Randall Kenan

A Time Not Here

With photographs by Norman Mauskopf and an essay by Randall Kenan (Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 1996)

On a slim, black cover floats a young boy’s face; on the spine, the title; on the back, authors’ names. Nothing more. This format proclaims primary loyalty to the photographs inside: more than fifty images of late-twentieth-century African-American life in the Mississippi Delta, bled to the margins of each page. No captions are offered, no explanatory text other than novelist Randall Kenan’s closing essay. But the images accrete, readable as a narrative – or not – and so richly textured that the shadows seem glutinous, the water truly wet, the air humming with the actual noise of a Mississippi night. Three figures stand in river water to their waists: a child robed in white, two preachers robed in black. Hand-lettered signs plead “Jesus Come In My Heart Today Come In To Stay.” A cow skeleton sinks into the mud of a cotton field as night comes on. Kenan’s essay is a nimble, moving meditation that nods to the photographs without circumscribing them: “A boy watches fire,” begins Kenan, “what does he see?”

 is one of a very few books of photography that truly captures the Delta as I, and other Southerners, know it: a place where the night is darker and the heat hotter than anywhere else on earth, where something dangerous and arresting is always happening at the end of that dirt road, behind that church or that deserted storefront, just barely visible from the corner of your eye. You can keep driving past. Or you can choose to look. Just as you keep looking into the boy’s face on the cover, which stares back with an expression mingling weariness, curiosity, openness, wariness, and everything in between.

Amy Weldon, an Alabama native, teaches English at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.