Essays and Criticism
Critical Essay on Juneteenth
In Juneteenth, Ralph Ellison tells the story of a young, white orphan, Bliss, who is taken in and adopted by a black musician, Alonzo Hickman. Although completely white in appearance and blood, Bliss developed an incredible understanding of black culture and religion. In fact, he had such a keen knowledge of scripture that it becomes apparent to Hickman that Bliss had a prodigious ability for preaching the Word. Hickman became righteously devoted to cultivating Bliss’s abilities because he saw in Bliss the qualities of a savior, not only for individuals but also for America. Unfortunately, Hickman’s focus on Bliss’s religious development blinded him to a wholly necessary development of his son’s being: his physical, flesh side. It was apparent that Bliss had a strong inclination for the spirit and, thus, an ability to be the “the tie that binds” blacks and whites, unifying America through the Word and the light of goodness. However, given such blind one-sidedness, without proper attention given to his duality as a flesh-and-bone human being, it became inevitable that Bliss was doomed to fall victim to himself. Through being denied access to tactile things, e.g., playing with friends, attending movies, flirting with girls, Bliss was forced to revolt against Hickman and his black upbringing in order to pay needed attention to his physical side. He ran from his adoptive father’s parish to pursue filmmaking, sleep with women, make millions and...
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The Structure of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth
A close reading of Juneteenth reveals that the novel is anything but the “Frankenstein monster” which [Louis] Menand described and much more than the loosely connected fragments which several other reviewers perceived. But the book’s principle of organization, like the structure of Invisible Man which early reviewers and critics were also unable to see, is not apparent on a first or second reading because it is inspired by musical techniques rather than conventional narrative plotting. The structural “patterns” of Juneteenth which are used to give shape and meaning to the “raw experience” which Ellison struggled for over forty years to refine, are, like those of an impressionistic symphony or a jazz composition, based upon free rhythms and loose repetition rather than a mechanical plan or linear plot.
The most important structural device employed in Juneteenth is the careful placement of three key scenes, the assassination of Senator Sunraider at the beginning of the novel, the Juneteenth celebration at the center of the book, and Hickman’s meditations at the Lincoln Memorial toward the end of the narrative. Each of these scenes takes place in a setting of great national and cultural importance and, as they resonate against each other like the movements of a symphony or the parts of a jazz performance, they not only give the book a loose but discernible overall shape, but they also allow Ellison to...
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Ralph Ellison and the American Canon
The point I am making—and I cannot stress it strongly enough—is that for Ellison, the Negro represents the return of the repressed in the American psyche:
The Founding Fathers committed the sin of American racial pride . . . In failing the test of what was after to be termed the American dilemma, they prepared the way for the evils that Jefferson had hoped to pile upon the royal head of England’s king, and loaded them upon the black backs of anonymous American slaves. Worse, these Americans were designated as perfect victims for sacrifice, and were placed beyond any possibility of democratic redemption . . . Indeed they were thrust beneath the threshold of social hierarchy and expected to stay there.
To further justify this act of pride and failure of nerve, myths of racial superiority and inferiority were evoked, and endless sacrificial rites of moral evasion were set in motion.
Thus the artist has the moral burden of helping America confront its repressed self-contradiction, and the surreal dream worlds of Ellison’s novels create the symbolic space in which repressed guilt and unfulfilled desire take visible form. Ellison’s craft adapts the techniques of high modernism to the moral imperative of an integrated American consciousness, because that integrated consciousness is mandated by the articulation on which democracy depends. Ellison’s work over the last 50 years, as The...
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