Books by Mississippi Writers 1996-2010
By Randall Kenan Knopf (Hardcover, $30.00, ISBN: 0679408274; Paperback, ISBN: 067973788X, 2/1999) A personal meditation in the guise of a search for the essential nature of the black community in America. Kenan, an award-winning writer (and author of the novel A Visitation of Spirits, 1992, etc.) travels across the country looking for what it means to be black. He interviews an eclectic assortment of people, interspersing the conversations with his own reflections, with discussions of relevant writings drawn primarily from the black intelligentsia, local history, and stream-of-consciousness observations about everything he confronts along the way. In the unlikely surroundings of Vermont and Maine, Kenan's assumptions about black identity are challenged by Jack, an obviously white man who has grown up in and continues to live as a part of black culture. California would seem to be a more likely place to find the heart of the black community, and there, not surprisingly, Kenan confronts the movie industry. While his own reflections focus on the distortion of black reality represented on the screen, his conversation with Charles Burnett suggests more that distortion is a Hollywood reality across the board. This is a long book, and there are scores of such encounters with very interesting people. In the end, however, the interviews are sidebars; the presentation is first-person throughout, and as Kenan ultimately notes, what he presents is not a compilation of the thoughts of others, but rather "my personal history of the last five years." What saves the volume from pretentiousness is that for the most part his personal musings merit reading and reflection. While his conclusion is predictable, it is also profound: there is no one element that defines the black American soul. Taking a close and serious look at black Americans unveil their essential individuality, Kenan ends up appreciating the diversity of black America rather than celebrating distinguishing characteristics. Definitely worth reading, even though its not always clear whether this is powerful introspection or self-indulgence. ―Copyright © 1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.