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When the Utopian Impulse “Fails”: Queer Spatialities of Traumatic Cultural Memory in Randall Kenan’s “A Visitation of Spirits”

Pekka Kilpeläinen

Pages 299 - 323



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Adopting a Utopian Studies perspective, this essay maps the ways in which the cultural memory of slavery underlies the conflicts and their attempted negotiations in Randall Kenan’s "A Visitation of Spirits" (1989). The central dilemma in the novel is the irredeemable divide between same-sex desire and patriarchal heteronormativity, the roots of which reside in the demeaning definitions of African American sexuality established during slavery, perpetuated in its aftermaths, and transmitted through generations via cultural memory. This problematic position is what Horace, an African American teenager, struggles with in his Black southern community. This conflict is understood as an ideological closure that the narrative seeks to open up and resolve by generating a Queer utopian impulse, a desire to imagine alternative futures to the oppressive status quo. This becomes visible particularly in terms of spatiality, as Horace revisits the central places of his life, where the heteronormativity of the community and the underlying traumatic cultural memory of slavery intertwine with Horace’s personal memories and same-sex desire. While the novel envisions the ways in which Horace’s Queer presence disrupts the heteronormative order and seeks to assert agency, his tragic demise facilitates a consideration of the limits of oppressive social and cultural structures and of the possibility of envisioning alternatives to the status quo. The utopian impulse offers merely fleeting glimpses of the horizon of alternative futures through moments of resistance and belonging that fail to make a lasting impact. Despite this failure within the world of the novel, the text becomes a significant literary intervention that has played a role in calling attention to the problems faced by nonnormative sexualities and underlying the rise of Black Queer Studies.

Keywords: African American literature; Utopian Studies; Black Queer Studies; cultural memory; Randall Kenan

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