Library Of Congress: Ralph Ellison’s “Juneteenth”

June 19, 2020

The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division for the Library of Congress.

“[W]hat does it all mean beyond a glad noise for Juneteenth Day?
What does freedom, what does emancipation mean?”

—Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth (p. 137)

In his delirium-dream of a second novel, Juneteenth, much of which was written in a stream-of-consciousness style as if from the minds of its major characters (a preacher and a politician), Ralph Ellison took a deep dive into the complexities of race and violence and prices of transformation in America.

In the novel, Ellison riffs off themes of race relations and makes figurative use of fathers, mothers, and sons. Along the way he explores incidents of violence, murder, and death, and in his examination of the complexities of racial definitions proposes that blackness and the complicated course of African American history are quintessential to American identity. He also writes of love and faith, and uses biblical allusion to present metaphoric understanding of suffering, but also of new birth and change, and mediation between the tensions of Old Testament revenge and New Testament reconciliation and redemption. The religious questioning of the Father and of the Son loom large in a divine sense throughout the novel, which asks across generations exactly whom has been forgotten or forsaken.

The novel, like the struggle for equality and justice itself, was a long time in the making—a wrestling with the self and perpetual work-in-progress. Ellison began to formulate the novel in thoughts and notes in the 1950s, during the era of Brown v Board of Education and the 1952 publication of his masterpiece, Invisible Man. But its genesis was longer, stemming from Ellison’s own difficult childhood and the world he witnessed around him in his youth and as a student at Tuskegee Institute. Both the literary work—and the racial justice cause—remained an unresolved and still open dialog when Ellison died in 1994.

For 40 years, Ellison wandered in a wilderness of writer’s dilemmas while working on the novel, meanwhile marrying, teaching, mentoring, writing essays and criticism, and becoming one of our nation’s most prominent intellectuals. At his death he left behind over 2,000 pages of drafts and notes and revised episodes and passages for what he thought might be one book, or maybe three. All are now in the Ralph Ellison Papers at the Library of Congress. With the blessings of his widow, Fanny Ellison, and the work of devoted staff in the Manuscript Division, it fell to the Library to preserve and organize Ellison’s collection, including the “Hickman novel” materials, and for Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, to craft Ellison’s words into the posthumous version of the novel as it is known by readers today. The novel morphed again in another revised form edited by Callahan and Adam Bradley in 2010 under the title Three Days Before the Shooting... As that phrase implies, the novel is framed around the impending threat of violence, and the unspinning of feelings and memory that occur in its aftermath.

Juneteenth is deeply rooted in historic struggle across time. Ellison creates a famous scene at the Lincoln Memorial, wherein black visitors from the South contemplate Father Abraham (Lincoln) the Emancipator. He knew it resonated with real-life historical scenes iconic to African American liberation. In those true-life scenes, African Americans are the leaders and speakers, as Bayard RustinA. Philip Randolph, Rosa Parks, and other protest organizers represented in Library of Congress collections and exhibitions gathered and witnessed Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington, or those of an early generation heard Marian Anderson’s voice ring out for freedom during her 1939 Easter Sunday concert. But Ellison also reached backward to Emancipation and to experience as he knew it from his own upbringing and earlier campaigns for civil rights. He made the novel a matter of his characters’ own internal dialogues and dialectical confusions. And he did so in a conscious literary tradition, mindful that in some ways what he was playing with in the novel was a variation on the theme of Mark Twain’s Jim and Huck.

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Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in March 1913. He was eight years old when the racial massacre took place in the Greenwood district of his cousin’s home of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, sparked by resistance to an attempted lynching. He used the memory of a burnt-out piano lying in the street in a surreal scene for Juneteenth. Ellison’s papers at the Library of Congress are housed not far from the records of the NAACP. Currently in Washington, D.C.—and representative of the close collaboration between the sister institutions—a pivotal historic banner from the Library’s NAACP records collection is featured as a loan object in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s We Return Fighting exhibition (and was previously on view at the Library of Congress as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 exhibition). The banner still holds modern meaning, as it is adapted by contemporary artists like Dread Scott, or depicted as a protest sign on the recent cover of The New Yorker. Between 1920 and 1938, the “A Man was Lynched Yesterday” flag hung outside the window of the NAACP’s headquarters in Manhattan, to mark an act of violence that had occurred the day before. The flag echoed the work of activists like Ida B. Wells and Walter White who had, at high risk to themselves, documented and publicized the prevalence and virulence of lynching in post-Emancipation America. Ralph Ellison knew these matters well. He moved to New York City in the summer of 1936 when the banner was still hanging on Fifth Avenue.

Ellison places at the heart of his narrative about modern race relations the sin-filled story of the lynching of the protagonist-preacher’s brother, Robert Hickman. He makes it happen in a manner so common it has become a trope. The reader learns that Reverend Hickman’s brother Bob was murdered and maimed by horrific means, based on a fabricated accusation, at the hands of individuals who were never brought to justice. The Hickman brothers’ mother subsequently dies of grief, representing not just herself, but the grief of so many mothers and family members before and after her, made to mourn for the same reason.

The life of Ellison’s preacher-protagonist, Alonzo “Daddy” Hickman—the bad boy, a n’er do well rambler, a traveling jazz musician, frequenter of bars and honky tonks, a gambler—is transformed in unforeseen ways as consequence of his brother’s lynching. Into Hickman’s life comes a baby, born of his brother’s false accuser. She appears unbidden at his door on the verge of childbirth, an unwed mother who maintains mystery around the patrimony of her child. Hickman guides the newborn into the world from his dead mother’s bed. While his heart is filled with mixed motivations of altruism and murderous revenge, the baby boy is offered to him in almost mystical fashion in place of his brother—in recompense for a loss so transgressing and staggering it can never be compensated, only ground to fine dust. He calls the baby Bliss, not as in happiness—though he does bring that, for a time, along with love and hope, as he embraced by a changed Hickman and a community of the faithful—but for Ignorance, as in “ignorance is bliss.” It is the depths of unseeing, the wild mix of truths and untruths, and the emotional and personal turmoil and attachments that Ellison explores in the novel, whose underlying foundation is the cost of racial injustice in and to America.

Juneteenth is titled for a day of revelation, also known as Freedom Day, June 19, 1865, when the delayed news of emancipation was received by persons held in slavery in Galveston, Texas—long after an executive proclamation, the legislative crafting of a 13th Amendment, and the end of a Civil War had deemed it so. In response to the news conveyed through General Order No. 3, some formerly enslaved persons sought family members elsewhere. Others stayed because of poverty, or community and kinship and friendship ties, or a love of place, or fear of bodily harm if encountered fleeing. For many, former conditions of enslavement were exchanged for denial of newly instituted civil rights, unequal opportunities for education, and the inequities of wage labor and sharecropping.

While the jubilation of Juneteenth was real, and the day remains a holiday of celebration and independence, it also signifies—like Ellison’s unfinished, morphing, questioning novel—that the full work of freedom is longstanding and intergenerational, and also that the forces of chaos and human failures are strong. Ellison made note for an epigraph for his novel, choosing something on the theme of the flux of past and future. It was a passage from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” in which the poet ponders that history may be servitude, or it may be freedom, and memory can liberate. But also things change. Present faces and places pass “to become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.”

Photo credit: 1) Portrait of Ralph Ellison by Gordon Parks, c. 1950. Prints & Photographs Division. From the exhibit “The Civil Rights Act of 1964”. 2) Anti-lynching flag flown at NAACP headquarters, ca. 1936. Prints & Photographs Division. 3) Dust jacket design by Robbin Schiff, photo Duncan Schiedt Collection, Random House, New York, 1999. Via our source.

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