(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Early in Randall Kenan’s compendious collection of interviews with African American men and women, the reader meets Jack Guilles, a muscular, blond student at the University of Vermont who calls the writer “homey” and who swears that despite the color of his skin, he is a black man. Born to parents whose racial identity is never mentioned and brought up with a black family living in Brooklyn, Jack grew up as a black man, and although he initially resists, the writer eventually accepts him as one. An irresistible young man who in his speech mixes cursing, joking, and complaining with social awareness, Jack is only one of the many fascinating people Kenan brings to life on the page. That is the good news. The bad news, unfortunately, is pretty much the same as the good. However compelling is the wealth of material that Kenan presents, there is a bit too much of it, and it has not all been shaped to its best advantage; a flood of voices begins to drown out the timbre of each.

The task Kenan has set for himself is admirably quixotic. Defining himself as a nonessentialist on issues of racial definition, he quite logically goes looking for the essence of black life where he is least likely to find it. Because the large urban centers dominate so many of the conventional and better-known images of black life in America, Kenan keeps his visits to Chicago and Los Angeles brief; New York, his adopted home, serves as an interior location to journey to and from, rather than as a destination. As he explains when he cuts short his trip to Chicago, “Why add to the trillions of words when so much of the country had yet to be written about?” Far better to take to the road as a black Charles Kuralt or a contemporary version of anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, exploring black lives off the state highways and in the seminar rooms of the nation’s campuses.

Kenan himself has an engaging personality. He is as interested in Star Trek as in military history, in science fiction as in alternative drama, and he easily calls upon these and other sides of his multitudinous self to draw out his subjects. His method is to give the reader the background and setting of the interview, then allow the subject to speak for himself or herself with as little interference as possible, and the stories tumble out. Listen to William Lee, an Air Force major stationed in Grand Forks, North Dakota, talking about how his father was killed for the crime of having demanded gas at a “whites only” gas station:

We used to live in a rural area. A guy needed some help on the side of the road. He stopped. Helped the guy. They jumped him, they stabbed him, and left him there to bleed to death. He was able to gain enough strength to drive in his car about two or three odd miles down the road. Pulled into the first place he could, which was a juke joint. . . . These were all black folks. And they watched him as he was dying in the middle of the floor in a pool of blood. . . . I’m six years old, Christmas, 1960.

Kenan listens to this story in profound respect for the depth of human tragedy that he has uncovered. Scratch the “ordinary” lives of black people living anywhere in the United States, the book suggests, and extraordinary tales of history and personal determination are revealed.

How is one to link them together? Kenan’s central point is that there is no single African American tale which is told again in the lives of black people. Rather, there is a multiplicity of stories. A writer devoted to an angry thesis might be tempted to dismiss the lives of upper-middle-class, black New Englanders as not representative of black America. Kenan would rather point out that there is no history of black people in America deeper or richer than that in New England. Rather than dismissing them, he would much rather talk to them and hear what they can tell him, especially after meeting Dora Grain on Martha’s Vineyard. A mother and former labor organizer who once had the opportunity to travel to Africa to interview W. E. B. Du Bois, Ms. Grain passes along the formula for bringing up children who are black in a culture dominated by whites that was passed along to her: “Teach them never to trust them.” This chilling formulation is not motivated by hate, she assures Kenan, but by the practicalities that black people have to face about the limits of most white people they will meet.

Kenan is obviously a voracious, omnivorous reader, and lengthy quotations gush from his pages. One would not say he wears his erudition lightly; rather, he shares it generously, with all of the freshness of an...

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