Let the Dead Bury Their Dead

by Randall Kenan

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 330

In this set of interconnected stories, Randall Kenan creates a mosaic-like portrait of the fictional town of Tims Creek, North Carolina. Like many other Southern communities that are predominantly African American, this town was founded by former slaves; some had staged a revolt and escaped bondage, while others joined them later. The deceased ancestors remain very much a part of the community, both through the legacy passed down through tales and in visions that come to current residents, even children. The stories draw on written accounts, such as diaries and letters, as well as oral narratives. Inevitably, the diverse accounts and visions do not all match up neatly. Kenan explores the unreliable but powerful quality of memory and the overlap between truth and lies in the construction of history and also as elements in African-American literary traditions.

In blending fact and fiction, and fantasy and reality, Kenan creates some characters who are his interpretation of actual historical figures, notably Booker T. Washington. This giant of African-American intellectual heritage is presented as seeking his old friends on a visit to Tims Creek a century ago. In the title story, an oral history of the pre-foundational slave revolt led by the character Pharaoh is modeled on actual narratives but contradicted by other versions that the editor, Reginald Kain, must then figure out how to incorporate.

The conflicts the characters face include racial conflicts between the black residents and hostile whites. In one story, John Edgar Stokes summons courage from another character—perhaps existing only in his own imagination—who is a Chinese man, to help him stand up to the white racists’ abuse. But internal conflicts of sexual identity and desire also move the characters. Forbidden sexual relations, such as between half siblings or pastor and parishioner, are explored. Several gay characters, both black and white, are presented; the ideas of hidden desire and the high price of keeping secrets are offered as themes promoting both bad behavior, and generosity and forgiveness.

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