Themes and Meanings
Like William Faulkner and many other southern writers, Randall Kenan seems to be obsessed with history. His characters struggle in a web of history and usually fail to extricate themselves. A Visitation of Spirits is a story about homosexual conflicts, but it is also a story about the conflict between the young and the old, between the new generation of African Americans and their ancestors reaching all the way back to the earliest days of slavery. Kenan seems to be suggesting that, sooner or later, a radical change is going to have to take place in the New South. That change will ultimately entail complete racial integration and the forgetting of old grievances. While his young characters struggle to arrive at a new understanding of the present, his old characters cling desperately to the past because of their fear of change.
The deliberate ongoing contrast between the old generation and the new generation is obviously designed to make the reader feel the inexorability and the necessity of change. The characters who represent the old order cause unnecessary pain and confusion by their insistence on clinging to old habits and prejudices. The characters who represent the new order are caught between past and present; they are unable to accept their parents’ and grandparents’ values but, at the same time, are unable to conceptualize the new consciousness that is needed by their society.
Kenan’s principal concern is with the ways in which the South is changing. He demonstrates these changes by illustrating their effects on the lives of his characters. Neither his young nor his old characters can see that their problems are not personal but universal; Kenan, however, manages to present that broader perspective to the reader. His intelligence, sensitivity, and compassion distinguish him as one of the most important writers to emerge from the New South.