Themes and Meanings
Allegorically, the relationship between Hickman and Sunraider represents the relationship between white and black America on the cusp of a great change taking place in the nation, the change brought into being first by the Civil Rights movement and later by the Black Power movement. Hickman accepts and loves the son of the woman who brought about the destruction of his family, much as African Americans live peacefully in a country to which they were brought as slaves.
As they re-create the life they lived together, Hickman and Bliss give readers a glimpse of the genius of African American folklore and oratory, particularly pulpit oratory. The sermons they remember and reproclaim embody both an African American rendering of American history and the long tradition of folklore and call-and-response oratory that helped African Americans survive slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination. It is no wonder that Bliss is overwhelmed by the power of the cultural traditions he discovers. The tragedy is that he does what Americans have done for years to African Americans and their culture: He uses those traditions for his own selfish ends without acknowledging the gift they represent.
The title of the novel comes from a little-known celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation that takes place on June 19. In 1863, slaves in Texas did not hear about Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation freeing them. They learned of it only when Union troops landed in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865. “June nineteenth” eventually came to be referred to as “Juneteenth,” and annual celebrations of emancipation were held on that date. Ellison’s point seems to be that true liberation will come to all Americans only when white Americans recognize that their freedom is tied to freeing those who have lived “unfree” in their midst.