Pre-Civil Rights Movement America and the Emancipation Proclamation
The title of this novel is pulled from a moment in history known as Juneteenth. The term refers to June 19, 1865. Although Abraham Lincoln gave the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, it took nearly two and a half years for the news to spread. On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War had ended and, along with it, slavery. The enslaved were elated. Many moved north as it symbolized freedom. Others left for the deeper South to try and find relatives and family members. Still others stayed to see what type of employeremployee relationship would develop out of slavery. Much is unknown as to why there was a two-and-a-half year delay in delivering the news of freedom to the slaves in Texas. One story that is often told is that the messenger delivering news of freedom was murdered on his way to Texas. Another is that the plantation and slave owners deliberately withheld the news in order to maintain the labor force. Lastly, it is speculated that federal troops waited for one last cotton harvest to financially benefit the slave owners. Of course, none of these speculations has been proven true. Regardless, what is known is that Texas retained the status quo, enslaving blacks for two years beyond what was lawful.
Although Ellison’s book does not take place during this historical time, the term Juneteenth...
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Sources for Further Study (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
The Atlantic Monthly 284 (July, 1999): 89.
Booklist 95 (March 1, 1999): 1103.
Essence 30 (August, 1999): 66.
Fortune 140 (July 5, 1999): 52.
Library Journal 124 (May 1, 1999): 109.
The Nation 268 (June 14, 1999): 36.
National Review 51 (June 14, 1999): 49.
The New Republic 220 (June 28, 1999): 38.
The New York Review of Books 46 (August 12, 1999): 16.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (June 20, 1999): 4.
The New York Times Magazine, May 23, 1999, p. 50.
Publishers Weekly 246 (March 22, 1999): 68.
Time 153 (June 28, 1999): 66.
Yale Review 87 (October, 1999): 145.
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Through the use of contrasting images, e.g., light and darkness, and emotions, e.g., bliss and fear, Ellison underscores the impact race has on the characters in the South prior to the Civil Rights movement. In one scene, parishioners are engrossed in the power and vitality of salvation and the Word, and then they are suddenly wrought with fear regarding the backlash they will endure from having to wrestle a deranged, white woman out of their revival. Juxtaposing these feelings and images allows Ellison to reveal the heart of race relations in the South. He is able to exemplify the intelligence, integrity and devotion of black Americans in opposition to the oppression and racism imposed on them during this time in history.
Figurative language is a technique imposed by Ellison in Juneteenth to interrupt the order of his storytelling. The novel is composed of the linear story of Bliss, Hickman and Sunraider. However, the literal use of language to explain their history is broken up by dreams and memories that are brought to life through hyperboles, similes and ironic visual constructs. For example, when Sunraider is giving his speech before the Senate, he is hallucinating that the eagle from the Great Seal is attacking him, flapping its wings in front of his face, clutching the olive branch and the arrow. The bird is staring deep into the speaking senator’s eyes. All the while, Sunraider...
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Early in his career, Ellison learned the importance of detailed physical descriptions, especially those employing multiple sensory impressions. Thus, Reverend Hickman and his followers come alive in Ellison's description of their encounter with the Capitol guards, and their symbolic role is clear when they assemble to pray at the Lincoln Memorial. Bliss's conversation with his peers shows the growing conflict between his role as the boy-preacher and his desire to be simply an average young boy. The awakening of puberty is vividly portrayed in the episode in which the preadolescent Bliss timidly approaches the sleeping Sister Georgia and carefully lifts her nightgown. Similar wonder and longing are evident as Bliss remembers his first experiences at the movies. Later, Ellison reveals the change in his personality by describing his impressions as he revels in the physical beauty of both the Oklahoma countryside and Miss Teasing Brown.
In fact, Juneteenth is rich in sensory detail. For example, Sunraider's consciousness is filled with the details of his assassination, from the explosion of the chandelier overhead to his confused movements as he struggles to get out of the bullets' range. He also recalls every detail of his fear and impatience while he was enclosed in the white coffin and while the redheaded woman and the deaconesses were struggling over him. Likewise, Hickman remembers every thought and action of the night Bliss was born; and, as they...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
John F. Callahan, Ralph Ellison's literary executor and the editor of this novel, quotes Ellison's 1969 description of Juneteenth as his "novel-in-progress (very long in progress)." Apparently the planning stages of this novel date from June of 1951, but it remained unfinished at his death in 1994, though parts of it had been published in magazines. New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani observes that this novel "has assumed the status of a literary myth." Ellison clearly intended to publish this novel, but perhaps—as Callahan suggests—doing "his duty on national boards and commissions" interfered with the process of writing and editing this novel. Readers may want to consider what other factors may help to explain the long delay in publication.
At Mrs. Ellison's insistence, Callahan agreed to edit and publish Juneteenth posthumously, but his work has been severely criticized. For example, Kakutani says, "Instead of the symphonic work Ellison envisioned, Callahan has given us a single, tentatively rendered melodic line. Instead of a vast modernist epic about the black experience in American, he has given us a flawed linear novel, focused around one man's emotional and political evolution." Obviously an editor always influences a writer's work, but the effect of posthumous editing is more controversial. Readers may profitably compare Juneteenth with Ellison's earlier fiction and consider how he might have edited the...
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In Juneteenth, as in most of Ralph Ellison's fiction, the dominant social concerns involve race: racial attitudes, racial tension, and racial identity. Ellison dedicated the novel "To That Vanished Tribe into Which I Was Born: The American Negroes," represented in this novel by Reverend A. Z. Hickman and the forty-three other elderly black men and women who accompany him on his mission to "save" the man who has become their most outspoken political enemy. Hickman is introduced to Senator Adam Sunraider's secretary as "God's Trombone" and to the reader as "a huge, distinguished- looking old fellow who on the day of the chaotic event was to prove himself, his age notwithstanding, an extraordinarily powerful man."
Nevertheless, the respect Hickman's followers and the novel's readers feel for him is not shared by the white Washingtonians the group encounters. The Senator's secretary dismisses their visit as unimportant; the Capitol guards treat them roughly and contemptuously, searching them for no reason; the hotel staff turn them away from the Senator's secret suite; and even the editors of the opposition newspaper have no time to listen to their message. In short, while the extreme rhetoric of Adam Sunraider has become an embarrassment to his party and his constituents, the white Establishment shares his basic attitude of contempt for people he has come to regard as weak and insignificant.
Ellison clearly demonstrates that this lack of...
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Compare and Contrast
1930s–1940s: Benjamin Davis Sr. becomes the first black general in the United States Army in American history.
Today: African Americans hold important positions in Congress and all divisions of the armed forces. Colin Powell, an African American, held the prestigious position of Secretary of State under the first term of the George W. Bush presidency.
1930s–1940s: Jackie Robinson becomes the first black to play Major League Baseball. Today: Players of all ethnicities, races and nationalities play throughout the United States in Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, National Football League and the National Hockey League.
1930s–1940s: Franklin Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act and the Wealth Tax Act is passed, helping alleviate the unjust concentration of wealth and power.
Today: The United States is enduring a struggling economy. In the last quarter of 2003 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports nearly 8.8 million people are unemployed. By October 2004 there are still about 8.2 million people without work.
1930s–1940s: The apartheid program is established in South Africa. Racial discrimination is institutionalized in laws that marginalize black Africans, often defining specific areas where they can live and work. Many black Africans are relocated several times to various locations determined by a prejudiced government.
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Topics for Further Study
Ellison’s characters express their feelings through speeches and sermons, both political and religious. Describe at least two speeches or sermons, whether they be famous or personal, that have affected your life. Examine the impact and message of these speeches. Are they of a religious or political nature? Both? Neither? Who are the people addressing you and how do you relate to them and their place in time and history? Write a short essay summarizing the speeches and examining these questions.
Bliss Hickman and Adam Sunraider are effectively the same individual. However, they are polar opposites with regards to their beliefs, understandings and perceptions of race, culture, religion, and politics. This type of juxtaposition is popular in fiction. Try to come up with other characters that share the polarity of Reverend Bliss and Senator Sunraider and compare their differences. What makes the characters change? What are the different personalities of the different characters? To get you started, it may be helpful to think about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Juneteenth as it is published is only a fragment of the work that Ellison put into developing his second novel. Select two to four aspects from Juneteenth that you feel were left underdeveloped and write a short passage that would help to clarify or further explicate the character, scene, setting, or theme that left you unfulfilled and wondering.
Music is an important factor...
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Probably because Christianity is central to this novel, Ellison drew upon Biblical stories. For example, the relationship between Hickman and Bliss seems to reflect that of Abraham and Isaac. Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son to do God's will, so Hickman symbolically sacrifices his foster son each time he places the boy in his white coffin. Moreover, there is a parallel between Bliss and Samuel, the Old Testament judge. Hickman sees Bliss as a similar gift from God but also a child dedicated to God's service.
Certainly the career of Bliss/Sunraider appears to be an inversion of the New Testament account of St. Paul. In contrast to the former persecutor who became an apostle and a major force in early Christian evangelism, Bliss is the preacher turned apostate, a prime example of the destructive force of selfishness, vanity, and the thirst for personal power. Other important New Testament themes are death to sin and rebirth in righteousness—as enacted in Bliss's white coffin—and the echoes of the Sermon on the Mount in Hickman's use of Christ's injunction to "Suffer the little children to come unto me." In fact, Hickman's entire plan for Bliss's life seems to be based upon the idea that this young boy can become a kind of Christ-figure who will help adult society to turn away from racial bias and become as accepting as little children. Ironically, though, the death of Sunraider will be in no way sacrificial or redemptive.
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Callahan has observed that Ellison began thinking about this novel as he was finishing Invisible Man. Juneteenth seems intended to expand some of the themes and comment upon some of the issues explored in the earlier novel and in his short stories. Perhaps part of Ellison's difficulty in completing his second novel lay in the task he had set for himself: to explore the roots of America's racial tensions and, through understanding, to suggest hope that this nation might one day live up to its democratic ideals.
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Segments of an interview conducted by Elizabeth Farnsworth with Ralph Ellison in the 1960s, followed by an interview in 2000 with John Callahan, the editor of Juneteenth and Ralph Ellison’s literary executor, is available at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/ jan-june99/ellison_6-21.html (accessed November 24, 2004) and maintained by The Public Broadcasting Service Web site.
An interview from 1977 is available at http:// www.nytimes.com/books/99/06/20/specials/ellison- conversation.html and is conducted at Ellison’s home by Ishmael Reed, a novelist and poet.
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What Do I Read Next?
Invisible Man (1952) is Ralph Ellison’s first novel. It is about a nameless black man traveling through the perils of American racism and cultural blindness.
The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (2003) contains some of the greatest essays, criticisms and interviews, both published and formerly unpublished, from one of the most cogent and vital voices in American race commentary and examination, Ralph Ellison.
Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings was published as a collection in 2002. Before ever becoming a renowned writer and scholar, Ellison was an accomplished trumpeter. This collection is full of great meditations on jazz classics and profiles of famous jazz musicians. It also offers a window into the lives and culture of black Americans.
Flying Home and Other Stories (1998) is a collection of thirteen previously unpublished works of short fiction that depict Ralph Ellison’s interesting development as a writer.
Beloved, by Toni Morrison, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. The novel traces the life of a slave woman, Sethe, who decides to kill her infant daughter rather than allow her to be enslaved. The novels explores the atrocities of slavery and the deep struggles of a woman entrapped by a lifetime of unbelievable pain.
Native Son (1940), by Richard Wright, is a powerful novel set in the 1930s about the hopelessness and destitution of black...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Callahan, John. Introduction to Juneteenth, by Ralph Ellison. New York: Vintage, 1999. Provides a comprehensive discussion of both the basic themes of the novel and the process of working with the Ellison manuscripts.
Callahan, John. “’Some Cord of Kinship Stronger and Deeper than Blood’: An Interview with John F. Callahan, Editor of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth.” Interview by Christopher C. De Santis. African American Review 34 (2000): 601-620. Callahan discusses his long friendship with Ellison, his work with the manuscript, and the themes of the novel.
Engerman, Thomas S. “Invisible Man and Juneteenth: Ralph Ellison’s Literary Pursuit of Racial Justice.” In Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to “Invisible Man,” edited by Lucas E. Morel. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004. Morel’s book, a collection of essays, is an important look at the political context of Ellison’s Invisible Man. Engerman’s article ties together the politics of Juneteenth and Invisible Man.
Johnson, Loretta. “History in Ellison’s Juneteenth.” Studies in American Fiction 32, no. 1 (Spring, 2004): 81-99. Looks at the African American oral tradition and the way in which it conveys history, particularly as...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Ellison, Ralph, Juneteenth, Vintage, 2000, pp. 23, 38, 112, 131, 143, 162, 223, 307, 311.
King, Richard A., “The Uncreated Conscience of My Race/The Uncreated Features of His Face: The Strange Career of Ralph Ellison,” in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 34, Pt. 2, August 2000, pp. 306–07.
Nadel, Alan, “Ralph Ellison and the American Canon,” in American Literary History, Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer 2001, p. 402.
Burke, Bob, and Denyvetta Davis, Ralph Ellison: A Biography, Oklahoma Heritage Association, 2003. This biography spans the entirety of Ellison’s life, most notably chronicling his experiences with segregation in his hometown of Oklahoma City.
Eichelberger, Julia, Prophets of Recognition: Ideology and the Individual in Novels by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, and Eudora Welty, Louisiana State University Press, 1999. This book explores the treatment of the individual in relation to society through the four of America’s greatest literary giants. Questioning more than just race, the novels of Ellison, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow and Eudora Welty explore ethnicity, gender, class, and religion during the most volatile years of American history.
Ellison, Ralph, Albert Murray, and John F. Callahan, Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, Vintage Books USA, 2001. This collection of letters spans a decade of friendship between the remarkable authors Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. Beginning in 1950, the letters exchanged over the following ten years offers a glimpse into literary history and race in America.
Jackson, Lawrence, Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius, Wiley, 2001. This biography recreates the first forty years of Ellison’s life, taking us through the publication of his greatest masterpiece, Invisible Man.
Tyson, Tim, Blood Done Sign My Name, Crown, 2004. In this incredible personal history, Tyson, a professor of African American studies from University of Wisconsin–Madison, examines with a blunt, precise eye the struggles of black Americans and the Civil Rights movement in the South.
—, Radio Free Dixie, University of North Carolina Press, 2001. This biography traces the remarkable life of Robert F. Williams, one of the most influential and powerful black activists in American...
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