Essays and Criticism
Critical Essay on Juneteenth
In Juneteenth, Ralph Ellison tells the story of a young, white orphan, Bliss, who is taken in and adopted by a black musician, Alonzo Hickman. Although completely white in appearance and blood, Bliss developed an incredible understanding of black culture and religion. In fact, he had such a keen knowledge of scripture that it becomes apparent to Hickman that Bliss had a prodigious ability for preaching the Word. Hickman became righteously devoted to cultivating Bliss’s abilities because he saw in Bliss the qualities of a savior, not only for individuals but also for America. Unfortunately, Hickman’s focus on Bliss’s religious development blinded him to a wholly necessary development of his son’s being: his physical, flesh side. It was apparent that Bliss had a strong inclination for the spirit and, thus, an ability to be the “the tie that binds” blacks and whites, unifying America through the Word and the light of goodness. However, given such blind one-sidedness, without proper attention given to his duality as a flesh-and-bone human being, it became inevitable that Bliss was doomed to fall victim to himself. Through being denied access to tactile things, e.g., playing with friends, attending movies, flirting with girls, Bliss was forced to revolt against Hickman and his black upbringing in order to pay needed attention to his physical side. He ran from his adoptive father’s parish to pursue filmmaking, sleep with women, make millions and eventually turn into an antithesis of his former, younger self: a white, racist Senator named Adam Sunraider. The duality of the protagonist-antagonist character in one single body, i.e., Bliss and Sunraider, is a representation of race and its effect on religion and America.
Bliss came to Hickman through an extraordinary and sad turn of events. Bliss’s mother had accused Hickman’s brother, Robert, of rape. A lynch mob heard of the accusation, sought out Robert and murdered him. Bliss’s mother was, in turn, shunned by the white community. Pregnant with not Robert’s but an unnamed white man’s child, Bliss’s mother turned to the most unlikely of individuals: Alonzo Hickman. Hickman brought the woman into his home and planned to murder the woman, her child and himself once she gave birth. However, upon the child’s birth, Hickman, a jazz musician with a lewd and hedonistic past, began to feel pity for the woman and a deep love of the newborn boy. The birth of the small child pulled Hickman from the darkness of his past and his murderous plan, removing him from his past and future sins, showing him goodness. Recalling holding the newborn Hickman thought, “I’ll call him Bliss, because they say that’s what ignorance is. Yes, and little did I realize that it was the name of the old heathen life I had already lost.” Bliss’s birth is also a rebirth of Hickman in that he has found a new life and a new beginning, refocusing his life and passion on religion and preaching instead of jazz music, drinking and women.
With Hickman on a religious path and Bliss as his catalyst, it is no wonder that it became important to Hickman to introduce his young, white adopted son to religion and the Word. As the boy grew, Hickman realized that at an early age Bliss possessed a natural talent for preaching salvation. Even though Hickman told Bliss, “I still couldn’t tell who your daddy was, or even if you have any of our blood in your veins,” Hickman believed the boy possessed an ability that transcended his race. Bliss was a white boy bringing salvation to the souls of black parishioners in a time of deep segregation and racism in America. Bliss had learned and cultivated so much of the black culture that his race was no detraction from his preaching of the Word. However, for Bliss, black culture, even though he was white, became his integrated pattern of knowledge and belief. He personified an American race battleground—a white-skinned, blackspirited boy. Alan Nadel supports this claim in American Literary History:
. . . the problem for Bliss is to remember. He must take himself—and us—to the depths of that American unconscious where the contradictions that undermine democracy can be confronted. Pursuing that search from Bliss’s and...
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The Structure of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth
A close reading of Juneteenth reveals that the novel is anything but the “Frankenstein monster” which [Louis] Menand described and much more than the loosely connected fragments which several other reviewers perceived. But the book’s principle of organization, like the structure of Invisible Man which early reviewers and critics were also unable to see, is not apparent on a first or second reading because it is inspired by musical techniques rather than conventional narrative plotting. The structural “patterns” of Juneteenth which are used to give shape and meaning to the “raw experience” which Ellison struggled for over forty years to refine, are, like those of an impressionistic symphony or a jazz composition, based upon free rhythms and loose repetition rather than a mechanical plan or linear plot.
The most important structural device employed in Juneteenth is the careful placement of three key scenes, the assassination of Senator Sunraider at the beginning of the novel, the Juneteenth celebration at the center of the book, and Hickman’s meditations at the Lincoln Memorial toward the end of the narrative. Each of these scenes takes place in a setting of great national and cultural importance and, as they resonate against each other like the movements of a symphony or the parts of a jazz performance, they not only give the book a loose but discernible overall shape, but they also allow Ellison to develop central themes, define important characters, and provide a comprehensive vision of American experience. For unlike Ellison’s earlier fictions, which are centered in quintessentially modern figures who are alienated from a social context, Juneteenth is, in the best sense of the word, a “national” narrative which is centered around a large-scale figure of epic proportions who heroically assumes the “socially responsible role” which Invisible Man seeks but has trouble finding at the end of the novel. Father, minister, and citizen, Alonzo Z. Hickman is no underground or marginalized person afflicted with twentieth-century anomie; rather, he is a “citizen-individualist” whose story is integrally related to a larger national narrative which provides Juneteenth with a power and resonance missing in much modern and postmodern literature.
The first major scene, the assassination of Senator Adam Sunraider on the floor of the United States Senate in the mid-1950s, dramatizes the disastrous cultural conflicts and contradictions of post–World War II American culture. Like the battle royal scene in Invisible Man, it is a frightening epiphany of a disintegrating society because it reflects a fundamental conflict between democratic ideals and racist practices. Just as the battle royal is an ironic inversion of the Alger myth, Sunraider’s speech is an ironic commentary on the classic pre- Civil War myth of America as a pre-fallen Eden. Carried away by his own “verbal exhilaration,” he releases the “full resonance of his voice,” giving “expression to ideas the likes of which he had never articulated.” The first part of the speech is a powerful evocation of the “transcendent ideas” that go to the heart of the American myth, picturing America as an “edenic landscape” which has broken free of a corrupt European past and promises “a more human future.” Sunraider urges his audience to embrace a “democratic passion” and assures them that “we are defeated only if we fail in the task of creating a total way of life which will allow each and every one of us to rise above his origins.” He then concludes this unlikely speech, which arises from “some chaotic region deep within him,” by citing two African American figures, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, as people who did indeed establish themselves as exemplary American men who rose well above their origins, black men from the “dark side” of America who became prominent at a “dark time” of African American history. They are evidence for Sunraider of the fluidity of American life and the fact that “brightness sometimes hides itself in darkness.”
The setting in which this scene is enacted emphasizes the mythic resonance of Sunraider’s speech. His audience is seated behind “circular, history-stained desks,” and as he delivers this speech, he gazes at another circular object which calls to mind the nation’s history and mission, “the Great Seal” containing the “national coat of arms.” Gazing at this “mystic motto of national purpose” and especially the “emblematic” eagle at the center of the seal, he is shaken for a time from racist diatribes which he has used to gain power and delivers an uncharacteristically democratic speech arising from a subconscious self “deep within him.” Spurred on by his audience’s rapt attention as they await “some crucial and long-awaited revelation that would make them whole,” Sunraider taps into an ideal vision of America which is diametrically opposed to the racism and demagoguery he has used to vault himself into a position of national prominence and power.
But if the first section of Sunraider’s speech expresses that part of his divided personality suggested by his first name, Adam, the second part of his speech comes from his outward political self which divides people by exploiting their baser selves. (This part of the speech could well be suggested by the initials of his two names, B.S.) Shifting from a “lovely dream of progressive idealism,” he launches into his stock-in-trade, a Negro-baiting invective eliciting “enthusiastic rebel yells.” It is precisely at this point that he is shot by an anonymous assailant whose motives and racial origins are not clear. Is he a black man who objects to the crude racism of the second part of the speech, or is he a white man offended by the democratic idealism of the first part of the speech? The text remains ambiguous on both points.
In his New York Times Book Review article, Louis Menand argued that the scene culminating in Sunraider’s being shot is not successful because its two parts blatantly contradict each other:
Callahan’s insertion of the excerpt from “Cadillac Flambé”—an anti-black diatribe—into the speech Sunraider is delivering when he gets shot is consistent with the rest of his speech which is in praise of democracy and diversity. Did Ellison want his character to have undergone a political conversion on the eve of his assassination? If he did, it’s too late now.
But Menand’s criticism misses the point which goes to the heart of the scene’s meaning. Sunraider’s sometimes raving speech is a surprisingly lucid example of what he calls “our national ambiguities”— America is both a visionary world defined by lofty ideals and a historical entity which has consistently contradicted those ideals. And like America, Sunraider is sharply divided—he is both a racist demagogue and someone who takes seriously the America created by “our visionary fathers.” The first part of his speech is rooted in his childhood past when as Hickman’s adopted son and revivalist partner he would have indeed embraced the mythic vision of America as a new Eden, a redemptive force transforming human history. But he is also Senator Sunraider, the man who defiled American ideals to secure his own political advantages. Although the scene stresses the ambiguous duality of both America and Sunraider’s own nature, it is altogether lucid on this point which Sunraider makes midway through his speech—America’s “transcendent ideals” do indeed “interrogate us, judging us.” Just as Sunraider is judged and found wanting in this scene and pays the price of his demagoguery with an assassin’s bullet, so too is post–World War II America interrogated and judged by Ellison for failing to square its democratic ideals with its history.
Underneath the bitter ironies of Sunraider’s speech, therefore, emerge important thematic matters which the novel’s other key scenes will attempt to clarify. Among these important ideas are the three questions which Sunraider raises: “How can the many be one? How can the future deny the past? And how can the light deny the dark?” These “three fatal questions” which “history has put to us” are not answered by Sunraider, but Ellison does make him the frail vessel who poses such questions, which the remainder of the novel will meditate upon seriously.
The Juneteenth celebration, which is located in the two chapters at the exact center of the novel, also takes place in a setting of profound national and cultural importance, a campground which in the past has served as a sacred burial ground for slaves and in the present is the place where Hickman and seven other ministers hold a weeklong celebration of African American freedom promised by the Emancipation Proclamation. Indeed, Hickman regards Juneteenth as a day of enormous cultural importance, a “God-given day” to “celebrate our oneness.” It is in fact a day when the “transcendent ideals” described in Sunraider’s Senate speech are finally extended to black Americans and, accordingly, Hickman sees this day as “a great occasion. A great occasion.” A crucial moment in the historical experience of all African Americans, it is also a pivotal moment in Sunraider’s personal life since it is at this point that a white woman claims him as her son and begins a process which eventually culminates in his leaving Hickman and denying his profound ties with black people. And Sunraider’s betrayal of his roots reflects a larger betrayal of blacks by American society since the promises of freedom and justice which were made in the original Juneteenth in 1865 were eventually reneged upon by the Compromise of 1877, which laid the groundwork for the re-enslavement of American blacks through a system of racial segregation. As was the case with the assassination scene at the beginning of the novel, Ellison connects personal and cultural narratives to stress the integral connection between individual lives and the life of the nation.
And Hickman’s extraordinary sermon, like Sunraider’s speech, is heavily infused with myth and rituals which help to define American identity. But unlike Sunraider, who evokes the romantic pre- Civil War myth of America as Eden before the Fall, Hickman conjures up a tragic post-Civil War vision of America as a postlapsarian world in which the “calamity” of slavery betrays “the principles of Almighty God,” making America a kind of “hell.” But if slavery is linked to “the fall of proud Lucifer from Paradise,” Hickman’s powerfully Christian imagination offers hope for a redeemed America by drawing skillfully upon the paradox of the Fortunate Fall which is central to Christian theology. Hickman assures his congregation that the “calamity” of slavery was “laced up with a blessing,” and this blessing is “the Word.” And the Word empowered blacks to transcend the “pain and suffering” of slavery by constructing a spiritually rich African American culture.
The most compelling image Hickman uses to dramatize the concept of the Fortunate Fall is the underground, a rich and complicated symbol of the historical experience of black people in America. Designed by whites as a tomb into which slaves would fall, it becomes transformed in Hickman’s mythic imagination as a transcendent symbol of regeneration:
Ah, but though divided and scattered, ground down and battered into the earth like a spike being pounded by a ten-pound sledge, we were on the ground and in the earth and the earth was red and black like the earth of Africa. And as we moldered underground we were mixed with this land. We liked it. It fitted us fine. It was in us and we were in it. And then—praise God—deep in the ground, deep in the womb of the land, we began to stir!
Seen in this context, the minuses of African American experience become plusses and, to use the metaphor of electricity which Ellison employed so brilliantly in Invisible Man, the minuses and plusses together produce energy and power. Converting their dead underground tomb to a live womb, African Americans are “rebirthed dancing” and “crying affirmation.” Deprived of their African languages, they create “a new language and a brandnew song” which enables them to found a new culture...
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Ralph Ellison and the American Canon
The point I am making—and I cannot stress it strongly enough—is that for Ellison, the Negro represents the return of the repressed in the American psyche:
The Founding Fathers committed the sin of American racial pride . . . In failing the test of what was after to be termed the American dilemma, they prepared the way for the evils that Jefferson had hoped to pile upon the royal head of England’s king, and loaded them upon the black backs of anonymous American slaves. Worse, these Americans were designated as perfect victims for sacrifice, and were placed beyond any possibility of democratic redemption . . . Indeed they were thrust beneath the threshold of social hierarchy and expected to stay...
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