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Trailblazing gay Black ‘literary genius’ Randall Kenan has tragically died, aged 57

Nick Duffy September 1, 2020
Randall Kenan has died aged 57

Randall Kenan has died aged 57

Acclaimed author Randall Kenan, whose work reflected on being Black and gay in the South of the United States, has died aged 57.

Keenan’s celebrated works, including A Visitation of Spirits, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, and The Fire This Time, netted him a string of prestigious awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship, the North Carolina Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rome Prize, and a Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction.

He also penned an influential biography of gay novelist James Baldwin, and Walking on Water, an oral history of Black American life.

Tributes paid to ‘literary giant’.

Kenan was found dead Friday at his home in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His death was confirmed by the University of North Carolina, where Kenan taught as an English professor. No cause of death has been announced.

The UNC English and Comparative Literature department said: “[We are] saddened beyond words to give this news. We lost an incredible friend, colleague, mentor, professor and literary giant.

“Our collective hearts are aching with grief at the loss of professor Randall Kenan. We are beginning to prepare a tribute celebrating professor Kenan’s life, work, and the lasting impact he has left in the hearts and minds of our ECL community.”

Acclaimed author Randall Kenan
Acclaimed author Randall Kenan (UNC Chapel Hill)

In a tribute to the author, Lambda Literary wrote: “Randall Kenan’s contribution to the canon of contemporary gay literature is unparalleled.

“Brooklyn born and North Carolina raised, he was a writer who explored how desire, community, and generational trauma can both uplift and warp the Black gay rural experience.

“With a heightened lyricism and a nod to the fantastical, Kenan centred characters who often struggled against the thicket of their personal wants and histories.

“May Kenan’s writing be a long testament to his genius.”

Daniel Wallace, a friend and university colleague of Kenan, said:” He was just an immense talent. His best years were ahead of him… and he was a gentleman of the old school.”

Randall Kenan warned of ‘coming war’ over race relations.

Only two weeks ago, Kenan had published a reflective essay about recent unrest in the US and the “righteous destruction” of Confederate monuments.

Reflecting on what he might have though about the issue as a Black student at the university in the 1980s, Kenan wrote: “What I most would have struggled to imagine, is that certain people would be up-in arms were it to ever happen.

“That they would quite literally take over a state capital building, bearing arms, in anger to keep monuments up. That we might have another civil war over the matter.

“For me – a poor Black boy from the swamps of Eastern North Carolina – the Civil War was far from a lost cause, let alone a done war. I had underestimated how unfinished.”

Kenan warned of a “coming war” that “will not be about the monuments, but the mentalities”.

He added: “It is hard to imagine we have come to this moment in the early years of the 21st century. As a life-long fan of Star Trek, who lived to see the first Black Vulcan elected to the presidency of the United States, this entire situation feels very like something out of the back of Gene Roddenbery’s mind.

“Roddenbery might could have imagined such a 2020, but I never might have imagined it. Today is impossible. The convergence of Donald J Trump, the coronavirus pandemic, the unrest over police abuse and the tumbling of Confederate monuments were all unimaginable decades back. Can we seize the moment? We all must now readjust our thinking. The war has only just begun.”

More: North Carolina, Randall Kenan

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