Kenan died Friday, August 28, 2020. His cause of death was not immediately released.
Kenan, a native of North Carolina, returned to his Alma mater to become a professor, where he served as a mentor to young writers, Terry Rhodes, Dean of UNC’s College of Arts & Sciences, told WRAL. Kenan often wrote about his North Carolina roots, and will be remembered as “a master craftsman and storyteller,” Rhodes said.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. O, The Oprah Magazine Published Kenan’s Work & Wrote a Tribute to Him
Kenan was published in the Oprah Magazine, including a short story published Aug. 9, 2020. “God’s Gonna Trouble the Water” is a fiction piece about Vanessa Streeter, who returns to her small North Carolina town to survey the wreckage of a hurricane.
“In the wake of one such storms, what is lost? What is unleashed? And who is going to be able to recover?” Kenan wrote about his piece.
O, The Oprah Magazine wrote a tribute to Kenan on Twitter and shared his short story.
“Sending our sincerest condolences to the family of writer and teacher Randall Kenan, who passed away last night. Thank you for sharing your gift with the world, including the last short story we published,” The Oprah Magazine wrote on Twitter.
2. Kenan Was ‘One of the Leading Lights’ at UNC, the School’s Dean Said
Kenan was a beloved English professor at the University of North Carolina. He was known for writing about his roots, and grew up in North Carolina. He served as a mentor to young writers, Terry Rhodes, Dean of UNC’s College of Arts & Sciences, told WRAL.
“He was one of the leading lights at Carolina. He was a Tar Heel alumnus, a native North Carolinian who loved writing about his roots, beloved by his students, a mentor to younger writers and a master craftsman and storyteller. We will miss him greatly,” Rhodes said.
Kenan was raised in Chinquapin, North Carolina, and graduated from UNC Chapel Hill. He has taught at several universities including Columbia and Duke Universities, and the University of Mississippi, according to WRAL.
Tyler Curtain, an associate professor of English and literature composition at the University of North Carolina, wrote a tribute to Kenan on Twitter.
“I am crushed to learn a bit ago that the extraordinary writer and teacher Randall Kenan died last night,” Curtain wrote. “He was a dear colleague and friend, one of the people who made my days better every time I saw him. I am having a difficult time even believing the news.”
3. The Chapel Hill Public Library Is Compiling Kenan’s Work As a Tribute & the UNC English & Comparative Literature Department Is Compiling Memories of Kenan
The Chapel Hill Public Library is compiling a reading list celebrating Kenan’s life and work on its website. Kenan was a chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and served as a role model to aspiring Black writers. Dr. Cynthia Greenlee, a writer and winner of the 2020 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award, wrote about the impact of Kenan on her life on Twitter.
“Randall Kenan taught me that Black kids from North Carolina could be writers. I’m thankful for that, but more thankful for his words and his spirit. Long live Randall, but the colors of the world will seem washed out without him,” she wrote.
UNC’s English & Comparative Literature department is compiling memories of Kenan to celebrate his life, work and legacy, they wrote on Twitter.
“We lost an incredible friend, colleague, mentor, professor & literary giant. Our collective hearts are aching with grief at the loss of Professor Randall Kenan,” UNC English & Comparative Literature wrote. “We are beginning to prepare a tribute celebrating Prof Kenan’s life, work, & the lasting impact he has left in the hearts and minds of our ECL community. If you would like to share memories of Prof Kenan or examples of how his work impacted you, post here or email DLC_LAB@unc.edu.”
4. Kenan Won Multiple Awards for His Work, Including the North Carolina Award for Literature & a Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction
Kenan’s worked earned him multiple accolades. He wrote a New York Times Notable Book, “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead,” which also won a Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction. The collection of short stories, published in 1992, was set in Tims Creek, North Carolina.
“Set in North Carolina, these are stories about blacks and whites, young and old, rural and sophisticated, the real and fantastical. Named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, nominated for the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award, and given the Lambda Award,” the book’s description says.
His novel, “A Visitation of Spirits,” is about a 16-year-old boy growing up in Tims Creek, and struggling as he realizes he is attracted to other men. It was published in 1990.
“Horace Cross, the 16-year-old descendant of slaves and deacons of the church, spends a horror-filled spring night wrestling with the demons and angels of his brief life,” the book’s description says. “Brilliant, popular, and the bright promise of his elders, Horace struggles with the guilt of discovering who he is, a young man attracted to other men and yearning to escape the narrow confines of Tim’s Creek. His cousin, the Reverend James Greene, tries to help Horace but finds he is no more prepared than the older generation to save Horace’s soul or his life. And as he views the aftermath of Horace’s horrible night, he is left with only questions and the passing of generations.”
5. Kenan Recently Wrote About the Toppling of Confederate Monuments at UNC
Less than two weeks before his death, Kenan wrote about the impact of toppling Confederate monuments at the University of North Carolina, in a “Letter from North Carolina: Learning from Ghosts of the Civil War.”
“The country’s oldest public university is truly haunted by its mythical Confederate past. Even ghosts can teach us a thing or two,” he wrote in his letter, published August 18, 2020.
In the letter, he writes that UNC became an epicenter for dismantling the monuments, beginning August 20, 2020, with a statue at the front gates of the University of North Carolina. The toppling of the statue led to a confrontation between Klansmen, and right wing activists and students, and eventually to the firing of a UNC chancellor.
Kenan wrote about walking past the statue, Silent Sam, every day. He said he knew the history and said that for Black students, “it cut us to our core.” In 1984, he said, the idea of dismantling the statue one day seemed like an impossibility.
“Still, what I most would have struggled to imagine, is that certain people would be up-in arms were it to ever happen,” he wrote. “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.”