As the Black Bard of the South, Randall Kenan toppled monuments
In Zeke’s version, before the Civil War, runaway slaves led by a man named Pharaoh founded a “brown society” on the land where Tims Creek now stands. Pharaoh was captured and sold to “the family in North Carolina at this time,” becoming the “No. 1” slave, man’s most precious possession, finds his way deeper into the favor of his master before finally escaping for good, setting the plantation on fire in its wake.
Edited and with exhaustive footnotes and an introduction (dated 2000 at the time) by Jimmy’s parent, Reginald Gregory Kain (who shares Kenan’s credentials and initials), “Leave the Dead bury their dead ”is a story in a -in-a-book story, an ingeniously metafictional Russian doll with gleefully unreliable storytelling. Yet one way or another, whether because of regional or racial prejudices, or the author’s deep-rooted humility and privacy, Kenan did not take his place. returns to the postmodern canon, though Tims Creek has proven to be as generator as any Macondo or Yoknapatawpha.
But Kenan’s myth-making wasn’t just for craft or genre: overall, his fiction amounts to a personal overthrow of monuments, like the removal of the bronze Silent Sam from the UNC campus in 2018. In Zeke Cross’s story, it is not his namesake white man but the black escapee, Pharaoh, who appears as the true pioneer, the folk hero, the founding father.
To the naked eye, the true County of Duplin is not romantic, let alone magical. In this deeply Christian working-class corner of rural North Carolina, surrounded by miles of swamp and farmland in the major cities of Raleigh and Wilmington, unassuming Baptist churches are as common as pig farms. The houses, whether colonial style or mobile, are protected by thin white crosses at the junction of alleys and country roads.
On one of these roads, somewhere along the 13 mile stretch of Highway 41 between the town of Wallace and Chinquapin, there is a billboard to visit the restored Liberty Hall plantation. “Southern Antebellum was once praised for its grace and charm,” its website says. The site “presents itself today as a proud reminder of an era that only exists in the history books”.
On this same road also stands another sign, more subtle, marking the private land of the Kenan family cemetery. Randall Kenan is buried miles away, in a plot by a side road marked only by a single pear tree, next to Mary Kenan Hall. It’s tempting to project onto his unadorned burial ground a loneliness known only to the living, but Kenan had an uncanny ability to see the mystic in the mundane. As the Crosses teach us again and again: It is not because a place does not announce itself that it is not there.