Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth

Having not read Invisible Man, this review may be premature, as with anything lacking the proper context of the preceding history and foundation. Because of this, I’ll try to stick to talking just about his second book.

Juneteenth, as the introduction and preface make clear, is not a complete work. Published five years after Ralph Ellison’s death in 1994, a friend and editor was given permission by Ellison’s wife to pare down the 2,000-plus pages of manuscripts and notes compiled on the characters over forty years into one cohesive novel. Easier said than done.

The central storyline is compelling: a white boy, Bliss, is orphaned and left in the care of a black man, Reverend Hickman, but despite the love and care with which Hickman and the community share, Bliss becomes a prominent white racist US Senator and this is where much of the mystery of the novel lies and what the flashbacks reveal. We pick up the story as Hickman and friends visit the Senator’s office, trying to reach out to him one last time, to allow him the opportunity to confront the childhood he has denied. Unsuccessful, cast aside by a secretary, the senator never even hears that they came.

“We came when we sense the circle was closing in upon him. Poor Bliss, he had wrapped up his heart in steel, stainless steel, and I guess he’d put his memory down there in Fort Knox with all that gold. He wouldn’t see us and he only had to remember us as we were and as he was to know that we didn’t come here to rebuke him, his own heart would do enough of that, considering the line he’s been taking against our people all these years. . .I told him way back when he seemed bent on leaving us that I would live a long time and that I would arrive in his presence when he was in sore need. So why’d we come, why’d we hold on so hard to hope? Is this one more test of faith put to us in our old days, or just our own foolishness, just some knotted strings of slavery-time weakness still clinging to us? . . .Maybe we’ve been following the wrong man all this time. Naw, it’s him and there lies the nation on its groaning bed.  I lied and denied so he could climb higher into the hills of power hoping that he’d find security and in his security and power he’d find his memory and with memory use his power for the good of everyone.” [316]

The next day, the family sits in the balcony as the Senator is giving a speech on the Senate floor, when he is suddenly assassinated. Hickman descends to the floor, to his son’s side.

The novel becomes an unraveling of memories and flashbacks to Bliss’ childhood and his origins from both Hickman’s verbose lucid sentimentality and the Senator’s jumbled thoughts as he phases in and out of consciousness while in a hospital bed.

In real time, we (and Hickman) never leave the Senator’s bedside, but instead are taken to a specific past before the Civil Rights Movement in the south in which consequences for even the simplest interracial relations could be grave.

An example of Ellison’s style, often called jazzy, rhythmic like poetics with unending momentum:

Walking her along Fifth Avenue with a ll the eyes reacting and she no flapper but something more formed, more realized, more magically achieved, and the crowds’ imagination whirling like these blossoms tossed in a whirlwind and blown in the million directions of their hopes, hates, fancies, dreams, and we, she and I, become all things to all minds, drawing out their very souls, their potentialities set athrob by the passage of our forms through their atmostphere, sending them ever seeking for some finer thing. (p.72)

This excerpt about slaves traveling in the underbellies of ships crossing the Atlantic reminded me, cryptically, of the federal flood in New Orleans:

Worse than old Jonah, Rev. Hickman?

Worse than Jonah slicked all over with whale puke and gasping on the shore. We went down into hell on those floating coffins and don’t you youngsters forget it! Mothers and babies, men and women, the living and the dead and the dying–all chained together. And yet, praise God, most of us arrived here in this land. The strongest came through. Thank God… [121]

The book’s compelling characters tend to be overbearing as we never get respite or an objective position; each paragraph is a memory from either Hickman or Bliss subject to scrutiny and connected the sentimentalizing and dramatizing of the past.  However, because of what was at stake in this sort of growing up, and the societal pressures brought to bear for a black man to raise a white boy in the pre-Civil Rights Era, the memories remain vivid in Hickman’s accounts, but confusing and scattered in Bliss’s.  This seems to be due to Hickman being an adult, fully formed and informed, while Bliss was still only a child.  Not knowing how to handle or react to drastic events as a child can play out for the rest of one’s life, which is what Bliss rejects, until the end as the recurring psychological consequences take such a toll.  On his death bed the Senator no longer has the defenses to stop the reminiscences from resurfacing in a tactile blur.

For Hickman, his hope forever remained that Bliss would find the way, use his teachings and love and nurturing to further love

“Yes, and sometimes that man gets hold of the idea of what he’s supposed to do in this world and he gets an idea of what it is possible for him to do, and that man lets that idea guide him as he grows and struggles and stumbles and sorrows until finally he comes into his own God-given shape and achieves his own individual and lonely place in this world. It don’t happen often, oh no; but when it does, then even the stones will cry out in witness to his vision and the hills and towers shall echo his words and deeds and his example will live in the hearts of men forever

…That kind of man loves the truth even more than he loves his life, or his wife, or his children, because he’s been designated and set aside to do the hard tasks that have to be done. That kind of man will do what he sees as justice even if the earth yawns and swallows him down, and even then his deeds will survive and persist in the land forever…And in the words my slavery-born granddaddy taught me when I was a child:

Ole Abe Lincoln digging in the sand/Swore he was nothing but a natural man./Ole Abe Lincoln chopping on a tree/Swore a mighty oath he’d let the slaves go free./And he did!

So let us pray, not for him but for ourselves and for all those whose job it is to wear those great big shoes he left htis nation to fill…”

And to think, Hickman thought, stirring suddenly in his chair, we had hoped to raise ourselves that kind of man . . .” [282-283]

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Published in: on July 18, 2007 at 5:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

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