Author, 18, from Williamsburg examines race through his family's eyes in book

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

Canaan Kennedy just wants to change the world.

He says it casually, as if the conviction is common. That's the kind of drive Kennedy has, the drive he's always known. His grandfather co-founded an international nonprofit. His grandmother is an award-winning playwright. His father is a writer, producer and publisher.

But as a biracial 18-year-old, Kennedy is still finding his place in the world he seeks to change.

The Williamsburg native recently wrote and self-published a book, "Struggles to Victory," examining racism in America through the experiences of his father, grandmother and grandfather as African Americans. Kennedy combines biography, interviews and commentary to share his family's stories.

"The goal of the book is to show people their stories of how they overcame racism, overcame difficulty, hardship and found a way to achieve their dreams," said Kennedy, a graduate of Jamestown High School.

"For every struggle, there's more victories," he said.

Kennedy first recounts the story of his father. In 1991, Adam Kennedy was unlawfully beaten and arrested by a police officer in the driveway of his own home in Arlington, Va., in a situation escalating inexplicably from a broken taillight. Adam would be acquitted of the charges, win a civil suit against the county and eventually co-write an award-winning play about the experience, "Sleep Deprivation Chamber."

Next, the book details his grandmother Adrienne Kennedy's story, from her time as one of 13 African Americans in a dorm of 600 girls at Ohio State University, to her celebrated career as a playwright, including writing "Funnyhouse of a Negro." The play was the first of three in her career to win an Obie Award, also known as an Off-Broadway Theater Award.

Kennedy's grandfather, Dr. Joseph Kennedy, would become Peace Corps' Director for the East Asia and Pacific Region, the first black person to occupy the directorship, as Joseph states in an interview in the book. He co-founded Africare, a nonprofit dedicated to African development, that has raised nearly $2 billion since the 1970s.

"The goal was to understand my family's story, so that I can better navigate my life," Kennedy said. "Learning from what they've done, their successes, their failures, their struggles."

Kennedy began writing the book in 2014. With events in the news surrounding Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the Black Lives Matter movement, he thought it was time to share his family's story. Maybe it could help others navigate life, too, he hoped.

Kennedy described struggling with mixed-race identity growing up, as his mother Renee is white.

"I have very light skin. I have blue eyes," Kennedy said. "Most people thought I was white."

"It's always been interesting just trying to figure out who I am," he said. "Sometimes it gets to you, and you doubt."

He described the book as validation, tribute to his family and African-American heritage.

Brigham Lampert taught Kennedy in AP Literature at Jamestown High School. He noticed the student's drive, as well as Kennedy's interest in his family's history.

"It's definitely something that he's passionate about, that he cares very deeply about," Lampert said. "That's the first step to making a difference in any field, is caring about it in the first place."

Following its completion, Kennedy distributed the book. He heard back from Henry Louis Gates Jr., historian, scholar and professor of African American Studies at Harvard University. The quote from Gates, found on the book's front cover, reads: "What an impressive beginning from such a young writer."

Majoring in both English and African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, Kennedy hopes to pursue a master's and doctorate degrees. He mentioned working toward becoming either a professor or an ambassador.

He's not sure just how he'll make his mark on the world. But Kennedy follows the footsteps of those who came before him.

"This first book is, well, it's first steps," he said.

For more information, visit strugglestovictory.com. A digital edition of the book is available for $9.

Bridges can be reached at 757-275-4934.

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