Swans Commentary » swans.com November 3, 2008  



A Slow Burn


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Kenan, Randall: The Fire This Time, Saqi, London, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-86356-677-6, 145 pages. 9.99 pounds UK. (First published in the U.S. by Melville House Publishing, Hoboken, 2007.)


(Swans - November 3, 2008)   The Fire This Time never flames up. It's among other things a slow-simmer homage to James Baldwin, author of The Fire Next Time, 1963. Not that the absence of heat is a fault. Kenan comes a half-century afterward. Baldwin was a fiery preacher from childhood. Kenan is a bookish uncle who talks one of those conversations where you can barely get in a "right on." And you don't mind at all because you wouldn't want to wrong-foot the timing of his style. It proceeds evenly like an antique iron fence with a decorative spike every once in a while: "Only raindrops and Sunday would take him from the job; The wolf's howl of materialism; A man so full of hell that even Satan would have been afraid to go toe-to-toe with him; Full of an unspeakable and unknown bitterness and a volcanic spite I'm sure he tapped to fuel his bulging musculature; A peanut gallery of dark faces let fly with enough 'niggers' to sink an armada."

This fifth book of Randall Kenan is a sandwich with a thin slice of James Baldwin at the beginning and end. Kenan's Baldwin is swathed in religion. He's ushered in with a paragraph from his Notes of a Native Son that could be a sermon. For Kenan, Baldwin's ever searching for redemption, capital R. Baldwin leaves the book reeling from Isaiah's curse and a fearful Old Testament verse from the book of Habakkuk. But Baldwin's radical politics are kept off-stage, as are his superb provocations like those he hurled at Richard Wright. This isn't the James Baldwin that Nelson Algren's met on Chicago's South Side in what was more a brawl than a church service. (See Conversations with Nelson Algren: H.E.F. Donohue.)

In 1989, Kenan's first novel and book, A Visitation of Spirits, made fiction of his tiny, out-of-the-way, hometown of Chinquapin, North Carolina. A collection of short stories set in the same place followed. Then he wrote a biography of Baldwin for young readers. As a black homosexual and adopted, out of wedlock child, he identified with the trail-blazing novelist. Kenan then thought it time to fix his sights beyond Tims Creek, which was the name he gave his home patch, his Yoknapatawpha. In 1999 he published Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century. It was the result of a wandering, continent-wide enquiry, whose overflow of remarks and considerations serve as the meat salad in The Fire This Time sandwich.

Kenan scatters his reflections with a studied charm. He's obviously bent on not yielding to the temptation of being linear, methodical, insistent, and too heavy for us to bear. It's our job to bring his thoughts together. His mention of the great W. E. B. Dubois is a good place to start. In The Souls of Black Folk of 1903, Dubois wrote, "The problem of the twentieth Century will be the problem of the color line - the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men." He was only half right about America. It wasn't a problem white citizens taxed their brains over.

As for Kenan, he believes that the problem of the twenty-first century "will not be a matter of color so much as it will be a matter of class." But we shouldn't take him for a leftist "firebrand," a word he applies indiscriminately to W.E.B. Dubois, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dorothy Day, and Aimée Semple McPherson. Kenan tiptoes around Dubois's radicalism that grew with the years as the government harassed him. The old man died bitter at ninety-five, a long-term guest of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. Kenan is detached and neutral on Dubois's rejection of Booker T. Washington's gradualism. Lest his mention of "class" mislead us, Kenan's take is upbeat and he will emphasize throughout, sometimes like a PR man, the progress already made by blacks in America.

A bookish high school student, Kenan discovered the Black Old Guard, families of professional men "shrouded in codes and genealogical lore." Though infinitesimal, they were second to no group in caste snobbery. It's understandable that a country-born African America teenager trying to reach out to the larger world would be entranced by their existence. But Kenan still appears to be under their spell. His general drift is to measure the progress of the US black minority by the degree to which it has entered the American mainstream, copycatting to beat the band. This leads him to parade an uninspiring gallery of achievers before us. He enthuses about the first black CEO of a Fortune 500 company, about the black fashion writer of the Washington Post who had the audacity to declare Dick Cheney poorly dressed -- did the veep weep? -- and about Oprah Winfrey, whose "paradoxically vulnerable role-model self" he likens to Queen Hatshepsut.

Kenan's own opinions are not always easy to nail down. Surveying the whole black nation has left him loath to make value judgments. At times we feel immersed in the pages of Who's Who where each luminary merits an entry on equal terms. O.J. Simpson and Don King have the same celebrity rights as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Kenan's own position has to be deduced from his pen portraits. He feels very good, for instance, over the rise of Colin Powell, and declares the armed forces "a true model of social integration." He finds this "an antidote to doubt," and has no more to say. But if integration has prospered in the services it's clearly because a volunteer force, famished for manpower, must improve working conditions to attract personnel. Moreover, the disproportion of blacks in the services is a direct result of their inability to get decent jobs or an education as civilians. Social justice doesn't seem to be a high priority for our genial author.

Calling himself a "Christian agnostic apostate," Kenan remains very religious minded. His favorite James Baldwin text is an article called "The Northern Protestant." He may be right that America was built on religion. But he's mistaken in thinking that morality doesn't exist outside of religion and that the two are synonymous. For him "the linchpins of the African American Church have always been uplift, community, the care and upkeep of the soul, and a loud voice against injustice." And, page 110:

Theirs was not an institution overly concerned with legalistic interpretations of Scripture, or quick to censure and cast out; not an institution in love with power and involving itself with the packing of courts, with recasting American history in some artificially sanitized image and demonizing anyone who disagreed with their worldview; not an institution bent on imposing a narrow and exclusive set of moral dicta, and invading every bedroom and telecast and strip club.

That, apparently, was then. Now the mimicking of the mainstream has produced a plethora of mega-churches. With congregations the size of small cities, the mega-pastors are telegenic, media-savvy marketeers. They don't quite preach that greed is good, says Kenan, but they insist that they would rather their customers weren't poor. They hold political views to match.

Deep within this survey of other people, the author demurely nests his own savory story. It's not till page 40 that we learn he was brought down at six months from Brooklyn, New York, to live in Duplin County, North Carolina. It was 1963 and his unmarried parents confided him to his paternal grandfather. Wallace was a small but bustling tobacco town. He was soon living with a great aunt on a nearby Chinquapin farm. "A dirt-poor, illegitimate black country boy, growing up amid the snake- and deer-infested swamps," he had a yen for study and books. The life he describes was unmarred by racism or violence. From the first grade his schools were integrated. The mischief he got into with his older cousins was strictly Tom Sawyer stuff. Duplin County was "pretty small territory and about as tame as it gets." The reader begins to understand why The Fire This Time knows no urgency or vindictiveness.

Or maybe Kenan is simply a Christian who has found peace. He sets down with delicacy what had to be the dark cloud of his youth. As a boy he was taken to see his father in prison: "This did not look like prisons I had seen on TV." He liked the man, but he was a complete stranger, an addict with crimes on his sheet. Young Kenan rarely saw his mother, who lived in Brooklyn. He found she looked "like Diana Ross, only better." Both parents had formed other families. The boy appeared reconciled to his life, but the man says estrangement and resentment came with the years. What also came later was his outlaw father's makeover as a Jehovah's Witness. He passed into work and respectability, eventually becoming an Elder and minister. His son calls the Witnesses the "ur-American branch of Protestant Christianity." To their credit they were as devoid of racial discrimination as angels.

On subjects like the N-word, Kenan is at his best. He recalls its brutal past. For generations, when they heard the word from white mouths, blacks understood it as a threat. In autonomous black culture from the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a change. Political correctness and white shame meant that only blacks still freely spoke the term with any audibility. For them its range was vast, from hateful through self-mockery to various degrees of endearment:

But "nigger" among the niggers was increasingly becoming a plastic word, something malleable, usable, manipulable; its poison could be leached out and the vessel, those six letters, used for other work. (Page 99)

Brief stops are made on myriad other topics till a panorama stands before us: Brer Rabbit, boxing, Obama, Richard Pryor, rap and hip-hop, Nation of Islam, Katrina, black think-tank conservatives, and more. All in all, it's beguiling, with tidbits always coming along to kindle our interest. But race is the focus of his book and before closing it we ought to consider what the author calls "the current state of race relations in the fifty United States."

Silly White Person says to Silly Black Person: "You are black because you have dark skin. Forget about your skin and you shall be as me." Silly Black Person says to Silly White Person: "My skin is my identity; the sum of my being is bound up with you, White person, discriminating against me." (Pages 89-90)

Kenan believes the traditional struggle for racial equality was moral and shaped by white opposition. When morality was shelved and opposition disappeared, race was demeaned to a political concept. To his mind, race is a cultural concept, not a matter of skin color. "Black is a learned thing." African Americans should be "free within their culture."

And here he calls up again the ubiquitous Oprah Winfrey: "She has never tried to downplay her blackness; in fact, she has often gone out of her way to emphasize it." But the fact that Kenan illustrates Ms. Winfrey's practice with her organization of "Gala Legends' Weekends" underlines the fragility of his position. The sight of a black billionaire queen-bee on television might for a moment catch the eye of a black kid on the South Side of Chicago. He can do his hair in an Afro and wear baggy pants. But he still has to go from his decrepit project home to a third-rate school every morning.

In our congenial uncle's picture, discrimination remains but is on the way out. He prefers to speak of successful blacks, even if their achievements are often only measurable in money. But if blackness has become a political concept, it's surely because opposition is still there. If morality seems absent, it's because operators like those mega-pastors have sidelined it. Kenan has provided us with a pleasant read. His eye for celebrities pricks our guilty curiosity. Our worry is that he's repeating in showbiz neon Booker T. Washington's wait-a-while advice: "The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly."


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Published November 3, 2008