(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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, 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...

(The entire section is 1044 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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, Bliss, rising from the coffin as a new Christ. Bliss is a typical young boy; he is afraid of the darkness of the closed coffin. Hickman tells him he can take his Easter bunny into the casket with him, but Bliss will enter only if he can bring his teddy bear with him because, he says, “bears ain’t afraid of the dark.”

Sunraider continues to relive his childhood at random, recalling events in no particular order. As Bliss, he stands up to a group of African American bullies by beating them at a game of the dozens and hitting one of the boys in the forehead with a stone (recalling David’s battle with Goliath). The most traumatic and significant event of Bliss’s childhood, the one that drives him away from Hickman and his congregation, occurs at one of the revival shows: As Bliss is rising from the coffin on cue, a red-haired woman from...

(The entire section is 946 words.)