Let the Dead Bury Their Dead

by Randall Kenan

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 391

"Let the Dead Bury Their Dead" is one short story as well as the title of the collection. Randall Kenan locates all the stories in a fictional North Carolina town, Tims Creek; the title story relates its foundation by African Americans who had escaped from slavery and the attack of the dead ancestors on living people after the Civil War. Pharaoh or Menes appears in the title story as the leader of the revolt that led to the settlement’s founding. The character of Reginald Kain later edits the story from its original oral history basis.

In “Clarence and the Dead,” Clarence Pickett is a boy who receives information from his dead ancestors, sometimes from several generations back. He became aware of these communications when he was only three and has continued to offer the ancestors’ advice to living townspeople.

John Edgar Stokes meets Chi in “Things of This World.” Stokes is an elderly African-American man, while Chi is a Chinese man. Chi’s origins are mysterious, and he may literally have come from the sky. Stokes regards him as a personal deity based on his name’s meaning in an African language. Stokes draws on Chi’s strength to help him confront racist white people, and he dies content soon after doing so. After Stokes’s death, Chi disappears.

“The Foundations of the Earth” features an elderly African-American woman, Henrietta Williams, who is grieving for her deceased grandson, who was gay. His lover stays with her for several days.

Aaron Streeter of “Cornsilk” is a narcissist obsessed with his half-sister, Jamonica, with whom he had previously had an incestuous relationship; he elaborates his memories into ongoing fantasies.

In “The Strange and Tragic Ballad of Mabel Pearsall,” the title character is a teacher whose physical exhaustion is paralleled by her spiritual malaise. She suspects her husband of having fathered an illegitimate child for whom she occasionally provides childcare.

Booker T. Washington, the legendary educator, appears in “This Far” as an elderly man who visits Tims Creek in 1915.

Lena Walker is middle-aged black woman who recently lost her husband. “What Are Days?” tells of her sexual relationship with a teenage boy.

Reverend Barden is a hypocritical minister. “Ragnorak! The Day the Gods Die” presents the minister delivering a eulogy for, while internally reflecting on his sinful behavior with, a dead young woman.

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