Randall Kenan* drew the above title for his work from a haunting 1803 incident on an island off the Georgia coast. A group of chained prisoners, fresh off the boat from Africa, decided they didn’t care to be slaves. (The U.S. slave trade had been outlawed in 1798, but guess what? And aren’t we shocked?) The water had brought them to these shores, they said, so the water would take them back, and they walked together–chains and all–into the water at a place now called Ibo Crossing (Also spelled Ebo, et al, after the tribe to which they most likely belonged). The legend declares they did not sink, but continued across the sea and back home. The crossing is still said to be haunted, and there are those who will not drop hook or line in those waters.
The title is pivotal to the Kenan’s purpose–to find a unifying concept of black culture and identity by interviewing black people across the fruited plains and from sea to shining sea. His search turned out to be as simultaneously elusive and undeniable as the truth of what happened at Ibo Crossing. His conversations with hundreds of folk from Vermont to Saskatchewan to New Orleans to Atlanta and points in between and beyond reveal that, yes, there is a definite black experience or spirit in America, just as surely as those prisoners took to the stream. Whether his interviewees grew up in largely white environments with little or (in the case of just one interviewee who said (paraphrasing) nobody ever called her anything.) in places like the author’s home town of Chinquapin, NC, where whites were seldom seen during his boyhood, one and all talk about the need to see, talk to, pray with, bond with, and dance with with their racial kin. Still, the question of what gives rise to that call is as uncertain as to whether the bodies and/or spirits of the Ibo trekked over the seas or perished in the deep. Which might seem to suggest that the book is not worth reading since it never (as Kenan asserts in his introduction) achieves its goal. Au contraire. Why so? Glad you asked.
To someone like me, who spent a career trying to help develop educational institutions that respond to the needs of the many cultures of this society, it is instructive, if often discouraging, to find how universally my ilk and I have failed. Or succeeded. Berkeley was the first school district in the U.S. to voluntarily bus children to integrate (1968). They’re still doing it, and the results seem academically nil. White and many Asian (some Southeast Asian groups are exceptions) succeed. Blacks and Hispanics, as a whole, don’t. There are hundreds of success stories, and most people feel good about the process, but statistically, Berkeley’s not doing a whole lot better than the rest of the country, and there’s no clear proof that any gains are due to integration.
Integration is a big subject in Walking on Water. It’s a paradox. Integration and affirmative action have enabled blacks to rise to apparent power in the White House, the judiciary, the bar, operating rooms, and classrooms across the country. But many of Kenan’s subjects see a loss in quality of community life as the best and brightest move up and away and lose touch with their past. When I first started teaching, it was common knowledge that black students from the south (this was high school, 1964, so many of high school age had attended segregated elementary and jr. high schools) knew their fundamentals better than most of our California-raised students. Black colleagues asserted that the best brains in the black south were in the classrooms and pulpits, being denied entry into such places as law schools, medical schools. That, and the general loss of respect for institutions and those that represent them, has certainly assured that when schools go bad, black students get the worst.
I could go on and on, and already have. I’ll close with a story from my own little Kenan-like exploration of the subject. During his sojourn in (Pre-Katrina) New Orleans, Kenan asks many folks about the meaning of “Creole.“ I asked a Black Baton Rouge friend of mine from church the same question. He answered–as Kenan himself concluded–that it is a mixture of black, French, black, French-black, white and bunch of other stuff, including food and religion. We also talked a bit about the caste system among colored people in New Orleans, whose racial history is probably more complicated than any other city in the America because it included such a large population of free (if not fully empowered) property-and-even-slave-owning African-Americans. The darker you were (and still in some places are) the lower you were (are.) My friend described the “paper bag test,” which decreed that you were ineligible to attend certain events if your skin were darker than a paper bag. Another Georgian who had been listening to our conversation declared that there was also a “blue-blood test.” You were among the higher echelons if you could see the color of the blood coursing through the veins on the back of your hand.
Randall Kenan may have failed in his quest for a definition of black culture in America, but he succeeded in giving all of us a definitive look at black experience in America at the turn of the millennium. The interviews and his masterful arrangement of them are part of it, but so are his trenchant comments and personal perspective. I’m grateful for this book and don’t believe you can consider yourself educated in American culture without it.
*I found out about Walking on Water during a short lunchtime conversation I had with Randall at Sewanee. He’s also the author of
A Visitation of Spirits was published by Grove Press in 1989. A collection of short stories, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, both excellent. He’s also a first class teacher and reader.