If I Had Two Wings
I didn’t know what I was doing. I had quit practicing law to become a writer. In typical lawyerly fashion, I formulated a “private MFA” where I would take 2 years and teach myself to write. I didn’t want to get an actual MFA because I figured, as a lawyer who had been the office’s managing partner, I would be a terrible student, too arrogant. But writers I admired advised me to take courses at a local university as part of my jerry-rigged program, and lo and behold, one of my favorite authors was teaching a course at the MFA program at University of Memphis.
How did I become familiar with this author? Square Books in Oxford had a bookcase on the 2nd floor devoted to African American works. I always sought out these sections whenever I visited a bookstore. Cubbyholes, usually, of jewels like the cave in the Count of Monte Cristo: small but containing extraordinary value.
I found his book there.
Walking on Water was a memoir/travel book of criss-crossing the United States asking, what does it mean to be Black in America? The book was nominated for the Southern Book Award.
So, you see, I met him as a nonfiction writer, so when I saw he would be teaching Literary Journalism that semester at the U of M, I knew I had to take the course. Even if the course description sounded like the WORST thing ever. Literary Journalism? What did that even mean? Yet…at that period in my life I understood I had what I called “spiritual dyslexia”: if my gut told me to RUN AWAY, it meant this new thing ought to be in my life.
I took the course.
I fell in love with Literary Journalism.
And my admiration of Randall Kenan was cemented.
He was kind to everyone in class. He was particularly kind to me, who was only auditing his course. Randall supported my work like a life raft when it threatened to sink among the MFA students. My first submission, he teased out of the class what I might be trying to accomplish with the essay. He shepherded the discussion of my work into a place where it shone. I was an uncertain, uncredentialed outsider, and he treated me like a writer.
Anytime after that when our paths crossed, including at Sewanee Writers’ Conference, he smiled to see me. The last time we talked, he was teaching in Chapel Hill where he had gone to undergraduate school and I had gone to law school. He was a Tar Heel; his most recent article is “Letter from North Carolina: Learning from Ghosts of the Civil War in which he ruminates on the toppling of Confederate statues at the oldest public university in the country. He was living in Hillsborough, right outside Chapel Hill. “The other side of the tracks,” he called it, and I told him I’d had a deja vu experience in Hillsborough, crossing time zones to be recognized at a church where I myself swore I had been before, but my partner said no–an altogether different story.
When I saw he had a new collection coming out, I was thrilled. When I saw he had passed, I burst into tears.
Soon, his latest collection, If I Had Two Wings, will arrive in the mail.
The writing world knows Randall as a fiction writer; that is where his many accolades and prestigious awards reside. I always seem to be out of step, and this is no exception. But I’ve read all his fiction; how you meet someone isn’t necessarily where you must stay with them.
One thing I do hold in common with others. His students universally loved him. As did I.