Throwback review – meaning a review that I blogged some time ago on another platform, in this case Blogger on Books 1 on Wadadli Pen, and am now relocating here. I was prompted to relocate (or mirror, since it is still in the original location) – and reintroduce it in to the conversation – on the passing (in summer 2020) of the author. RIP, Randall Kenan. I met Randall in 2008 at Middlebury’s Breadloaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont and he was lovely and it was that summer that I bought a copy of the book discussed in this post. It’s a book I’ve thought about during the Black Lives Matter FedUprising of 2020+ and seems an appropriate re-share at this time even without the sad reason that prompted it.
Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the 21st Century by Randall Kenan
Randall Kenan’s Walking on Water felt at times like running a marathon or wading through water, slowly, other times it skipped along but even then the finish line, like the horizon remained out of reach. Yet, for the most part, I was committed to finishing the race. The book is a mosaic, the many lives dotted across its pages a more complete and complex insight to being black in America than the recent CNN documentary series – though that, too, had its moments. To be fair, it had 600 plus pages to tell its tale; and even that proved insufficient. I liked that it isn’t myopic, that it embraced the opportunity to move beyond the obvious clichés and stereotypes and temptation to romanticize or, alternatively, condemn; that it attempted to capture the day-to-day realities, inner life, and philosophies of varied Black people in America (or from the diaspora living in America) arriving in the end at the only logical conclusion that there is no single story nor simple definition of what it is to be Black in America (or human, anywhere). It is, in that sense, one man’s open ended questioning, and re-discovery of his people, himself, his country. …Hearing these stories though begs the question where in this ‘post-racial America’ are these diverse stories in the mainstream imagination – in fiction, popular music, Hollywood?
There are parts of Walking on Water which remind me of the things we have in common. One character’s lament, 147 pages in, “what folks did after slavery is something to be proud of. Why aren’t we doing it now? We have thrown away the things that benefit us” is a familiar one. The book then, makes me think not just about America then but Antigua now (and maybe it helped that Antigua rated a mention on the very first page albeit in the context of that old tug-o-war between Black Americans and Black West Indians). One final note, even without the people that inhabit them – but perhaps moreso because of them – Kenan’s descriptions of the diverse American landscape have a there-ness and poetry to them that make you want to go a-wandering yourself. As for the book’s larger mission of defining what it is to be black in America; it is, in the end, as the author himself attests, “undoable and yet done”; making Walking on Water an interesting and compelling read, but, be warned, not a quick (nor conclusive) one.