Blackness and the Migratory Drive
I came across a new word recently while reading John Edgar Wideman's novel, Two Cities, that did not compute or roll easily from my tongue: zugunruhe. According to Wideman, zugunruhe is a noun meaning a migratory drive. In Wideman's novel this concept, mentioned only twice in the narrative, grounds the ideas of the author, propels the characters, and urges the reader to reimagine her (mis)understandings of African American life. If the word actually exists in English it may be worth adding zugunruhe to the discourse on African American history and culture. An odd word for sure, but it fits the particulars of black American experiences: The Underground Railroad and the North Star. The Great Migration of the early twentieth century. The crossroads and blues music. Tuxedo Junction, the A Train, the Night Train, and Pullman porters. Zugunruhe. Maybe the odd, Germanic sounding word simply points up an American impulse. In the last part of this decade, our national literature has documented the migration impulse as a way of telling the story of twentieth century America. Resounding examples include DeLillo's Underworld, reviewed in ebr by Steffen Hantke Morrison's Paradise, Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, reviewed in ebr by Janie Hinds and Gayl Jones' The Healing. In each of these novels, the author tells stories that dance around, poke, play with, and land squarely on, issues concerning race, identity, and Americanness.
Of course we also have a healthy non-fiction tradition that tackles these complexities. Randall Kenan's new book, Walking on Water, is a profound and massive example of how the American zugunruhe is connected to our questions about identity and race. Kenan is also a fiction writer; he is the author of the novel A Visitation of Spirits, and a critically acclaimed collection of stories, Let The Dead Bury Their Dead. Walking on Water is an elegantly written, impeccably researched, and important book. It is part travel log, historical archive, memoir, ethnographic survey, and literary documentary. It is a large book, 670 pages including selected bibliographies and an index. The whole enterprise was eight years in the making. The impetus for Kenan's journey was this set of "basic" questions: What does it mean to be a black American; What exactly is African American culture; Who is black? Questions complicated and unruly enough to pose, let alone answer. Kenan saves himself a bit of trouble by deciding to ask other black Americans for their answers and definitions.
In the preface the author acknowledges that the book is a failure of sorts, it doesn't complete its search for answers. Then why read the rest of the book? Because it presents the voices of African Americans in every regional sector of the nation. Kenan begins his journey in 1991 in the Northeast. However, the author made the decision early on to avoid the places already charted, graphed, and heard from. So, Kenan ventures to Martha's Vineyard and Bangor, Maine, Burlington, Vermont, and Buffalo, NY. Each time stopping not only to visit and explore, but to dust off the hidden history of black folks in those places (made invisible by whom?).
In the northern Midwest Kenan makes obvious stops in Madison, WI, Chicago, and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Madison and St. Paul prove to be provocative stops for meeting special artists and citizens and for unearthing long unmentioned narratives. The fecundity of Chicago's "blackness" overwhelms the author. Amazing and wonderful are Kenan's narration of stays in Idlewild, MI, Grand Forks, ND, and Coeur d'Alene, ID. In Idlewild, the once premier black summer spot, Kenan relates that the resort town was at this time the "proving grounds: for African American entertainers and performers the likes of Bill Cosby, B.B King, Jackie Wilson, and many a youthful Motown act. Even further back, Kenan explains, the beauty of Idlewild was trumpeted in the pages of Crisis magazine by no less a figure than W.E.B. DuBois; Charles Chestnutt and Madam CJ Walker summered there. In the West, Kenan meets a cadre of folks like the Anchorage teens Jasmine and Eugene Pennywell, and the historian and curator Cornelius Pope of Allensworth, CA, the ghost town of a once all black village. These informants destabilize every essentialized notion of where blackness can exist, and they also flip the script on conceptions of black culture. Kenan traverses the AL-CAN (the Alaskan-Canadian) highway, paralleling his cross with that of the black member of the Army Corps of Engineers who helped build the highway at mid-century. Those engineers defeated nature and the racist officers who were weary of racial mixing and black ineptitude. Needless to say, the black officers were segregated and forced to work the most treacherous portion of the trail. Needless to say, they finished ahead of schedule and under budget. Needless to say, these facts are not promoted in the historical literature about the AL-CAN.
Along the way, of course, the author interviews, converses, and proposes questions. It is mind-boggling to read the multifarious explanations of what constitutes blackness and black culture. From the African American female district judge in Coeur d'Alene longing for the company of a black community but who cannot suggest in finite terms a black cultural way, to the Creoles of Lafayette, LA who differentiate by gradations of brownness (the old paper bag test) and variations de Français, you get the picture: there are not clear answers to Kenan's questions. And yet, the variety of the voices transcribed in Walking on Water will urge the reader on with the author to the book's end. In the chapter "Where Am I Black?," Kenan takes a turn through his home state, North Carolina. The author directs his questions toward the ethereal landscape of cyberspace. After a strange chat room encounter Kenan ponders the possibilities of on-line blackness - can it be? Kenan asks, "This thing we call being black, does it exist outside of our bodies? Where, indeed, am I black? On my skin? In my mind?" In some ways Kenan may answer his proposals when he suggests that long before the term was coined, "black culture was a postmodern culture; folks made it up as they went along. Therefore who can be authentically black, when every black person holds the codes and blueprints of that blackness?"
Indeed it seems difficult to chart race - we all know it is a false category, right? There is no essential experience except for that ubiquitous moment when race is used by the "powers that be" to authorize, essentialize, ostracize, oppress, condemn, and murder black, brown, and beige bodies. However, race, blackness, still has political necessity for unity among Negroes wanting to "band together against discrimination, to fight for parity, to safeguard against injustice inherently aimed at a person solely because of his or her skin color." Is the snake swallowing, or giving birth to, itself? Walking on Water is worth the journey. One should take this book on, if for nothing other than a reconsideration of how we imagine our American selves. Kenan's book extends the overtures of recent memoirs like Anthony Walton's exceptional Mississippi and Deborah McDowell's smashing Leaving Pipe Shop by transcending the desire for the only first person vocalization and the Southern definition of blackness. Kenan stands on the shoulders of these two as well as the heights of Albert Murray's magisterial South to a Very Old Place and Zora Neale Hurston's prerequisite Dust Tracks on a Road. There are whispers of Ellison and DuBois as well. The remarkable quality of Kenan's book is that it is utterly his own; it is stylized and rendered in his unmistakable voice, buoyed by the stories, suppositions, and clarity of the informants he includes. Another meaning articulated by zugunruhe is that a drive, an impulse, can never be quenched where identity is concerned. We are continuously trying to work out our preoccupations with race and culture and so, zugunruhe remains a part of our make-up. Walking on Water is a section of the trip worth revising.