Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Allegorically, the relationship between Hickman and Sunraider represents the relationship between white and black America on the cusp of a great change taking place in the nation, the change brought into being first by the Civil Rights movement and later by the Black Power movement. Hickman accepts and loves the son of the woman who brought about the destruction of his family, much as African Americans live peacefully in a country to which they were brought as slaves.
As they re-create the life they lived together, Hickman and Bliss give readers a glimpse of the genius of African American folklore and oratory, particularly pulpit oratory. The sermons they remember and reproclaim embody both an African American rendering of American history and the long tradition of folklore and call-and-response oratory that helped African Americans survive slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination. It is no wonder that Bliss is overwhelmed by the power of the cultural traditions he discovers. The tragedy is that he does what Americans have done for years to African Americans and their culture: He uses those traditions for his own selfish ends without acknowledging the gift they represent.
The title of the novel comes from a little-known celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation that takes place on June 19. In 1863, slaves in Texas did not hear about Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation freeing them. They learned of it only when Union troops landed in Galveston,...
(The entire section is 290 words.)
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In Juneteenth, as in Invisible Man, a major theme is individual identity. Several characters remain only partially identified, and others cut themselves off from their pasts in various ways, with results that are sometimes positive and sometimes negative. In Sunraider's case, the fact that Ellison never reveals the name of either parent intensifies the significance of his quest for a "true" identity.
The most obvious example of multiple identities is character is known variously as Robert, Bliss, Cudworth, Mister Movie-Man, Mister Big-City Man, and Adam Sunraider. Ellison gives him multiple identities because he apparently intends this character to represent the rootless, isolated, lonely American who cuts himself off from his past, as this man repeatedly does. When his mother gives him to Hickman to "compensate for" the brother whose death she caused, she suggests that he be given that brother's name, Robert. Hickman seems to recognize this gesture as merely another part of the cynicism which has characterized all her actions, and he chooses to call the baby "Bliss." As long as the young boy accepts Hickman's goals for him, he remains Bliss; but, with puberty, he begins to search for an identity of his own. In particular, once Miss Lorelli tries to claim him as her lost son, he begins to realize that his personal and religious lives are exclusively patriarchal, and he feels his lack of a mother figure. Since this awareness happens to...
(The entire section is 1206 words.)
Darkness and Light
Darkness and light play an important role in Ellison’s Juneteenth. The words both represent race, Caucasian and African American, and are personified in the white preacher, Bliss, and his grownup alter ego, racist senator Sunraider. The term bliss means complete happiness or paradise. It is heavenly, full of light and devoid of evil and immorality. On the other hand, the term Sunraider carries the implied meaning of an individual that raids the sun, i.e., removes all aspect of light. Sunraider is the personification of darkness, just as Bliss is the personification of light. The importance of light and darkness appears in other places. When Bliss is contained within the coffin at the revivals he is trapped inside the darkness. However, inside the darkness of the box the young, white preacher is dressed in his white satin outfit and upon his cue, he is reborn from the darkness into the light of the parish. His repeated rebirth is a metaphor for the resurrection. The metaphor, in turn, builds Bliss up as an allusion to Jesus. Like the savior, Bliss possesses a remarkable ability to preach salvation. In addition, his rebirth at revivals instills faith in the parishioners. Finally, with Bliss’s actual birth, he brought Hickman out of the darkness and into the light of God. If Bliss would not have instilled light in Hickman, the Reverend would have murdered him, his mother and himself in a fit of rage, shrouded in the...
(The entire section is 610 words.)