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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.

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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 hid him in a coffin for the first part of his sermons. Then, when Hickman uttered the words, “Suffer the little children,” Deacon Wilhite would raise the coffin lid, and Bliss would sit up, look at the audience, and say “My God, my God why has thou forsaken me.”

Eventually, after Bliss’s mother attempted to kidnap him during a church service, Bliss left Hickman to begin a strange journey of his own. After spending some time as a filmmaker, Bliss eventually become Sunraider, the most notorious race-baiting member of the U.S. Senate. When Hickman and his congregation hear Sunraider declaiming on the floor of the Senate just prior to his assassination, they recognize in his words the unmistakable character of the pulpit rhetoric he learned in the African American church.

The final chapter of the novel is surreal, tying the senator’s final floor speech and the revelations about his origins to his delerium in the narrative present. Sunraider’s speech is a tour de force of bombastic, political demagoguery in which he proposes that the Cadillac be renamed “the Coon Cage Eight,”because it has now become such a common sight to see eight or more of our darker brethren crowded together enjoying its power, its beauty, its neo-pagan comfort, while weaving recklessly through the streets of our great cities and along our...

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