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...
(The entire section is 1744 words.)