Cover image for Juneteenth
Title:
Juneteenth
Author:
Ellison, Ralph.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [1999]

©1999
Physical Description:
xxiii, 368 pages ; 25 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780394464572
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

Shot on the Senate floor by a young Black man, a dying racist senator summons an elderly Black Baptist minister from Oklahoma to his side for a remarkable dialogue that reveals the deeply buried secrets of their shared past and the tragedy that reunites them.


Author Notes

Ralph Ellison (March 1, 1914 - April 16, 1994) has the distinction of being one of the few writers who has established a firm literary reputation on the strength of a single work of long fiction. Writer and teacher, Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, studied at Tuskegee Institute, and has lectured at New York, Columbia, and Fisk universities and at Bard College. He received the Prix de Rome from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1955, and in 1964 he was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He has contributed short stories and essays to various publications.

Invisible Man (1952), his first novel, won the National Book Award for 1953 and is considered an impressive work. It is a vision of the underground man who is also the invisible African American, and its possessor has employed this subterranean view and viewer to so extraordinary an advantage that the impression of the novel is that of a pioneer work. A book of essays, Shadow and Act, which discusses the African American in America and Ellison's Oklahoma boyhood, among other topics, appeared in 1964.

Ralph Ellison died on April 16, 1994 of pancreatic cancer and was interred in a crypt at Trinity Church Cemetery in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 4

Booklist Review

One of the major publishing events of the season is the Random House release of the second novel by the esteemed Ralph Ellison, whose classic Invisible Man appeared back in 1952. Ellison had been at work on Juneteenth (which, by the way, refers to the day in 1865 when black slaves in Texas finally learned of their emancipation, effective two years previous) since 1954 and worked on it slowly and deliberately over several decades, until a house fire in 1967 destroyed a large portion of the manuscript. He went back to work but died (in 1994) before completely finishing his task. What is being published, then, is more or less an extract from his hundreds and hundreds of manuscript pages--an extract that definitely has the feel of a whole, finished work. It's a novel of race and racial identity. The story itself revolves around the relationship between Reverend Alonzo Hickman, former jazzman, and Bliss, the little boy he raises, who is of "indefinite" race but looks white, and who, after he has run away from Hickman, becomes not only a filmmaker but then a U.S. senator, calling himself Adam Sunraider. The resumption of their relationship is effected by a strange set of circumstances: Hickman fears for Bliss' safety, goes to Washington to warn him of possible doom, witnesses an assassination attempt, and, at Bliss' bedside, remembers with him the life they had together. In this dreamlike novel, images fly at the reader fast and furious, swirl around, and refuse to settle into a strict, straight narrative pattern. But the cumulative effect is powerful. All public libraries should seriously consider purchasing it. --Brad Hooper


Publisher's Weekly Review

When Ralph Ellison died in 1994, he left behind a manuscript he'd been working on since the '50s. John Callahan's introduction to this long-awaited edition explores Ellison's life and the history of this second novel (after, of course, the classic Invisible Man), cataloguing such disasters as the near-finished manuscript being destroyed in a fire in 1967. The novel turns out to have survived the many obstacles to its birth, for after a rather windy beginning, Ellison writes beautifully, in the grand, layered Southern tradition. The narrative begins in 1950s Washington, D.C., with Adam Sunraider, a race-baiting senator who is gunned down on the Senate floor while a man named Hickman watches in the gallery. Rushed to the hospital, Sunraider requests Hickman's presence, and the story of the two men's agonized relationship is told in flashbacks as Hickman attends the dying senator. Decades before, Alonzo Hickman was an ex-trombone player turned circuit preacher raising a young boy of indeterminate race named Bliss.The boy assists Hickman in his revivals, rising out of a white coffin at a certain moment in the sermon. Bliss grows up to change his name to Adam Sunraider and, having passed for white, has gone from being a flimflam artist and movie maker to the U. S. Senate Always, however, he is in flight from Hickman. These flashbacks showcase Ellison's stylized set pieces, among the best scenes he has written, especially as his incandescent images chart the mysteries and legacies of slavery. Bliss remembers his courtship of a black woman in a piercingly sweet reverie, and he revisits a revival meeting on Juneteenth (June 19), the date in 1865 on which slaves in Texas were finally informed of the Emancipation Proclamation. The sermon in this section is perhaps the highlight of the novel, sure to achieve classic status on its own merits. The revival meeting is interrupted by a white woman who claims Bliss is her son, after which Bliss begins his odyssey for an identity that takes him, by degrees, away from the black culture of his youth. Gradually, we learn of the collusion of lies and violence that brought Bliss to Hickman in the first place. Editor Callahan, in his informative afterword, describes the difficult process of editing Ellison's unfinished novel and of arranging the massive body of work into the unwieldy yet cohesive story Ellison wanted to tell. The difficulties he faced are most obvious in the ending, which is Faulknerian to a fault, even to the overuse of the word "outrage." Nonetheless, this volume is a visionary tour de force, a lyrical, necessary contribution to America's perennial racial dialogue, and a novel powerfully reinforcing Ellison's place in literary history. 100,000 first printing; BOMC double main selection. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

Ellison made his mark with the classic Invisible Man. Now, after 40 years, he's back with a novel whose title commemorates June 19, 1865, the day Union troops marched into Galveston, TX, and announced the Emancipation Proclamation. It's the Fifties, and a young black man has shot a racist senator. As he lay dying, he launches a conversation with an elderly black minister from his past. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


School Library Journal Review

Gr 11 Up-By Ralph Ellison. Both a jazz novel and a thunderous sermon, it offers up in its language a song of praise to the richness of the African American experience. A redemptive counterpoint to the Invisible Man's existentialism, it is a reckoning of sorts with Ellison's own life's journey and a parable about God and race in America. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

CHAPTER 1 Two days before the shooting a chartered planeload of Southern Negroes swooped down upon the District of Columbia and attempted to see the Senator. They were all quite elderly: old ladies dressed in little white caps and white uniforms made of surplus nylon parachute material, and men dressed in neat but old-fashioned black suits, wearing wide-brimmed, deep-crowned panama hats which, in the Senator's walnut-paneled reception room now, they held with a grave ceremonial air. Solemn, uncommunicative and quietly insistent, they were led by a huge, distinguished-looking old fellow who on the day of the chaotic event was to prove himself, his age notwithstanding, an extraordinarily powerful man. Tall and broad and of an easy dignity, this was the Reverend A. Z. Hickman--better known, as one of the old ladies proudly informed the Senator's secretary, as "God's Trombone." This, however, was about all they were willing to explain. Forty-four in number, the women with their fans and satchels and picnic baskets, and the men carrying new blue airline take-on bags, they listened intently while Reverend Hickman did their talking. "Ma'am," Hickman said, his voice deep and resonant as he nodded toward the door of the Senator's private office, "you just tell the Senator that Hickman has arrived. When he hears who's out here he'll know that it's important and want to see us." "But I've told you that the Senator isn't available," the secretary said. "Just what is your business? Who are you, anyway? Are you his constituents?" "Constituents?" Suddenly the old man smiled. "No, miss," he said, "the Senator doesn't even have anybody like us in his state. We're from down where we're among the counted but not among the heard." "Then why are you coming here?" she said. "What is your business?" "He'll tell you, ma'am," Hickman said. "He'll know who we are; all you have to do is tell him that we have arrived. . . ." The secretary, a young Mississippian, sighed. Obviously these were Southern Negroes of a type she had known all her life--and old ones; yet instead of being already in herdlike movement toward the door they were calmly waiting, as though she hadn't said a word. And now she had a suspicion that, for all their staring eyes, she actually didn't exist for them. They just stood there, now looking oddly like a delegation of Asians who had lost their interpreter along the way, and were trying to tell her something which she had no interest in hearing, through this old man who himself did not know the language. Suddenly they no longer seemed familiar, and a feeling of dreamlike incongruity came over her. They were so many that she could no longer see the large abstract paintings hung along the paneled wall, nor the framed facsimiles of State Documents which hung above a bust of Vice-President Calhoun. Some of the old women were calmly plying their palm-leaf fans, as though in serene defiance of the droning air conditioner. Yet she could see no trace of impertinence in their eyes, nor any of the anger which the Senator usually aroused in members of their group. Instead, they seemed resigned, like people embarked upon a difficult journey who were already far beyond the point of no return. Her uneasiness grew; then she blotted out the others by focusing her eyes narrowly upon their leader. And when she spoke again her voice took on a nervous edge. "I've told you that the Senator isn't here," she said, "and you must realize that he is a busy man who can only see people by appointment. . . ." "We know, ma'am," Hickman said, "but . . ." "You don't just walk in here and expect to see him on a minute's notice." "We understand that, ma'am," Hickman said, looking mildly into her eyes, his close-cut white head tilted to one side, "but this is something that developed of a sudden. Couldn't you reach him by long distance? We'd pay the charges. And I don't even have to talk, miss; you can do the talking. All you have to say is that we have arrived." "I'm afraid this is impossible," she said. The very evenness of the old man's voice made her feel uncomfortably young, and now, deciding that she had exhausted all the tried-and-true techniques her region had worked out (short of violence) for getting quickly rid of Negroes, the secretary lost her patience and telephoned for a guard. They left as quietly as they had appeared, the old minister waiting behind until the last had stepped into the hall, then he turned, and she saw his full height, framed by the doorway, as the others arranged themselves beyond him in the hall. "You're really making a mistake, miss," he said. "The Senator knows us and--" "Knows you," she said indignantly. "I've heard Senator Sunraider state that the only colored he knows is the boy who shines shoes at his golf club." "Oh?" Hickman shook his head as the others exchanged knowing glances. "Very well, ma'am. We're sorry to have caused you this trouble. It's just that it's very important that the Senator know we're on the scene. So I hope you won't forget to tell him that we have arrived, because soon it might be too late." There was no threat in it; indeed, his voice echoed the odd sadness which she thought she detected in the faces of the others just before the door blotted them from view. In the hall they exchanged no words, moving silently behind the guard who accompanied them down to the lobby. They were about to move into the street when the security-minded chief guard observed their number, stepped up, and ordered them searched. They submitted patiently, amused that anyone should consider them capable of harm, and for the first time an emotion broke the immobility of their faces. They chuckled and winked and smiled, fully aware of the comic aspect of the situation. Here they were, quiet, old, and obviously religious black folk who, because they had attempted to see the man who was considered the most vehement enemy of their people in either house of Congress, were being energetically searched by uniformed security police, and they knew what the absurd outcome would be. They were found to be armed with nothing more dangerous than pieces of fried chicken and ham sandwiches, chocolate cake and sweet-potato fried pies. Some obeyed the guards' commands with exaggerated sprightliness, the old ladies giving their skirts a whirl as they turned in their flat-heeled shoes. When ordered to remove his wide-brimmed hat, one old man held it for the guard to look inside; then, flipping out the sweatband, he gave the crown a tap, causing something to fall to the floor, then waited with a callused palm extended as the guard bent to retrieve it. Straightening and unfolding the object, the guard saw a worn but neatly creased fifty-dollar bill, which he dropped upon the outstretched palm as though it were hot. They watched silently as he looked at the old man and gave a dry, harsh laugh; then as he continued laughing the humor slowly receded behind their eyes. Not until they were allowed to file into the street did they give further voice to their amusement. "These here folks don't understand nothing," one of the old ladies said. "If we had been the kind to depend on the sword instead of on the Lord, we'd been in our graves long ago--ain't that right, Sis' Arter?" "You said it," Sister Arter said. "In the grave and done long finished mold'ing!" "Let them worry, our conscience is clear on that. . . ." "Amen!" On the sidewalk now, they stood around Reverend Hickman, holding a hushed conference; then in a few minutes they disappeared in a string of taxis and the incident was thought closed. Shortly afterwards, however, they appeared mysteriously at a hotel where the Senator leased a private suite, and tried to see him. How they knew of this secret suite they would not explain. Next they appeared at the editorial offices of the newspaper which was most critical of the Senator's methods, but here too they were turned away. They were taken for a protest group, just one more lot of disgruntled Negroes crying for justice as though theirs were the only grievances in the world. Indeed, they received less of a hearing here than elsewhere. They weren't even questioned as to why they wished to see the Senator--which was poor newspaper work, to say the least; a failure of technical alertness, and, as events were soon to prove, a gross violation of press responsibility. So once more they moved away. Although the Senator returned to Washington the following day, his secretary failed to report his strange visitors. There were important interviews scheduled and she had understandably classified the old people as just another annoyance. Once the reception room was cleared of their disquieting presence they seemed no more significant than the heavy mail received from white liberals and Negroes, liberal and reactionary alike, whenever the Senator made one of his taunting remarks. She forgot them. Then at about eleven a.m. Reverend Hickman reappeared without the others and started into the building. This time, however, he was not to reach the secretary. One of the guards, the same who had picked up the fifty-dollar bill, recognized him and pushed him bodily from the building. Indeed, the old man was handled quite roughly, his sheer weight and bulk and the slow rhythm of his normal movements infuriating the guard to that quick, heated fury which springs up in one when dealing with the unexpected recalcitrance of some inanimate object--the huge stone that resists the bulldozer's power, or the chest of drawers that refuses to budge from its spot on the floor. Nor did the old man's composure help matters. Nor did his passive resistance hide his distaste at having strange hands placed upon his person. As he was being pushed about, old Hickman looked at the guard with a kind of tolerance, an understanding which seemed to remove his personal emotions to some far, cool place where the guard's strength could never reach them. He even managed to pick up his hat from the sidewalk where it had been thrown after him with no great show of breath or hurry, and arose to regard the guard with a serene dignity. "Son," he said, flicking a spot of dirt from the soft old panama with a white handkerchief, "I'm sorry that this had to happen to you. Here you've worked up a sweat on this hot morning and not a thing has been changed--except that you've interfered with something that doesn't concern you. After all, you're only a guard, you're not a mind-reader. Because if you were, you'd be trying to get me in there as fast as you could instead of trying to keep me out. You're probably not even a good guard, and I wonder what on earth you'd do if I came here prepared to make some trouble." Fortunately, there were too many spectators present for the guard to risk giving the old fellow a demonstration. He was compelled to stand silent, his thumbs hooked over his cartridge belt, while old Hickman strolled--or more accurately, floated--up the walk and disappeared around the corner. Except for two attempts by telephone, once to the Senator's office and later to his home, the group made no further effort until that afternoon, when Hickman sent a telegram asking Senator Sunraider to phone him at a T Street hotel. A message which, thanks again to the secretary, the Senator did not see. Following this attempt there was silence. During the late afternoon the group of closed-mouthed old folk were seen praying quietly within the Lincoln Memorial. An amateur photographer, a high-school boy from the Bronx, was there at the time and it was his chance photograph of the group, standing facing the great sculpture with bowed heads beneath old Hickman's outspread arms, that was flashed over the wires following the shooting. Asked why he had photographed that particular group, the boy replied that he had seen them as a "good composition. . . . I thought their faces would make a good scale of grays between the whiteness of the marble and the blackness of the shadows." And for the rest of the day the group appears to have faded into those same peaceful shadows, to remain there until the next morning--when they materialized shortly before chaos erupted. Excerpted from Juneteenth: A Novel by Ralph Ellison All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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