Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

More than in many short-story collections, the stories in Let the Dead Bury Their Dead are unified by several common themes and ideas. In many of these stories, there is an implicit acceptance of the supernatural world as a real one that sometimes affects the world of everyday reality. This supernatural world is often linked to sexual passion, to spiritual searching and spiritual passion, and to storytelling itself. All these forces are presented as being possibly transformational but also unreliable and disruptive.

The story “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead” begins with several quotations including one by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin from The Dialogic Imagination (1981) that identifies the fantastic in folklore as a “realistic fantastic” that Bakhtin associates with “those eternal demands” of men. This quotation is followed by a shorter one from Zora Neale Hurston: “Now you are going to hear lies above suspicion.” The implication is that the fantastic is used in a similar way by Kenan in his own stories, and that a reader should not worry too much about what could “realistically” have happened but instead should ask how the fantastic is used in the stories.

In the story “Things of This World,” John Edgar Stokes encounters a Chinese man named Chi, whose name in an African tongue means “personal god” and who seems literally to have fallen from the sky. After facing down some local white bigots, Stokes says to Chi, “I could die right now—content.” With that, he dies and Chi disappears. Chi seems to be an earthly manifestation of Stokes’s personal god. Chi, however, does nothing fantastic; as the title implies, he only helps Stokes move on to the next world content, after wrapping up the things of this world. In this story, the fantastic serves to highlight the everyday world.

Although spiritual searching is an important element in a number of stories, it emerges as a main theme in “The Foundations of the Earth” and “Ragnorak! The Day the Gods Die.” In both stories it is brought into apparent conflict with sexual passion. In “The Foundations of the Earth,” Henrietta Williams invites Gabriel, the male lover of her deceased grandson, Edward, to Tims Creek for a visit. For her, the visit is a process of learning to accept that her grandson was a homosexual. When members of her church are outraged that a neighbor, on a Sunday, is plowing fields on land he leases from Henrietta, she slowly comes to believe that perhaps there is no split between the transcendent...

(The entire section is 1047 words.)