BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Randall Kenan, author of Walking on Water, what’s your book about?
RANDALL KENAN, AUTHOR, "WALKING ON WATER": Well, it’s a travel narrative about what it means to be black in America. I sort of set out to travel all over North America, traveling on a theme. And the theme was to ask the question What does it mean at the end of the twentieth century to be black?
LAMB: Where’s this cover picture taken?
Mr. KENAN: I don’t know – that’s one of the reasons we chose it, it sort of looks like Everytown, America.
LAMB: When did you start to travel?
Mr. KENAN: I started in 1991, beginning in New England and traveling north and west, going to places like Alaska, coming back around down into Utah and Louisiana.
LAMB: Why did you want to do this?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I found myself very perturbed and frustrated with, what I perceived at the time, to be the definition of black in America. A lot of the stereotypes I was seeing in the news media, you know, magazines, television shows just seemed be very limiting. Plus, I was very worried about perceptions a lot of young folk were having about the limitations on what their own identity meant, and--and there were certain insecurities on my own part. Within certain segments of the African-American community, there can be certain attitudes that somebody is blacker than another person and this `blacker than thou' attitude, and I found that, you know, again, baseless and I really wanted to apply geography to the question in a way that I hadn't seen done a great deal.
LAMB: How many towns did you stop in that you write about in your book?
Mr. KENAN: I think ultimately there are about 23 included, but I went to probably a score more.
LAMB: At some point, you say you had 5,000 pages of material.
Mr. KENAN: Yeah, notes, transcripts, bits of history that I had collected over--I mean, it was about--we're talking six years' worth of research and travel.
LAMB: How many miles did you drive?
Mr. KENAN: Well, at one point, I had collected, on my truck, 75,000 miles, and this was having driven to Alaska and back, and then gone across the country twice.
LAMB: What kind of a vehicle did you drive around in?
Mr. KENAN: It was a Chevy Blazer, 1991 Chevy Blazer.
LAMB: By yourself?
Mr. KENAN: Yes, largely by myself.
LAMB: How long would you stay in any one place?
Mr. KENAN: I think the max was a little over two weeks. I tried not to upset the rhythm. At one point, I was on the road for a total of seven months, and at the end of the seven months, I realized that I was--probably best to take a break.
LAMB: How did you support yourself?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I was lucky. I had an advance from my publisher, Knopf, and at that point, things were a little dicey, but I was lucky enough, again, to--to get some grants and awards that kept me going.
LAMB: What role did your friend Richard play?
Mr. KENAN: Ah. Well, the book is dedicated to the late Reverend Richard Elias Wimberley III, who was a--a very dear friend and a classmate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and in many ways, he's sort of the--the spirit behind this book. We talked about this issue almost ceaselessly when we were freshmen and throughout our college. He was a history major. He went on to become a theologian and minister in a prison chapel, actually. And this was very--on the metaphysical, philosophical level. He was very concerned about issues of identity and, you know, this thing called race: What did it mean? How did it shape people's lives? And--and he was also very interested in geography, and so this was sort of my labor of love to him.
LAMB: How big has race been in your life?
Mr. KENAN: Well, insofar as it affects most black folk in this country. I mean, I write about, talk about the idea that for most black people--I would venture to say everyone--there's a point at which you realize that you're black, that the veil is lifted, as W.E.B. Du Bois said, that when you're a little child, perhaps sometimes as late as a teenager, an event occurs--someone points you out, and there's no return insofar as that you realize you're the other. You might have discussions with parents or ministers or what have you, but you realize that you are politically branded. And some people respond positively to this; some people run away from it. There's a phenomenon in the African-American community called `passing,' if you're light-skinned enough. But there's that event that I think all black folks share in this country.
LAMB: And you went to a lot of places that, as you've acknowledged in your book, don't have many black people.
Mr. KENAN: Yes.
LAMB: And you can tell us about some of those places, like Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and places like that. But tell me what--the most awkward moment you had being black and being in a place that was all white.
Mr. KENAN: Excuse me. That would've had to have been in Saskatchewan, Maidstone, Saskatchewan. I'd read about the football player Rueben Mayes and that he was descended from settlers out in western Canada who'd come up when Canada opened up its western corridor to homesteaders, and that he'd grown up in a place called Maidstone, and I drove there. I was very happy and proud with myself to have, you know, driven up these long, endless stretches of the Canadian western wilderness. And I got to Maidstone, which is about 500 people, and I, you know, had a nice dinner and went to bed, got up bright and early in the morning--and I hadn't seen anyone black, so I sort of did the most logical thing. I sort of walked in the little library and, you know, sort of introduced myself to the librarian, and sort of said, `Excuse me, ma'am, but I'm looking for black folk.' And she just sort of, you know, put her hands up to her face and said, `Oh, I'm so sorry. All our Negroes (pronounced Negrews) moved away years ago.'
LAMB: And you said, as you wrote, Negrews.
Mr. KENAN: Negrews. I don't know--excuse me--where that pronunciation came from, but that's how she pronounced it, and I had discovered that, you know, most of the homesteaders actually who came to that part of the country at the turn of the century had gone on, so these people were now living in, you know, Vancouver and Calgary and North Battleford, where I actually found Rueben's father and spoke with him.
LAMB: Now Dora Grain is your first person in the book, if I remember correctly...
Mr. KENAN: Yes.
LAMB: ...and how did you pick her to start this all off?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I went to Martha's Vineyard sort of wanting to investigate this old fabled, elite community of Oak Bluffs, and I was doing research in the library and I found this article --Mrs. Grain had been a labor official for many years and had retired there and raised her last child. And this article spoke of how she was sort of indignant that people assumed that she, a black woman living on Martha's Vineyard, lived in Oak Bluffs; you know, again, the sort of stereotype that we folk tend to bring to black folk and, you know, they all live in a certain place and think a certain way. And she sort of shattered all the ideas that I had come to this, you know, idyllic community assuming. So I'm, you know, very grateful for her. I mean, she challenged a lot of the ideas--I mean, this was the first person I interviewed that I brought along with me. So I was very grateful for that.
LAMB: Who does live in Oak Bluffs?
Mr. KENAN: Well, pretty much everyone. I mean, it has become much more democratized than people would think. People do live all--and black folk do live all over, you know, the island. There is a core of people, old Bostonians that the novelist Dorothy West writes about, but there's a new group of young professionals--I mean, you know, hip-hop artists are buying homes there, people are living in Edgar's--Edgartown and all over.
LAMB: Vernon Jordan is very much--has been in the news over the years as a resident, I believe, of Martha's Vineyard. Did you find him up there?
Mr. KENAN: He wasn't there at the time or I didn't run into him at the time.
LAMB: What other kind of well--I mean, there are a lot of well-known blacks that seem to go there a lot, sort of...
Mr. KENAN: Yes. Suzanne de Passe, the movie and recording industry executive. I heard a rumor that Spike Lee had a place there. Ed Brooks had lived there. I did remember running into the president of the Ford Foundation at the time in Vineyard Haven. I mean, it--so, I mean, a great deal of very visible African-American leaders tend to summer there.
LAMB: How did you pick your spots?
Mr. KENAN: Well, it was a combination of historical curiosity, curiosity on my part as well, finding tidbits that I really wanted to research and then serendipity. I mean, I was in California visiting some friends when I read this article on Allensworth, California, which I had never heard of, which was founded by Colonel Allens--Allensworth, again at the turn of the century, and was the only town incorporated by and for black folk out in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. So there were a lot of places that I just sort of stumbled upon in my research and traveling.
LAMB: What did you find there?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I found that it had become a ghost town at this point, but due to the--the work of probably one man, a man named Ed Pope, who had sort of grew up there as a child, I mean, even when it was desolate, who had worked for the state for a long time, they had--it had become a state park and they were rebuilding it and people were sort of coming back. And it was very inspiring.
LAMB: There's a place called Idlewild, Michigan.
Mr. KENAN: Yes.
LAMB: And it's 70 miles, you say, north of Grand Rapids.
Mr. KENAN: Yes. Idlewild had been a--again, a place built for blacks at about the turn of the century. One of the--I quote in the--in a passage W.E.B. Du Bois waxing very lyrical about it. He owned property there. He didn't spend much time there. But by the '50s and late '60s, this resort become sort of a high point on what they called the ‘chitlin’ circuit.’ I mean, any entertainer who was any entertainer showed up there: Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, B.B. King and on and on and on. And it sort of fell on hard times and it still is a place where people go because it's a beautiful part of Michigan, but it's also the poorest county in the state of Michigan.
And I went there and talked to some of its residents, and I remember particularly this beautiful elderly woman named Trixie Griffin, who had been the--a choreographer at one of the great clubs that was now in ruins or they must have been torn down, and asked her what happened to Idlewild and she said integration and the credit card. And so it was sort of one of those ghosts of desegregation and it brings--you know, just being there and talking to these people, bring up questions about what did the African-American community lose, you know, sort of melancholy with the progress of desegregation and, you know, what were the gains?
LAMB: Who were or are Calvin and Patricia Cormier?
Mr. KENAN: They were the two people who befriended me. I mean, again, I had no idea what I was gonna find in Idlewild. I sort of drove into town late at night, and the--it's very, you know, rural and I had no idea where I was going, where I was gonna stay, and I ran up on this store, this little mom-and-pop shop and the Cormiers were there. They'd moved in from California, and before that, they were both from--he was from Texas, she was from Indiana. And they befriended me, sort of got me settled and introduced me to people. So I was very grateful for them.
LAMB: What'd you learn from them?
Mr. KENAN: Well, they had this--this almost pioneering dream--which was sort of pregnant among many of the residents, there to put Idlewild back on the map. I mean, most people in my generation, I daresay, have never heard of Idlewild, and the very concept of a black resort is almost anachronistic insofar as, you know, young professionals can literally go into practically anywhere they want to. And so there was this--this idea of rekindling a certain pride in this area, and they were very committed toward reinvesting in it and very emotionally invested in that place.
LAMB: What chances do you give of that returning to the old days?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I found throughout my travels that this sort of emotion--and I think it's more than nostalgia--is sort of--is very strong and that people are looking back to the things that black folk had built during a period of segregation to see that there were some strengths in them and some positive elements, and that people are looking at ways to reconstruct some of these positive institutions, I mean, very much in the way that a lot of our historically black colleges have remained intact.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
Mr. KENAN: I grew up in a small town on the coast of North Carolina called Chinquapin.
LAMB: What's it like?
Mr. KENAN: Well, now that I'm gone, there are about 279 people left. It's very rural, and right now, the main industry is hog farming. When I was growing up, it was tobacco farming and soybeans.
LAMB: What'd your parents do?
Mr. KENAN: I was brought up, actually, by my great-aunt, and she was a kindergarten teacher. But I was surrounded by an infinitely large extended family--great-aunts, great-uncles, cousins galore.
LAMB: Why were you brought up by your great-aunt?
Mr. KENAN: Well, my mother and father were not married. I was--my father's father was a fairly successful small businessman and my--he offered 'cause my mother--my mother was, you know, a fairly poor woman in Brooklyn, New York, where I was born, and my grandfather offered to have me brought up, and so I was sent down to stay with him. And my great-aunt sort of took a shine to me, and I went and stayed on the family farm, which is where she lived. And when I was three, her husband died, and my grandfather suggested I remain there on the farm with her to keep her company.
LAMB: Do you know where your mother and father are today?
Mr. KENAN: Yes, I'm...
LAMB: Are you in touch with them?
Mr. KENAN: Yes, I am, I am very much.
LAMB: So what do they--what do you think of all this and--you know, years later and what do they think of you?
Mr. KENAN: I venture to say they're--they're fairly proud of me. I mean, I'm closer to my father. He lives in North Carolina. My mother's in New York. We don't speak as often. But, yes, my father, I believe, is fairly happy.
LAMB: But did you never have a discussion about--did they say anything like, `We wish we'd have raised you,' or were they comfortable you being raised by your aunt?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I mean, my situation, I don't think, is anomalous. I think a lot of young black men wind up in this situation. And one of the things I confront in the book is how most black folk--and I think--if we're really honestly about it, most Americans--are raised by extended families. And there's a particular strength in that because you gain from not just two people, but from a multitude of people. I mean, there's a particular rootedness, I think, in knowing your grandparents. I knew my great-great--I mean, I'm sorry, my great-grandparents, two of my great-grandparents. And, you know, so I--and was surrounded by a lot of older folk, so I had a head start in many ways, I think, on people who only knew one generation before them.
LAMB: What kind of a student were you in high school?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I mean, not to sound self-aggrandizing or anything, but I was fairly studious. I was also something, I think, they--as what they would call nowadays a geek or a nerd. I was really interested in science and that sort of thing. And actually, when I went to Chapel Hill, I went as a physics major.
LAMB: Where'd you get your interest in it?
Mr. KENAN: I don't really know. I--because, you know, growing up in a rural area like that, I'm not--I didn't know many engineers or scientists. I think it was my interest in science fiction. There was a--excuse me--a nuclear power plant down at Wilmington not too far from us, and so, you know, that probably crept into my imagination. Also, you know, when I was going to high school--I mean, sorry, under--elementary school, you know, we'd just gone to the moon and we were switching to the metric system, and so there was a lot of science talk in the air. So I think, you know, I just picked it up.
LAMB: But you are a Trekkie.
Mr. KENAN: Definitely. Definitely. Definitely.
LAMB: How did you become a follower of "Star Trek"?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I think as most people who sort of fall under Gene Roddenberry's vision do, those initial reruns--I mean, I don't remember it--when I was five in 1968, certainly wouldn't have stood to watch it. But through the reruns, through high school, Kirk and Spock and all that sort of thing fascinated me. And I--as I say, I was--had an interest in science fiction, with "Star Trek" in particular. I mean, my friend Richard, to whom the book is dedicated, was a huge "Star Trek" fan. I mean, this was a man who was, you know, dean's listed every semester, you know, master of divinity, and he was sort of fascinated by how the ethics were played out and how, in science fiction, you can get to the heart of things in a certain way--I mean, the human element, in a fresh way without dredging up a lot of cliches.
LAMB: Where do you live now, by the way?
Mr. KENAN: Right now, I'm a visiting writer in residence at Memphis, University of Memphis.
LAMB: Memphis University?
Mr. KENAN: Yes.
LAMB: When did you first know that you liked writing?
Mr. KENAN: Well, as I say, in high school, I was writing science fiction. I was--excuse me...
LAMB: So in school itself?
Mr. KENAN: Yeah. Well, it was something I just did. I never thought of it as a profession or even a trade. I just sort of did it and...
LAMB: Did you ever have a point where a teacher came up and said, `Randall, this is good'?
Mr. KENAN: Actually, my teachers were fairly critical of my writing up to a point. I--really, it was in college when I started taking it a little more seriously and--I mean, I--again, I'd been writing very, you know, pitiful stories and I fell under the tutorship of one Max Steele, who was a--the--ran the writing program at Chapel Hill for a long time, and he challenged a lot of my ideas about taste and source material, and he sort of knew about my background and sort of said, `Well, you know, there haven't been a lot of people coming out of places like where you've been coming out of, and you should really sort of think about seriously approaching this as fiction.' And so the more I read African-American writers in particular, Japanese writers--I don't know why I sort of hyped on Japanese literature--I started taking writing more seriously, and so I sort of abandoned the science by my senior year and sort of cast my lot in.
LAMB: Senator Harriet Elizabeth Byrd, Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Mr. KENAN: Fifth-generation Wyoming, state senator, African-American woman, good Catholic. I had a very interesting conversation with her about growing up in Cheyenne and what it was like to be black in Wyoming.
LAMB: What did she tell you?
Mr. KENAN: Well, she had a fairly active life. I mean, she'd been a schoolteacher for many, many years, and that's how she became very active politically. Her father, I think, Rhone not Byrd, but had been, you know, a high school and--and college football star, and he'd also been very active politically. I mean, she--it was a--it's a very inspiring and but bittersweet interview in many ways. And she talks about the discrimination she sees going on among Native Americans as well as black folk out West. And she tells a very moving story about a very good friend of hers, Ruby, when she was a child, who was Japanese, and how Ruby's family--Ruby and her family were put in a concentration camp during World War II and how--I mean, that sort of--she never-- her friend never forgave this country for that experience. So, I mean, it was a very interesting interview.
LAMB: How does this--is she still a senator? Still...
Mr. KENAN: No, she's retired now.
LAMB: How does she feel about the United States today?
Mr. KENAN: She's very hopeful. She's very hopeful. I remember her saying at one point that--because she had been on a lot of commissions and had done a lot of traveling, and when she went to India, you know, and saw the difference, her response was, `We gotta go back and make America better.' I mean, that was--I mean, she's very a pragmatic, very compassionate woman and, I mean, she was a--she was a Democrat, but many of her views might be construed as conservative, actually. And--but at base, what she was most interested in--and I think this came from her being a teacher--was putting compassion back into politics.
LAMB: Barney Ford.
Mr. KENAN: Barney Ford--and I thank her. I mean, I sort of read a paragraph perhaps about Barney Ford in my research, but she was very keen on Barney Ford and did led me to do more research. Barney Ford was one of these remarkable men during the Reconstruction era who was a, you know, escaped slave who went out West and--during one of the gold rushes in Colorado and found one of these huge lodes. Well, of course, he was run off of it, but that didn't stop him. He sort of went and made another fortune down in Nicaragua doing catering, came back up to Wyann in Colorado and built two of the finest hotels out there, went on to become, I believe, the first African-American in the Colorado Legislature, was very active in abolitionist movements and getting people out of the East, out West, sponsored a lot of people and just sort of--they called him `the black baron' at one point.
LAMB: Died in 1926.
Mr. KENAN: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: But on--in that same area where you're talking about Barney Ford, you say, `I was stumbling upon more and more of these extraordinary people who also happened to be black: Montana's Stagecoach Mary, California's Biddy Mason, Henry Adams of Kansas, Robert Smalls of South Carolina, Edwin McCabe in Oklahoma.' Do you know more about each of those?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I'm learning more and more about each of those. I mean, it was just...
LAMB: How did you--how'd you find them, though? What was the--what were the circumstances when each of these names popped up in front of you?
Mr. KENAN: Well, to be sure, I mean, I didn't have to do a lot of traveling to find them because they're all there, you know, hidden very carefully in the library. It just took, you know, the incentive to find them and write about them.
LAMB: Who's Stagecoach Mary, Montana's Stagecoach Mary?
Mr. KENAN: She was this--sort of this enormous woman who, you know, was--I mean, you think about the images you see in cowboy pictures. I mean, this woman sort of, I think, at one point, killed a man with one blow to the head. She was sort of this intrepid messenger and deliverer of goods and you know, just this larger-than-life figure out of history.
LAMB: All of these are black folks.
Mr. KENAN: Yeah, all the ones I mention there.
LAMB: California's Biddy Mason. Who is...
Mr. KENAN: She was a launderer--laundry woman who went on to become one of the largest landowners in California, around Los Angeles, in fact.
LAMB: Henry Adams of Kansas.
Mr. KENAN: Henry Adams of Kansas, I can't tell you right now.
LAMB: Robert Smalls of South Carolina.
Mr. KENAN: Robert Smalls, famous for having liberated a--or gotten a Confederate ship during the Revolutionary War. He was an illiterate man who had been held as a slave and sort of snuck it through Confederate lines up to Union-held territory and sort of freed himself, and he went on to become a--I believe, a state senator.
LAMB: I did--I must say, when I was reading your book, I was wondering how you would remember all these people, even, you know, on a book tour, how'd you remember all these...
Mr. KENAN: Well, yes. Well, I remember all the people I interviewed, to be sure. I mean, they--there was--they've been like characters in my head for a great many years.
LAMB: There are a lot of quotes. There are, you know, full pages of quotes in here in a--in a big book. How did you do the actual interviewing?
Mr. KENAN: I used a tape recorder for accuracy. I took a lot of handwritten notes as well.
LAMB: And have you kept all those?
Mr. KENAN: Yes, yes. I'm debating now exactly what to do with all this electromagnetic archive.
LAMB: There are no pictures in the book.
Mr. KENAN: No. I tried to take pictures, but I discovered early on that I'm a horrible photographer. So I'm actually gonna start taking photography classes. It would've been great to have had some, but it would have also made the book...
LAMB: Before I ask you about some more of the characters in your book, what were your conclusions about the United States after you went 75,000 miles in all these communities?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I wound up--I mean, I write about--I mean, there's a fairly dismal chapter about Chicago. I mean, at this point, I'd been, you know, learning all these statistics and talking to people and having all these pessimistic points of views, and I was just sort of depressed and down and out. And I had this interview with a poet and publisher, nationalist Haki Madhubuti, and he sort of, you know, is an older man. And I sort of, you know, went into him as this bedraggled puppy and sort of with this very pessimistic point of view, and he sort of turned me around. He was very--one of the most--more inspiring interviews in the book, and sort of said, `Well, yes, you can look at all the negative aspects of what's going on in African-American life. But, I mean, if you look at the positive and look at how far folk have come'--I mean, people of my grandfather's generation have seen the impossible happen. I mean, to think that, you know, I would be doing what I'm doing, in fact, for him at this point, you know, is somehow extraordinary. And after, you know, doing all this travel and seeing what has happened, I find it difficult to give myself permission to be pessimistic in a way.
One of the guideposts in this book was a book written in 1964 by a great novelist, John A. Williams, a book called "This is my Country Too," in which he took a similar trial--trek across the States, but this was, you know, at the height of Jim--Jim Crow in the South and in many other parts of the country. And so at times, like in Grand Forks, North Dakota, I compare how conditions were, you know, at the time of my birth to how things were now, and to see what has occurred in that brief amount of time. I mean, even, you know, looking full face into the problems that face not only African-Americans but all Americans, I still find it difficult to be negative.
LAMB: Based on, again, where you went, where--if you had to make a choice, you know, you didn't have to teach, you didn't have to worry about making money, where would you go live? Where would you get the best treatment?
Mr. KENAN: Oh, my goodness. I think I wax most poetically about the Bay Area, San Francisco. I did--actually just came back from there and I must say, I just--aesthetically, it's one of the most pleasing places in the world because you've just got all these multiplicity of skin colors. I mean, just all these cultures stewed together and it just feels affluent and the weather is--in grand. But, you know, that being said, there's so many lovely places I did encounter. I mean, I fell in love with the desert. I fell in love with Alaska. And there's certain charms in New England that you can't match.
LAMB: You say you learned that the Alcan Highway was built by blacks?
Mr. KENAN: Yes, this was after I had driven it and sort of had this sort of spiritual moment on Kluane Lake, which is this large glacial lake up in the Yukon, and I got up there and I, you know, found out--and this was after having picked up all these souvenirs and--and books about the Alcan Highway, which folks don't know is about 1,900 miles long.
LAMB: Where do you get it? Where do you start--where do you start driving on it?
Mr. KENAN: In British Columbia--well--and--or Edmonton, depending on which way you're going up. But after I got there, I found out that the huge--largest portion of it had been built by African-American men, World War II. This was a feat that people said couldn't be done. It's been compared to the building of the Su--I'm sorry, the Suez Canal--the Panama Canal. And, you know, one Confederate general, General Buckner, who was a--the son of a Confederate general at one point said that, you know, `Well, black men can't really operate heavy machinery. We don't--we can't send them out there. We might leave, you know, unwanted racial mixtures and all this sort of thing.' But these men, you know, and this--inspiring tales, facing all sorts of, you know, just geological and engineering problems, built the road ahead of schedule and with great aplomb.
LAMB: Who was Walter Furnace? Or who is he--is--I guess he's still alive.
Mr. KENAN: Yes, he at the time was a representative in Alaska. He was Republican and former airman who had been--become a bank executive and, you know, was doing very well in the State House.
LAMB: Was he career Air Force?
Mr. KENAN: No, no, he wasn't. He got out too early to have been career Air Force.
LAMB: The reason I ask is because another career man who is a black writer, Albert Murray, and I know that you quote him at great lengths in here.
Mr. KENAN: Yes, well, he did a similar book about the South. And so I looked to him a great many times.
LAMB: There's another young lady up there by the name of Pennywell.
Mr. KENAN: Yes.
LAMB: Tell us her story.
Mr. KENAN: Jasimine, Jasimine Pennywell and her brother, Eugene. They were, I think, fourth-generation Alaskans. I actually had a occasion to talk to their grandmother who was sort of--had lived in Fairbanks for a while but they were in Anchorage now. She herself was a beautician. And...
LAMB: How'd you find her, by the way?
Mr. KENAN: Well, Jasimine's mother had actually published a calendar which I found in the lower 48. I mean, I'd already planned to go to Alaska, but it was--you know, they sort of gave me a place to go to, a calendar about African-Americans in Alaska, particularly Anchorage. Jasimine had this unique experience when she was in middle school. She sort of wrote this essay in which she was sort of condemning what she saw as racist behavior in the school.
LAMB: How old was she when she wrote this?
Mr. KENAN: I think when she wrote it she had to have been 12 or 14. And it got published. It was sort of mimeographed copies that were passed around.
LAMB: I've got it. Do you want to read it--a little bit of it?
Mr. KENAN: OK. Sure.
LAMB: I've got it; here. It's open to the page there. And just...
Mr. KENAN: OK.
LAMB: What year did she publish this?
Mr. KENAN: Well, iit was distributed--this would have had to have been in 1990, I believe.
LAMB: About nine years ago.
Mr. KENAN: Right, right. She was...
LAMB: How old was she when she did this?
Mr. KENAN: She was in the seventh grade.
LAMB: And this was published...
Mr. KENAN: Eighth grade, sorry. Yeah, well, it was passed around and finally wound up in, I think, USA Today, her story did.
(From book) `Racism. I'm a student attending a highly prejudiced school system which has a majority Caucasian atmosphere. I'm an honor roll student of Hanshaw Middle School. I'm very disappointed and concerned by the racism that I deal with each and every day here at my so-called root of education. For example, the bathroom walls almost every day are covered here and there with "white power" and white power symbols, with slogans such as "Blacks are only good for being slaves," and "Whites rule over blacks," as well as labeling the working water fountains "whites only," and the non-working fountains "blacks only." And it's extremely difficult to deal with. There is an intense amount of stereotyping as well as hatred floating in the minds and mouths of students and staff of the Hanshaw--Hanshew and Service Anchorage School District. I know by personal experience.
`I feel that this is absolutely horrible, that the wars that we as a minority, African-Americans, Puerto-Ricans, etc., fought many years back have to be refought over and over as the days go by. It's sad that people can't have their own opinions and approve and disapprove without discriminating others. It's a shame that there is only two times in life that we as people with skin and culture differences are seen as equals. Those two important days are our first and last days of your--of your life. For example, when you're born and you're in the unit nursery, you're not seen as a black or white baby. You're seen as beautiful babies. When you die, you're not seen as a dead black or white man, you're just dead.
`But I refuse to be a part of the problem. If all I can do is just put the problem in the eyes of the community and the faces of all the students, principals and staff, then that is exactly what I'll do. It may not stop during my school years, but one day, with the help of the community, and the Almighty God, it will because I am fighting for the respect that I have earned and deserve and most importantly the rights and education of my children, the children of others, African-American and Caucasian, because one day, we, tomorrow's dream, will be a part of yesterday's work force.'
And that was actually May 1992.
LAMB: And how many blacks did you find in Anchorage, Alaska?
Mr. KENAN: The percentage of blacks, I believe is--it was close
to 10 percent which is...
LAMB: Higher than you expected?
Mr. KENAN: Yes. And actually we--is not that far from what it had been before the pipeline because Alaska's population just exploded--exploded to, you know, half a million after the construction of the pipeline, during the construction of the pipeline.
LAMB: Did you talk to Jasimine Pennywell about this essay?
Mr. KENAN: Yes, I did. Yes, I did.
LAMB: What'd she tell you?
Mr. KENAN: Well...
LAMB: What happened to her afterwards? Probably...
Mr. KENAN: Well, as you can respect, she got some flak. People tried to repress it. I mean, when I say people, I mean, mainly principal and teachers and that sort of thing. But, I mean, the most remarkable thing is how she just refused to back down from it at all. I mean, she describes one incident which, you know--you know, cinematography sounds very intimidating and scary with some young white males and she just sort of, you know, stood up to them and laughed in their face. Nothing--no harm came to her whatsoever.
LAMB: And in Bangor, Maine, you met a gentleman named Sterling Dymond.
Mr. KENAN: Yes. Very--had been in Maine for generations. He was retired at the time. And I was just very curious to know what life was like in New England, so he just sort of described his growing up. His family had largely actually been from New Brunswick, they came down to Maine. And so he just sort of described the terrain and what it was like to have grown up--what it was like, actually, because Maine actually had a larger black population than it has now, before World War II. World War II and the collapse of the timber industry sort of led, you know, most people, black and white, to leave Maine to find better conditions.
LAMB: You said that one of the reasons you wanted to go to Bangor was because of Stephen King.
Mr. KENAN: Oh, yes, I was a huge Stephen King fan.
LAMB: Did you meet him?
Mr. KENAN: I did not. I did not. I didn't try, actually. I just thought it was a moot attempt but, yeah, I wanted to know why there weren't that many black people in his novels and once I got there I realized why. I mean, there weren't that many black folk in Bangor, Maine.
LAMB: You say you asked Mr. Dymond what he thought of the term African-American and your quote is, `"Well, when they first started out with black, you know, I kind of had it a little hard. Always been used to saying colored or Negro. I didn't have a problem remembering what to say." He laughs. "So I got used to the black--hell, I think it's wonderful now but this African-American--I don't know why they want to be called African-American. I know why, but where's it going to end? First there was colored, then there was Negro, then there was black, now it's African-American."' How much of that did you find when you talked to...
Mr. KENAN: Well, I mean, I think this was one of the post-modern situations. I mean, as I--at the beginning of the book I quote Barbara Jeanne Fields in saying that, you know, we're the only group who are connected to an entire continent, which doesn't mean anything. I mean, you know, Korea is a distinct country with a language. Africa has, you know, hundreds, if not thousands, of languages. So, I mean, African-American doesn't really, you know, feel right to a lot of people. I mean, a lot of people are into, you know, using made-up terms and, you know using retro terms. Like a lot of my contemporaries now use the term Negro, you know, just to sort of get a rise out of people. I did find a lot of people, you know, expressing concern about what that label means, a lot of people just like black. I mean, they sort of--they're comfortable with it.
LAMB: So when you traveled by your--What is it, did you say, Blazer?...
Mr. KENAN: Yes.
LAMB: ...where would you stay?
Mr. KENAN: Mostly motels. Mostly motels. I mean...
LAMB: What kind of motels? I mean, that can be expensive.
Mr. KENAN: Yeah, well, Motel 6 became my home away from home. It was very--I was very budget-conscious, and also, you know, being a young black man out on the road, I didn't want to court, you know, too much, you know, folly so I didn't want to sort of sleep in the car too much or go camping alone.
LAMB: What do you mean `court folly'?
Mr. KENAN: Well, you know, there's sort of this phenomenon in this country called racism or running afoul, even if you haven't done anything of...
LAMB: Did you find that anywhere?
Mr. KENAN: No, I can't really say that I have. I mean, I try to avoid it at best--you know, I just didn't put myself in situations where I could be misconstrued as having no--you know, being--trespassing or being someplace I didn't need to be. But I can't say that anything overtly occurred.
LAMB: Did you have to pay for all these expenses out of your--out of your advance?
Mr. KENAN: Yeah, out of my advance and grants and that sort of thing, yes.
LAMB: So how much in the way of grants were you able to get?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I was very lucky to get a Guggenheim and a Whiting Writers Award and a few other--the Sherwood Anderson award, so I mean we were talking another--an additional--over, you know, six years, $50,000.
LAMB: How does that work? How do you get grants for something like that?
Mr. KENAN: Some you apply for and some are, you know, thrust upon you. And I was very happy...
LAMB: When people hear you're doing this kind of thing and they want you to succeed?
Mr. KENAN: Insofar, yeah. I mean, most of them were just for writing in general.
LAMB: You went looking for Prince in St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Twin Cities.
Mr. KENAN: Yes.
LAMB: Who is he?
Mr. KENAN: The Artist Formerly Known As the Artist Known As Prince. He was this--he's this pop musician who I have a great deal of admiration and just love of his music and I knew it was a fool's adventure to try to find him because it's very well-known that he gives very few interviews and has be--you know, is very controversial and that sort of thing.
LAMB: What would you ask him if you got him?
Mr. KENAN: About his musical influences, probably. I mean, I just find his music to be extraordinarily American insofar that it just really merges the diaspora with all sorts of other musical influences. And on top of that, you know, he grew up in St. Paul--Minneapolis, sorry, Minnesota and--as a young black man and so how did that, in essence, lead to this extraordinary explosive music.
LAMB: What did you find there?
Mr. KENAN: I found instead, you know, a wealth of information. It's one of the longest chapters in the book. I talked to the deputy police chief who had--was retired but had been a black man. I found this extraordinarily affluent African-American community as well as politically active going back to Dred Scott and before, actually--before that. The extraordinary labor activist Nellie Stone Johnson, who'd actually worked with A. Philip Randolph and had been a political mentor to Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. I talked to people who were involved in very dynamic churches there. One of the oldest churches in Minnesota, Pilgrim Baptist, I attended--attended one of the services, talked to the janitor of that church who was a very charming fellow, talked about...
LAMB: Young man.
Mr. KENAN: Young man. He was in his early 20s. Talked about growing up in that community. Minneapolis had a community called Rondo--I'm sorry, St. Paul had a community called Rondo which was sort of--sort of destroyed by the completion of an interstate and so that in many ways it was a touchstone for a lot of people, talking about what that community represented. I mean, it was never predominantly black because the black population of St. Paul and Minneapolis was not huge. I mean, it's growing now tremendously, but I mean it sort of represented a central, a physical centralized place, so its destruction, I think, in the early '70s, you know, sort of meant something to people of all walks of life.
LAMB: Anybody refuse to talk to you?
Mr. KENAN: Throughout the entire book? No. One person did, but I found out later that she was very ill. But I didn't--it was lot of avoidance in Martha's Vineyard. No one actually said no, but they just--you know, they couldn't do it right now. But on the whole people were very forthcoming, very generous with their time.
LAMB: What would you tell them when you called them?
Mr. KENAN: Well, it was hard at times, you know? I'm writing a book about, you know, black America. I'm writing a book about what it means to be black. I mean, I tried to break it down and explain that it was a--in the tradition of a, you know, American travel narrative, and that I was sort of exploring different places in America, especially places that I thought had been overlooked or, you know, sort of written out of the equation because a black American presence had not been assumed.
LAMB: Where in this country do blacks live--I don't know what the word would be--the best or where'd you--where'd you find the blacks that have done--you know, the--been the most successful financially? Where were--where are they located?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I mean, that becomes very problematic, doesn't it, because Georgia has always had this very large black middle class and they have some very wealthy folk there. I don't know if you can isolate a particular place. Chicago has always had a strong entrepreneurial class as well. But, I mean, when you talk about the numbers of people in any particular area vs. a percentage of black folk who live in the area, I mean, I would actually be interested in that question. I don't know if I can answer it straight off right now.
LAMB: In Denver you found The Hue Man Experience Bookstore.
Mr. KENAN: Yes.
LAMB: The Hue Man Experience?
Mr. KENAN: Hue Man.
Mr. KENAN: H-U-E as in hue.
LAMB: Who--where did you--how did you find it?
Mr. KENAN: Clever play on words. This was a woman named Clara Villarosa who was, and I think still is, on the board of the National Book Association--I mean, American Book Association. She's a very colorful, powerful woman. She'd been a child psychologist and bank executive at one point and she decided she wanted to start a bookstore and in, of all places, Denver. And, you know, on top of that, a bookstore that catered to the African-American community. And so she was doing a thriving business at the time and, you know, it was--had very strong opinions about African-American life, particularly men and women, which I just found irresistible.
LAMB: Dressed in African garb.
Mr. KENAN: She dressed a great deal in African garb. I mean, she's very--was and is very savvy about--you know, she's a psychologist--about perception and how people take that as a sense of pride in what she stands for and what she does and how that sort of rubs off on her business.
LAMB: Did you take a point of view into these interviews or did you stay out of it?
Mr. KENAN: I tried--I tried very much to stay out of them because, you know, I mean, there's something at--at once sort of shallow about narrative--I mean, travel narratives, and what I wanted to bring by sort of incorporating oral history was, you know, sort of a witness from the place. So when I talked to them about where they grew up, I wanted to let them have their say. And so I tried to stay out of editorializing on their comments about the place. When I stood back and sort of said, `Well, here I am in Burlington, Vermont,' well, I sort of told you what I thought, I mean, because it was, you know, my subjective response to a place is as valid as anyone else's. So there's a mixture between the two.
LAMB: One of my biggest surprises is that you interviewed the parents of a former BOOKNOTES guest, Nell Irwin Painter...
Mr. KENAN: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: ...professor at Princeton, wrote a book on "Sojourner Truth." How'd you find her parents?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I'd been a friend of Nell's and so I had known them for quite a few--a number of years.
LAMB: Where do they live?
Mr. KENAN: They live in Oakland, California, where Nell grew up and Mrs. Irvin, who is an author herself, told me the story of the year she and her husband--several years, I'm sorry--spent in Ghana. And this is one of those--those big things in African community, the sort of going back to Africa. And, you know, just how emotional it was and how that changed them in their perception of America and Africa.
LAMB: And Nell Painter was there with them, was with her parents.
Mr. KENAN: Nell joined them for a while, too, yes, yes.
LAMB: I know because we talked about that.
Mr. KENAN: Yes.
LAMB: And what did they--after being in Africa, did they have any different conclusions than the other people you talked to about being black and in America?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I mean, I think they had a deeper appreciation for what the entire diaspora--diaspora means and that whole experience is. I mean, they, you know, realized that there were tremendous cultural differences between Africa and America and so she--Ms. Painter and then Mr.--I'm sorry, Ms. Irvin--Mrs. Irvin and Mr. Irvin, you know, were very careful to point out the things that they shared with Africans, how difficult, you know, culturally, it is to be united, and yet, you know, sort of how rewarding it was to actually get to know African culture. I mean, I think at one point Mrs. Irvin studied Ga and sort of, you know, adopted the garb of the Ghanaian women and that sort of thing. So I mean it was a very expanding experience. So then coming back--I mean, she--again, she just--it just taught them a lot of things about America that they wouldn't have seen--I mean, perspectives--and for a long time she set out to educate people about Africa.
LAMB: Before this program's over I've got to ask you about five movies a day?
Mr. KENAN: It can be done and I have done it. I am a movie addict, yes.
LAMB: Five in one day?
Mr. KENAN: Yes. It--I have a friend who was there with me so I have a witness.
LAMB: Why movies?
Mr. KENAN: Why movies? Because I'm addicted to narrative. I mean, before this I wrote, you know, two books of fiction and I'm back into fiction and, you know, I just have to have a narrative hit. You know, I have to see about characters and plot and that sort of thing and it's just entrancing.
LAMB: What do you see in the movies the way black people are portrayed?
Mr. KENAN: Hmm. It's very troubling. I mean, one of the people I interview is Charles Burnett, the great MacArthur award-winning filmmaker and we--he gets into it very deeply and eloquently. It's just not a lot of representation. I mean, I think, in the late '80s, early '90s, it was--there was what seemed to be an explosion of young black filmmakers which is sort of--even that which wasn't that great, you know, has sort of receded. Not a lot of black folk acting, but, you know, I mean, there's more than just Sidney Poitier now, which is a good thing. And we have, you know, a number of black actresses who are working. But, you know, the movie industry, the media, including, you know, radio, television, as a whole, I think has a--has a lot of expanding to do, not just for black folk but Native Americans and Latinos, but I mean that's an interesting challenge for us all.
LAMB: Edith Jackson in Las Vegas.
Mr. KENAN: Very contentious. I mean, I actually had fun arguing with her. She was--she worked for a literacy firm in the library in Las Vegas.
LAMB: Can I read a little bit of what she says?
Mr. KENAN: Please.
LAMB: She says, `Our own worst enemy--I think we all--I think we are all'--well, I'll start it again. `Our own worst enemy--I think we are all--all--all the time.' And that's not--I guess not as smooth as I would like it. `Because white people, from what I've seen, do not represent that big of a problem. I tell my boyfriend the same thing because he's so bent on what white people have done. They haven't done that much. We've built America. They have not done that much. We are still looking for somebody to take care of us. We are still looking for somebody to answer for our own sin.'
`Now that's really been my experience. My father built his house. The white man couldn't stop him from building no house. How could the white man stop him from building a house? If you're going to build a house, build a house, you know? We swam in our lake free of charge. We didn't have to pay to swim or pay to have a pool. Why? Because my father and his family bought all the land around the lake,' and she goes on.
Mr. KENAN: Yes. I think it's indicative of, you know, a constant debate among black folk. And I don't want to make it too dialectical, because I think it's actually more complex than that. But, you know, the question of are the problems that are afoot in the black community caused by internal or external problems? How much can the black community achieve through, you know, pulling itself up by its bootstraps, self-reliance, you know, self-empowerment, just going out and doing it? And how much of it is limited? You know, where is that, you know, glass ceiling or the actual barrier? How much is some higher power through conspiracy or collusion manipulating the lives of black folk or just by sheer neglect and keeping them outside of the system, causing detriment to the African-American community? So I think--I mean, it's a healthy debate and as you--as you can see from Ms. Jackson, some people have some very strong opinions about it. And it doesn't make either of the points of view wrong, too. I mean, as, you know, Fitzgerald said, you know, intelligence is a bit--is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time and still function. So...
LAMB: Who's Mary Ellen Pleasant?
Mr. KENAN: Mary Ellen Pleasant is probably of all those Renaissance figures, you know, was my--my hero, my girl. She was this very mysterious woman, came out to California in, I think, the 1870s who is reputed to have--you know, had all sorts of real estate, some of it may have been a bordello. Some of it may have not. She became very wealthy. It is rumored but never proven that she actually funded John Brown's raid on the Harpers Ferry. She was a--tremendous employer out in the San Francisco area. And this was when San Francisco was a very dangerous town. She funded runaway slaves. She actually--some of the early landmark civil rights cases in California she funded. And then--and near the end of her life, things became even more bizarre. She was sort of connected to a very wealthy senator from--state senator from California and was taken to court and so it just becomes, you know, this saga. But as a figure, I mean, she's just inspirational and just formidable.
LAMB: $30, 643 pages for your book. Where did you write it?
Mr. KENAN: Wrote it all over the world. I actually--you know, I was in North Carolina after I did the initial traveling, I did some there. I went to New York where I had been living for 13 years.
LAMB: What were you doing in New York?
Mr. KENAN: Well, I taught at Columbia and Sarah Lawrence College. I was for a year at the University--I'm sorry--at the American Academy in Rome, the Rome Prize. So that was where the bulk of it was actually completed. And Oxford, Mississippi, where I was a writer in residence. So I've toted around a lot of papers for a lot of years.
LAMB: Faulkner does come up in your book. He used to live there in Oxford, Mississippi.
Mr. KENAN: Yes.
LAMB: Does he--does his writing have any impact on your own?
Mr. KENAN: Well, as a Southern writer--I mean, I sort of write mostly about North Carolina and what that means. And I think Flannery O'Connor said it best when she said, `Nobody wants to be stalled on the train tracks when the Dixie Special comes barreling through.' I mean, his sort of influence is hard to ignore when you're--when you're dealing in that whole territory.
LAMB: Did you make new friends in this endeavor that you still are in touch with?
Mr. KENAN: Oh, yes, oh, yes, many. And the event of a book coming out has sort of helped me rekindle and reconnect with a lot of people. I mean, the woman I spoke with earlier, Nellie Stone Johnson, the labor activist, was in her 80s when I interviewed her and I--my--I'd been writing to her but hadn't get--getting any return correspondence so, you know, I sort of feared the worst and I was in St. Paul two weeks ago and at 94 she was there in the audience. So I was happy to see her again. So a lot of people I had been in touch with and am back in touch with a lot more.
LAMB: How long was the book tour?
Mr. KENAN: Over a month.
LAMB: How many places did you go?
Mr. KENAN: Officially there were 10 cities and--but more are coming up.
LAMB: And who was more interested in the book or who--you--when you'd look out at your crowds and all that, what's the makeup, black and white?
Mr. KENAN: So much depends on what city I was in. Many--St. Paul was fairly integrated, which I was happy to see. Atlanta was all, you know, black. --I'm interested in the response myself because people are taking out of it different things. White readers and black readers and then there's, you know, people I had not even thought about like Native Americans and particularly people of mixed heritage.
LAMB: Let me ask you just a couple of last questions. What do you want the black audience to take out of this from your--from reading it?
Mr. KENAN: I would hope it contributes to broadening the debate, but most importantly the definition of what we talk about when we talk about race and identity. I think we have to get away from a lot of stereotypes, especially among young black folk who think that, you know, black folk don't do this, black folk don't do that, who buy into a certain anti-intellectual stance and think that all black folk are poor.
LAMB: What do you want the white audience to take away from it?
Mr. KENAN: Just the same thing, just the same thing. I mean, I think what Martin Luther King said in the '60s that 11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America still holds true and that we still need to--we can all stand to get to know each other a lot better.
LAMB: This is the book and the cover shows a--as we talked earlier, a photograph that no one knows where this picture was taken. It's Everywhere, America. "Walking on Water," by Randall Kenan, our guest. Thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. KENAN: Thank you for having me.
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