Chapters 1–3 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.
Chapter 4 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.
Chapters 5–7 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 field. Bliss calls Laly a “Teasing Brown” and she calls him “Mr. Movie- Man.” The two enjoy an enormous picnic of sandwiches, fried chicken, Texas hots, boiled eggs, cake and tea with lemon and mint. The two are in love and eventually have sex underneath the tree.
Bliss also recollects his unsuccessful attempts at filmmaking with his partners Lester Donelson and Karp. They have a run-in with unfriendly townspeople, who beat them and pour whiskey on their heads, and forgetful Donelson ruins a remarkable scene when he forgets to load film in the camera.
Senator Sunraider wakes up in the hospital and is pleasantly surprised that Reverend Hickman is still by his side. The unlikely father and son team discuss the past and, eventually, Hickman convinces Sunraider to preach to him. Hickman continues their discussion, redirecting it through his recollections about their teamwork at the revivals. Hickman is using his time by the senator’s side to re-educate his son about the struggles of black Americans. The Reverend talks about the history of Juneteenth and how it was not the first, nor the last, step of the black American on his road towards freedom.
Chapters 8–10 Hickman and Sunraider recount a crucial revival...
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in which a deranged white woman, Miss Lorelli, storms through the meeting, claiming that Bliss is her son. She grabs the young white preacher and tries to kidnap him. The women of the parish attack her and try to wrestle Bliss from the crazed woman. The church is in an uproar. Eventually, Sister Bearmasher grabs Miss Lorelli by her hair and drags her out to her carriage. Hickman and Bearmasher take Lorelli to jail, where, subsequently, they are incarcerated for being black.
Knowing that Hickman may meet opposition at the jail, Sister Georgia takes Bliss back to her home for the night. The two share a melon and conversation. Bliss is attracted to Georgia in a way he cannot understand because of his youth. Following a nightmare, Georgia allows Bliss to sleep in her bed, where he sneaks a peak under her nightgown. He catches a glimpse of her womanhood and is ashamed of his immorality. He admits his indiscretion to Georgia, and she condemns his act, calling him a “jackleg” and throwing him crying out of her bed.
After being beaten by the police and released from jail, Hickman returns to Bliss. Bliss asks if Lorelli is his mother. Hickman tells the boy that she is just a crazy woman who comes from lots of money. She has a history of kidnapping children and claiming they are her babies.
Later, Bliss is laying under the porch in the shade when he decides to eavesdrop on Mrs. Proctor and Body’s Mother. The two women discuss the episode with crazy Miss Lorelli and some of her other more bizarre habits. However, although both women cannot believe the woman could be Bliss’ mother, they both admit that they do not know for sure.
Chapters 11–14 Hickman takes Bliss to his first movie. The Reverend explains that the film must be Bliss’s first and last movie because films are of bad shadow worlds that are too sinful to make a common practice in a preacher’s life. They attend the film and Bliss is terrified because he believes that the woman in the picture is his mother, the deranged woman from the revival, Miss Lorelli.
From the revival forward, Bliss begins to pull away from Hickman and the parish. Soon he runs away and goes to the all-white movie houses to escape from the searching parishioners. As Hickman recounts these memories, the senator begins experiencing frantic, fragmented recollections of his life—who he was, what he has become—and how his past and his emotions have shaped and morphed him into his present being. Soon both men, Hickman and Sunraider, sleep in the hospital room. Hickman dreams and contemplates freedom, violence, blackness in America and his role in it all. It is insightful, but vague.
Chapters 15–16 Hickman recollects how Bliss came to him. Bliss’s mother, an unnamed woman, accuses Hickman’s brother, Robert, of rape. Although innocent, Robert is murdered by a lynch mob. The woman is shunned from the community for engaging in sex with a black man. Pregnant and needing to give birth, the woman turns to the most unlikely of places, Alonzo Hickman’s home. Hickman takes her in and plans to kill her, the child and himself after she gives birth. However, after the child is born, Hickman feels pity for the pathetic woman and begins to love the young boy. He cannot carry out his original plan. The woman abandons the child and leaves Hickman’s home. Hickman names the child Bliss “because they say that’s what ignorance is.” With the birth of Bliss, Hickman experiences his own rebirth, finding God and changing his ways from a partying jazz musician to a powerful preacher. Hickman raised Bliss to the best of his abilities, but the boy grew up, went out on his own, and became a multimillionaire, a racist and senator.
After this final recollection, Sunraider appears to be reaching the last moments of his life. Laying in his deathbed, the senator begins a hallucinatory journey through a landscape composed of people shooting pigeons, foxes that bring men to tears, and a rude boy from a Goya painting. It ends with a massive, ominous black car full of black men. It is no ordinary car—it hovers, screeches and appears to be an amalgamation of random parts. The occupants of the car dislike Sunraider because they know he is a racist. Yet instead of running him over, they load the senator into the car taking him away on his final ride.
SourcesEllison, 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.
Further ReadingBurke, 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 history. Although his name is often overshadowed by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Williams played an integral role in the Civil Rights movement pushing blacks towards “armed self-reliance.”