Study Guide

Juneteenth

by Ralph Ellison

Juneteenth Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth opens with the attempted assassination of Sunraider, a race-baiting, southern senator, on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Alonzo Hickman, an African American minister, has brought his congregation to Washington, D.C., to stop the assassination, claiming that he and his church members know Sunraider and know that he is in danger. No one pays Hickman or his parishioners any heed, until the gravely wounded senator is taken to the hospital and requests that Hickman be allowed to come to his hospital room. There, Hickman and the senator work together to reconstruct their past. Through their recollections, readers can piece together the events of their story.

The novel’s narrative present takes place at the Senator’s bedside, where Sunraider and Hickman renew and reexamine not only their long-lapsed friendship but also their kinship. However, their dialogue recalling the past, which sometimes morphs into Sunraider’s semiconscious reveries and near-death hallucinations, is the essence of the novel. Through this narrative, Ellison explores the problems of race in America not only in the present but also in the context of the characters’ history together.

Sunraider grew up as Alonzo Hickman’s adopted son. The progeny of a white woman and an unknown father, Sunraider was delivered and adopted by Hickman. Sunraider’s mother claimed that Hickman’s brother Robert had raped her, thereby fathering her child, and only after he was lynched for his alleged crime did she come to Hickman for help. Admitting that Hickman’s brother was innocent and that she had randomly chosen him to explain her pregnancy, she asked Hickman to deliver her baby and raise him. Only Hickman, she explained, had the compassion to care for a fatherless, presumably multiracial child.

When the child’s mother came to him, Hickman was a jazz trombone player, and he did not follow church traditions as his brother had. Though at first he wished only to kill the woman who brought death and destruction to his family, he soon assumed the responsibility for not only bringing the child out of his mother’s womb but also raising him to adulthood. In order to do so, he first had to vanquish his own anger, which he did by becoming a minister, calling himself God’s Trombone. He named his adopted son Bliss, “because that’s what they say ignorance is.” Bliss became an important part of Hickman’s sermons, often participating in the call-and-response preaching that Hickman performed. Hickman had Bliss dress in a white suit and...

(The entire section is 1044 words.)

Juneteenth Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Reverend Alonzo Hickman and members from his congregation descend on Washington, D.C., to confront Senator Adam Sunraider, who has made a name for himself with his race-baiting speeches. The congregation believes it can “save” Sunraider from himself, since he, as a boy named Bliss, once belonged to their church. Unbeknownst to them, Sunraider’s racist rants are part of his plan to spur passive blacks into revolutionary action. The church members attend a session of Congress to hear one of the senator’s racist speeches.

The congregation’s plans to redeem Sunraider are foiled when he is shot by one of its members, an angry young boy named Severen. As Sunraider lies on the Senate floor, he begins to remember his life. He continues his reveries as he is taken to the hospital, and Hickman interrupts and corrects some of Sunraider’s recollections. In the hospital, Hickman sits at the bedside of the fatally wounded senator. Delirious, hallucinating, the senator offers up a mea culpa and “confession” but, at the same time, castigates Hickman for his role in Sunraider’s fate. Sunraider passes out but while unconscious flashes back to his childhood as Bliss, when he knew Hickman as Daddy Hickman.

Daddy Hickman promises Bliss ice cream if he will climb into a wooden coffin. Hickman, a preacher, has decided that the only way to unite the black and white races in America is to put on a “revival” show featuring a young white boy, Bliss, rising from the coffin as a new Christ. Bliss is a typical young boy; he is afraid of the darkness of the closed coffin. Hickman tells him he can take his Easter bunny into the casket with him, but Bliss will enter only if he can bring his teddy bear with him because, he says, “bears ain’t afraid of the dark.”

Sunraider continues to relive his childhood at random, recalling events in no particular order. As Bliss, he stands up to a group of African American bullies by beating them at a game of the dozens and hitting one of the boys in the forehead with a stone (recalling David’s battle with Goliath). The most traumatic and significant event of Bliss’s childhood, the one that drives him away from Hickman and his congregation, occurs at one of the revival shows: As Bliss is rising from the coffin on cue, a red-haired woman from...

(The entire section is 946 words.)

Juneteenth Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ellison began work on his second novel in 1954, but a house fire in November, 1967, destroyed much of his manuscript. It was an event about which he was particularly tight-lipped until 1994, when he publicly discussed the loss of his manuscript with David Remnick: “There was, of course, a traumatic event involved with the book. We lost a summer house and, with it, a good part of the novel. It wasn’t the entire manuscript, but it was over three hundred and sixty pages. There was no copy.” Ellison spent thirty years re-creating and polishing his manuscript, unable to finalize it before his death in April, 1994. Although the book was originally intended to be published as a trilogy, John Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor, sifted through Ellison’s papers to find the one self-contained narrative that stood alone best. He edited it into Juneteenth.

In the book, Adam Sunraider, a U.S. senator in the 1950’s who claims the only black person he knows “is the boy who shines shoes at his golf club,” was once called Bliss and raised by a southern black minister. As a boy he is a preaching prodigy in the Reverend Hickman’s traveling ministry, but he runs away in search of his identity. While Hickman keeps in touch with Bliss’s life during the years of separation, the senator successfully suppresses his childhood memories of his southern black community. Bliss brings scandal to the Senate floor when, upon receiving a near-fatal shot by a...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

Juneteenth Extended Summary

Chapters 1–3
The novel opens with Reverend Hickman and the members of his parish attempting to see the racist Senator Adam Sunraider. They are denied entry to the senator’s office and, eventually, they are thrown out of the lobby by Sunraider’s security. The parish moves on to Senate’s Visitors’ Gallery to watch Sunraider in action. He is giving a riveting speech about black Americans. It is a racist monologue, even containing the demeaning phrase “Coon Cage Eight”— a Cadillac full of “eight or more of our darker brethren crowded together enjoying its beauty, its neo-pagan comfort, while weaving reckless through the streets.” While giving his speech the senator is having hallucinatory visions of the emblematic eagle from Great Seal. Alas, as Hickman and his parish watch on from the Visitors’ Gallery, an unnamed black man rises up and shoots Sunraider several times. Fleeing the pursuit of security, the assassin falls to his death from the Visitors’ Gallery down to the Senate floor. Hickman is distraught. His only son, the adopted white Sunraider, has somehow transformed himself into racist and, now, he has been mortally wounded right before his eyes.

Chapter 4
The unnamed assassin found his mark, but Sunraider is holding on to the last strings of life in a hospital bed. After falling from the assassin’s bullets, Sunraider began calling for his adoptive father, Reverend Hickman. From his deathbed, Sunraider, with the help of Hickman, begins a lengthy series of flashbacks and recollections to his past. Before becoming a racist senator, Sunraider was a young, white preacher named Bliss Hickman, raised by a parish of kind, religious black Americans. Bliss is a young boy with a remarkable skill for preaching. Sometimes his skill made him the envy of others. On one such occasion, a young black boy was taunting Bliss about being a preacher. The boy teased Bliss and eventually Bliss hit the boy with a rock. Bliss is an important aspect to Reverend Hickman’s revivals. He lies in a coffin and eventually rises up representing the resurrection and the life. Bliss moves the parishioners. He is a great preacher, even at his tender young age.

Chapters 5–7
In the hospital Sunraider again flashes back to his early years, remembering his first love and his years as an unsuccessful filmmaker. A young woman named Laly is accompanying Bliss on a picnic under a tree out in a field. Bliss calls Laly a “Teasing Brown” and she calls him “Mr. Movie- Man.” The two enjoy an enormous picnic of sandwiches, fried chicken, Texas hots, boiled eggs, cake and tea with lemon and mint. The two are in love and eventually have sex underneath the tree.

Bliss also recollects his unsuccessful attempts at filmmaking with his partners Lester Donelson and Karp. They have a run-in with unfriendly townspeople, who beat them and pour whiskey on their heads, and forgetful Donelson ruins a remarkable scene when he forgets to load film in the camera.

Senator Sunraider wakes up in the hospital and is pleasantly surprised that Reverend Hickman is still by his side. The unlikely father and son team discuss the past and, eventually, Hickman convinces Sunraider to preach to him. Hickman continues their discussion, redirecting it through his recollections about their teamwork at the revivals. Hickman is using his time by the senator’s side to re-educate his son about the struggles of black Americans. The Reverend talks about the history of Juneteenth and how it was not the first, nor the last, step of the black American on his road towards freedom.

Chapters 8–10
Hickman and Sunraider recount a crucial revival in which a deranged white woman, Miss Lorelli, storms through the meeting, claiming that Bliss is her son. She grabs the young white preacher and tries to kidnap him. The women of the parish attack her and try to wrestle Bliss from the crazed woman. The church is in an uproar. Eventually, Sister Bearmasher grabs Miss Lorelli by her hair and drags her out to her carriage. Hickman and Bearmasher take Lorelli to jail, where, subsequently, they are incarcerated for being black.

Knowing that Hickman may meet opposition at...

(The entire section is 1713 words.)