Randall Kenan, Professor of English & Comparative Literature, passed away Friday, August 28, leaving a gaping hole in the University’s literary consciousness. The prolific writer was a beloved professor and respected member of the Carolina Community, impacting readers globally who were hungry for honest, passionate stories that unpeeled race, sexuality, poverty and justice with eloquence and honesty.
His colleagues and students are reeling from the sudden loss of this giant from the literary world who tapped into his intersecting identities as a Black gay man to create award-winning works that addressed homophobia and racism. Professor Sharon Holland, Chair of the Department of American Studies, said of the master storyteller’s passing, “I find myself inconsolable; his was the voice that anchored me to this world in ways unimaginable and somewhat indescribable to others, I think. He was the brother of my heart and mind, surely and always. He was the only other out LGBTQ African-descended senior faculty here at Carolina and he made me feel like I could be in this place, lonely, but not alone.”
While his work is of national renown, with such publications as Southern Cultures, Hub City Press and Oprah magazine tweeting messages of grief at the loss of this great talent, Randall’s passing has been felt most keenly at Carolina. His professorial work was greatly treasured here, for content, delivery and purpose and he was described by Terry Rhodes, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences as “one of the leading lights at Carolina.”
Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature Rebecka Rutledge Fisher described him as compassionate and caring. “I witnessed first-hand his generosity with students when he visited my seminar on hoodoo and roots in African American literature and when I taught from his first novel, A Visitation of Spirits,” she said.
The book, published in 1989, had profound and long-lasting influence, connecting with readers viscerally. “Upon my enrollment in the degree program at UNC, one of the first books I read was A Visitation of Spirits,” said Eddie Moore, who prepared for his doctorate with Randall’s guidance and is now a teaching instructor at East Carolina University. “To say that the novel changed my life just isn’t sufficient. It was the first novel I had read that confronted the deep complexity of queer sexuality and spirituality. It gave me the courage to grapple with the growing tension in the relationship between those issues in my own life. In fact, if there is any literature I might credit for helping me feel safe in coming out – for finally perceiving the dramatic necessity of it – it is A Visitation of Spirits.”
Students and colleagues alike felt privileged to develop personal connections with Randall. Dr. L. Lamar Wilson, now an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Florida State University, notes, “While I wasn’t blessed to be a student in Randall’s formal UNC classes, I learned at his side at a spirited Wole Soyinka lecture, at far too many multi-course gourmet meals in Fearrington Village and around Chapel Hill to list, and in countless debates about American, African American, and Southern literature that we had over the decade of friendship we shared. Randall, a raconteur sans précédent, usually won in the end, what with his encyclopedic knowledge of everything we deem high- and low-brow in academe.”
He recalled a “gentleman’s gentleman” who supported him every step of the way during his arduous eight-year journey to his PhD. He was especially touched when Randall volunteered to step in for his dissertation defense and hooding when Professor James Coleman (who died last year) fell ill. “It was something he’d not done, to my knowledge, that often in his long career at his alma mater: He melded Dr. Coleman’s insightful questions and comments with his own, then stood by my side, again, at graduation, hooding me and beaming as only he could.”
Randall exuded a warmth and generosity of spirit that defined true friendship and connected with people through a shared lens. Eddie, who found him to be “warm, kind, unshakably calm, humorous and comforting” shared, “My time in Randall’s [office] rocking chair, eating candy from his desk, dishing about Black church and the American South is irreplaceable. Such a loss is too difficult for words. My heart aches to know that my mentor is now an ancestor, but I am honored to have known him and will still seek out his guidance and remember his voice as I work.”
Randall’s voice was heard, loud and clear, in his numerous other published works. In Let the Dead Bury their Dead, Walking on Water Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century and The Fire this Time, he used what has been described by colleagues as Black storytelling tradition to address themes of blackness, gayness, socioeconomic devastation, friendship…and hope.
Although a proud Tar Heel, growing up in Chinquapin, NC and graduating in 1985 with a BA in English, Randall was unafraid to speak out against injustice, even as it concerned his beloved alma mater. This month alone, he published thought-provoking commentary that was bravely critical of UNC’s history (Letter from North Carolina: Learning from Ghosts of the Civil War) and a collection of North Carolina-based short stories, If I Had Two Wings, that chronicle the socio-economic breadth of life experiences across the U.S.
As students spoke out against injustice across the U.S. recently, he proudly backed their efforts. According to Rebecka, he supported his students’ involvement in civil rights, but worried about their safety. “[His concern] was palpable in an email he sent me just a few months ago as we crafted our departmental statement in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement during this era of COVID. He wrote, in part, ‘We must honor and pray for our many students out marching and protesting at this very moment, despite the risk to their health and lives.’”
Indeed, it would seem that at a time when he was most needed, he was arm-in-arm with those who sought to fight injustice with the power of words. Rebecka noted, “Randall’s concern for our students and the society they will inherit seems echoed in the Black gospel song by which his latest book title, If I Had Two Wings, is inspired. ‘I Need Two Wings,” itself a meditation on the Spirit’s protection, goes: “I need two wings/To hide my feet/I need two wings/To veil my face/I need two wings/To fly away/So the world can’t do me no harm.’ Randall ultimately unfurled his wings and flew from the body that made him vulnerable as a black man, a black gay man, and a black American writer in the most venerable and history-soaked sense of this term. I hope that those who wish to honor his life and spirit will take up the banner he carried, and continue to work tirelessly for justice, equity, and the eradication of racism and homophobia on our campus and across this earth.”
Written by Adrianne Gibilisco, University Office for Diversity & Inclusion
- Carolina Mourns the Passing of a Master Storyteller (UNC College of Arts & Sciences)
- News & Observer Feature