Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

M.A. in Southern Studies

First Advisor

Dr. Adam Gussow

Second Advisor

Dr. Ted Ownby

Third Advisor

Dr. Ethel Young-Minor

Relational Format



This thesis explores the contributions of contemporary authors Randall Kenan and Crystal Wilkinson to the construction of place in the traditions of Southern literature and African-American literature. These two traditions have generally operated exclusively, and writers who create texts that speak to both black identity and Southern identity have often been cataloged as members of either one tradition or the other. While Kenan and Wilkinson speak to both traditions through many narrative devices, the creation of a religious landscape of the contemporary southern black community emerges as a significant commonality. Their depiction of spirituality in this context embraces two spheres of religious influence: Christianity and cosmology rooted in African traditions. These authors portray the interplay of these two forces of spiritual influence by deploying images of spiritual transformation and revelation that map spiritual travel in topographical terms. They thus construct place by emphasizing geography but reinscribing this older notion of place in ideological terms.

Through close readings of stories from Kenan’s collection, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (1992) and Wilkinson’s collection, Water Street (2002), this topography crystallizes through the layering of spiritual realms of recognition and adaptation. Section I investigates the portrait of Christian identity and its geography of questioning and reclamation through the stories of five individual characters from the collection. Section II examines the presence of supernatural forces in a second group of five stories, positions them in the context of African cosmological beliefs, and tracks the renovations they initiate in the geography of Christianity. This construction of place marks a canonical crossroads between Southern literature and African American literature by paying tribute to older figurative modes of constructing identity but building on them to signify their position at the intersection of literary spheres that calls into question the divergence and mutual exclusivity of the traditions themselves.



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