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UNC professor Randall Kenan remembered in launch of "Black Folk Could Fly" story collection


UNC Voices of Praise Gospel Choir performs "Everybody Clap Your Hands" at the Black Folk Could Fly event in Hill Hall on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022.

UNC professor Randall Kenan was a beloved colleague, author and friend. He passed on Aug. 28, 2020. Kenan had an uncanny ability to write beautiful stories that would uniquely touch his reader’s hearts.

On Sunday, Sept. 11, Kenan’s friends and former colleagues held a book launch for a compilation of Kenan’s work from before he passed, titled “Black Folk Could Fly.” The book contains 21 works of non-fiction pieces, some of his most personal writings and was made available for sale last month. 

In the book, Kenan writes about the three women who raised him, growing up Black in the rural American South in the 1960s, his childhood fear of snakes and more. 

Tayari Jones, an author, friend of Kenan's and a professor at Emory University, said that reading this book is an experience like no other.

“The 21 works of nonfiction in this book offer an experience that's like a walking expedition through a beautiful and intricate landscape, led by a tour guide who visits the popular attractions, but also insists on stopping by the ancient cemeteries, telling the stories behind every stone,” she said. 

Jones wrote the introduction to the book, yet she said she did not feel qualified enough to write a piece discussing Kenan’s writing without mentioning who he was as a person.

“The truth of the matter is that you couldn't separate him from his art, because Randall was genuine like that,” Jones said. “There was no reason to draw a line between the two because each part of him were equally broken down and legacy worthy.”

Another of Kenan’s close friends and former colleagues, Daniel Wallace, said Kenan’s writing style was unique and mimicked that of magical realism.

Wallace is also an English professor at UNC. He and Kenan became very close and worked together on a few different projects, leading to a friendship that lasted for years.

“I think that it would be a real injustice if he was forgotten and if his contribution to literature and to UNC itself, to the state of North Carolina and literature all over the world was to in any way diminish,” Wallace said.

E. Patrick Johnson, another of Kenan's friends, a UNC alumnus and the Dean of the School of Communications at Northwestern University, said Kenan’s writing was unique in the way that it could immerse readers in the story.

“This was Randall Kenan's gift,” he said. “He drenches the reader in the human stickiness of the South.”

Johnson said Kenan valued the quiet, and it guided him in his work and in his life. Johnson added that Kenan's ability to drown his readers with the sensibility and imagery he creates in his work is, in his opinion, what makes him one of the "greatest writers of our generation."

Ross White, the director of the creative writing program at UNC, shared heartfelt words at the book launch.

“That raucous bellow of a laugh that would erupt from him with such wonderful forces that you suspected delight itself lived at the center of his body and was just waiting to get loose,” he said. “Randall’s legacy still reverberates so strongly on this campus that you can almost feel the building shake.”

His legacy lives on both at UNC and in the Chapel Hill Community. Prologue Used and Rare Books hosts the Randall Kenan Collection — a rare books collection that belonged to Kenan. After his death, his family donated over 8,000 books from his collection to the shop. 


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