Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

A Visitation of Spirits received exceptionally favorable reviews for a first novel by a previously unknown young author. Kenan has been compared to James Baldwin, who introduced the subject of homosexuality among African Americans in his novel Giovanni’s Room (1956) and later elaborated on the subject in his autobiographical novel Just Above My Head (1979). Whereas Baldwin was a New Yorker and a cosmopolitan, however, Kenan writes about the rural South. Critics have been especially appreciative of the younger author’s precocious insight into human character and his ability to demonstrate how the New South is being shaken by such powerful forces as civil rights activism, the so-called electronic revolution, and the educational and professional opportunities opening up to African Americans.

The only serious complaint made by critics has had to do with the format of Kenan’s novel. Some have felt it is unnecessarily obscure because it moves backward and forward in time and shifts points of view unexpectedly. Kenan, however, has chosen to cover a very broad subject in a relatively short work of fiction. While focusing on a single incident in the life of his young protagonist, Kenan is trying to suggest the influence of all the history of the Deep South on a new generation of African Americans. His book of short stories Let the Dead Bury Their Dead and Other Stories (1992) shows that he is widely read and deeply immersed in the history of his native state of North Carolina. His published writings suggest that he is ambitious to produce the same type of panoramic mural of his native state as William Faulkner did in his many novels and stories about Mississippi.

Kenan is an important writer because he is able to show how younger African Americans in the New South are becoming radically different from their forebears. At the same time, Kenan and his characters do not lose sight of what they owe to the millions of anonymous men and women who toiled and suffered and fought to give them the opportunities they are now beginning to enjoy.