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Walking on water written by Random House, 1999.


Walking on water written by Random House, 1999.


Walking on Water is an account of the thoughts, the feelings, the lives, of African Americans in the post-Civil Rights era of the nineties. Traversing the country over a period of six years, Randall Kenan talked to nearly two hundred African Americans, whose individual stories he has shaped into a continent-sized tapestry of black American life today. He starts his journey in the famous, long-standing black resort community on Martha's Vineyard, travels up through New England, and heads west, visiting Chicago, Minneapolis (home of the singer Prince and of the Pilgrim Baptist Church, with its seven choirs and vast outreach), Coeur d'Alene (skinhead capital of the world), Seattle, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. He moves on to the South, to Louisiana and St. Simons Island, where so many slave ships landed, and ends up at home in North Carolina, telling his own family's story.


The day I got lost on the University of Vermont campus on the way to church, I met Jack Guilles at the University of Diversity.

The university campus looks like the quintessence of an American land grant school, all red brick and malls, statues and tall steps leading to the halls of higher learning. That morning, already fifteen minutes late for church, I walked around the campus hoping to inquire as to the whereabouts of New Alpha. The few people I did encounter looked at me as if I were a Venusian--but were nice enough. They had no idea what I was talking about.

Then I spotted this mess on the mall. The university mall is a series of grassy lawns, descending, terrace by terrace, from the pillared main buildings. On the lowermost plain, off to the side, squatted these huddled tents and chairs and blankets and what appeared to be garbage--like a hobo camp in the midst of this ivory tower setting. I went to investigate and found a brochure tacked to a tree that read:

Diversity University

Statement of Purpose
When the "Waterman 22" took over the UVM president's office, many of us gathered together to support the occupation and the demands for a university free of racism. During the three weeks of the occupation, our support group developed into a democratic body: in nightly assemblies, we discussed ideas, planned strategies, and made decisions together. One decision was to expand and develop our educational and political ideas by building a shantytown on the UVM green and opening a free school, called Diversity University. We make no demands on UVM. By working in cooperation with the people of Burlington, ourfree school will do the work that UVM should have done long ago.

The liberal ideal of education divorced from politics is elitist, cynical, and inevitably corrupt. Education is political no matter what ideals we hold . . .

The manifesto went on to explain how UVM behaved more like a corporation than a place of "high ideals." The school refused to offer classes in "Native American History, Radical Sexuality, Visionary Art, and Gender Politics." The school engendered an atmosphere of "Do your work, don't ask questions." "DU has no president and no peons: it has as many teachers as students, as many bodies as heads." It ended:

We are not here just to educate ourselves. We are a cooperative part of the Burlington community, and we invite everyone to participate in our educational and political meetings. If there is something you want to learn or teach, then write it down and post it in Malcolm X Lounge, and you can arrange to work with others. Even if you don't have a clear plan, come and see what other people are offering: you might be amazed. If you have a contribution or question or disagreement with our school, then come and talk with us and join our nightly (7 p.m.) meeting. Diversity University is free and open to all.

I felt silly right off, not recognizing the place instantly as a shantytown, seeing as how students at Vassar and Sarah Lawrence where I had taught had done similar things. Political action seemed to be in the air on college campuses in 1991. I certainly wanted to talk to these students, but there were no signs of life and I was late, so I turned to go--and beheld this six-foot-one, thin but muscular blond man in green camouflage army fatigues and a T-shirt and great big black boots, stomping in my direction.

"Yo, homie, what's up?" He looked enormously happy to see me.

I gave a halfhearted smile, annoyed, yet again, to be addressed as what my friends in Washington describe as a "Yo": as if to be a youngish black man meant you spoke and identified with the slang of the street. Moreover, here I stood in my Sunday-go-to-meeting best, with my bright new tie of which I was particularly proud, my mind set churchward.

"You looking sharp, homie. Where you heading?"

That comment saved him from my wrath. I told him what I was searching for, and to my utter surprise, he told me how to find the church. I thanked him and prepared to leave--writing him off straightaway as a young liberal/radical/progressive wannabe who had no real knowledge of black folk, but who meant no harm.

"Yeah," he said, "I usually like to go, but I was out late last night. Got to hang with the folk. And I'm a Muslim anyway."

"Uh huh."

"I miss my brothers and sisters, man. I'm from the city."

"Oh, really."

"Yeah, man. I grew up in Brooklyn and shit."

"That's nice."

"Ain't many of us here, man."

He kept talking, but I had stopped listening, latching onto that word--"us" --with his unmistakably yellow hair and reddish white translucent skin and profoundly Teutonic features, he could have been a Viking.

I interrupted him, trying hard not to sound offended. "Waitwaitwait--What do you mean 'us'?"

Without a pause, he said, "I'm black, man."

"Oh, really? Do tell."

He told me his name was Jack Guilles. He had been born in Toronto and his parents had moved to New York when he was very young. He described his parents as "problems." He ran away from home when he was five and stayed with a friend in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, and his friend's parents allowed him to stay, and eventually made him their son. The family was black and also members of the Nation of Islam. Growing up in Brooklyn, according to Jack, looking as he did, was no cakewalk. He told me of being chased and of even being shot when he was seven, and that sometime around the age of twelve, the people in the "hood" just accepted him, "forgot," and treated him like a black person.

I must say, in all honesty, initially, I did not believe one word of this Americanized neo-Dickensian tale of reverse Oliver Twist-hood. Yet for the life of me I could not shake this feeling that he spoke the truth. And his body language--which, for lack of a better word, I can only describe as black--was strangely well executed, seemingly effortless, a part of him, and perhaps most important, he really sounded like a "black person," which is not to say that only his vocabulary and sentence structure were African American; no, the very marrow of the sound, the timbre, where the utterances emerged, how the color of the language married emotion and fluidity, had a depth of culture I had never encountered in one who looked like this man. If I had closed my eyes I would have sworn he was as dark as I.

My mystification turned to fascination, and I wound up spending a good deal of time with Jack. We had supper, and he showed me the town. On two nights he took me to the university radio station where he was working on a jazz demo tape--at the end of the summer he intended to move to Chicago to join his girlfriend (a black woman), who had just graduated from UVM, and his plan was to get a job as a disc jockey.

The more time I spent with Jack, the more I came to believe his unusual story, to believe that he was not trying to put one over on me. And, indeed, if he were, his acting alone was of the utmost skill and penetration, and his motivation, in and of itself, a profound curiosity. All of which, inevitably, led me to all sorts of questions about the nature of blackness.

Was Jack black?

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