Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
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,...
(The entire section is 806 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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,...
(The entire section is 946 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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.)
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.
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.
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...
(The entire section is 1358 words.)