Which is not to say it's a bad thing. There are a lot of positive elements in it. I think if we address what we're angry at in constructive ways, that in the end the emotion is beneficial. To recognize that there's a lot of ignorance that young Southern white men -- or for that matter Mormons in Utah or some frontiersmen that I encountered in Alaska -- are bringing to the table or to this fight, and no knowledge of me, really. They see me as this exotic creature, this black invader. They don't know if I have any education. They don't know if I'm a good person or a bad person. A lot of people are ginned up from the very beginning to confront that ignorance. They see all of these small injustices day to day that contribute to their emotional state of being. At times it can be a very unhealthy outlook.

The leaders I've mentioned earlier are I think excellent examples of people who use their passion not in negative ways but funnel it into creating institutions, working for just laws, better education. I think the more you think about the situation of black folk in this country that anger is one of the most dangerous aspects. Passion, I think, is different. It's equally emotional but it doesn't produce a riot.

Fetzer Mills Jr.

MORE FROM Fetzer Mills Jr.

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Author Interviews Books Race