Story-telling as Performance in Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits: Identification and Disidentificaion in a Small, Southern, African-American Town
Department of English
of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
Randall Kenan’s debut novel, A Visitation of Spirits (1989), is set in a small, tight-knit African-American community in North Carolina, Tims Creek, a fictive version of the author’s hometown, where Baptist Christianity and family ties rule everyone’s lives. Told from the perspective of several, often anonymous male narrators from the same extended family, Kenan presents the collective memories of three generations of the town’s prominent Cross family as they recall the events leading up to and following the central character Horace’s sexual awakening, conflicted homosexual identity, and eventual suicide. The way in which Kenan constructs these stories, most of them remembered, is critical: acting as fictional oral historian, Kenan deploys a number of genres—sermons, confessions, journal entries, and drama—to create a fictive oral history of the Cross family and town, replete with seemingly original documents. The characters appear to speak for themselves, bearing witness to their lives and thus “performing” for Kenan, who serves as their “audience”—as do we readers. In the words of ethnographer Dwight Conquergood, we are co-actors in the characters’ oral performances (qtd. In Johnson, “It Ain’t Always Easy” 57).
“Performance” is a highly contested term; nonetheless, it is a custom close to the hearts of African Americans, especially those from the south, where regional vernacular is itself a form of performance. In their ancestral homeland of Africa, performance and ritual, such as spirit possession, soundings, actuals, and pig kills forge tribal bonds and cement tribal boundaries. In his novel, Kenan carefully records Tims Creek’s late-twentieth-century iterations of its African cultural inheritance both to connect the townspeople to a meaningful past and to suggest a future that preserves African performance in new theatrical productions, like those staged in the 1960s by the Free Southern Theater. Much of the latter half of the novel is devoted to Horace’s work and apprenticeship at an actual theater, where he is able to openly embrace his sexual identity—beyond the grasp of his family and Baptist Christianity. However, the play is about white history, so the only way that Horace’s engagement with white performance—and, by extension, white Christian values—will allow him to accept his gay, black identity is through disidentification, Jose Munoz’s term for how minority cultures reinscribe the dominant majority’s identity signifiers for their own purposes while operating within its systems and ideologies. Had Kenan written A Visitation of Spirits today, with the benefit of over twenty years of critical advances by LGBT activists, perhaps Horace’s demise would not have been so tragic.
In this paper, I analyze the various forms of black performance in A Visitation of Spirits and how such cultural practices shape the members of a small, southern, African-American town, and, in particular, its star high school student, who is gay. By looking to performance theorists’ conceptions of verbal “performatives,” disidentification, and “communitas,” I envision how today’s gay southern blacks might reconcile contemporary attitudes towards race, sex, and gender with older, religious and familial traditions.
I am a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens
Point, specializing in postmodern American literature, literary theory,
and nineteenth-century literature and medicine. I teach writing as
well as in my specialty areas and have published on postmodern writers
and pedagogy. Currently, I am at work on a book by George
Saunders, a contemporary North American short story writer and satirist,
whose interest in the abuse of corporate and other forms of
institutional rhetoric ties him to early postmodernists and critically
influences today’s post-capitalist American writing.