I wanted to give you a thoughtful reaction to Ralph Ellison’s unfinished work, Juneteenth, at the appropriate time of the year, which is now, tomorrow being June 19, the day commemorating the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the States. But I couldn’t wade through it, only getting halfway. It’s a rambling novel that probably is best read in the company of well-read and thoughtful friends. Maybe, as you can tell from my recent posts, I’ve slouched away from that mindset.
“Ha, Bliss, so you remembered Eatmore, Old Poor John. Now that there was a great preacher. We did our circuit back there. Revivals and all. Don’t laugh at fools. Some are His. Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty. Which of Eatmore’s did you preach ’em, Bliss? Which text?”
Dreamily the Senator smiled. “They needed special food for special spirits, I preached them one of the most subtle and spirit-filled–one in which the Right Reverend Poor John Eatmore was most full of his ministerial eloquence: Give a Man Wood and He Will Learn to Make Fire . . . Eatmore’s most Promethean vision . . .” Hot here.
The story focuses on Senator Sunraider, quoted above, and the man speaking to him, a preacher and father figure named Hickman. In the beginning, Hickman and forty-three black men and women arrive in Washington hoping to meet with the senator for a few minutes, but he doesn’t give them that moment over the next two days. Then he is shot from the gallery while giving a speech.
I believe the rest of the novel is spent running memories through the Senator’s mind while Rev. Hickman is talking to him beside his hospital bed. Calling him Bliss, the name he’d given him as a child, Hickman remembers long sermons and revival meetings he did with the senator as a pre-teen. Bliss would be carried into meetings in a white coffin and wait for the right moment in Hickman’s preaching to rise up with his little, white Bible and preach with him in heart-tugging drama. It scared the boy and thrilled the crowd.
At another time of their lives, they went from town to town trying to sell the idea of a movie that showcased the town’s best qualities. Bliss was a young man then and naturally he discovered young women everywhere he went.
The reverberating tone in what I read points toward the senator, though himself a white man who has argued against black American equality in public life, understanding that his black heritage has formed him as a man and an American. No matter what he wants to believe, he has been shaped by black hands and black, American grassroot experiences.
In the introduction, John Callahan, who edited the draft that become this book, writes, “On many levels Juneteenth is a novel of liberation . . . Ellison, who took part in more than one ‘Juneteenth ramble’ as a boy in Oklahoma, speaks of false as well as true liberation and of the courage required to tell the difference. Even in the face of deepest betrayal, Hickman keeps his word to stand by Bliss, although the little boy is now contained within the frame of a man whose public words and deeds repudiate Hickman’s acts of kinship and fatherhood.”
It’s tough reading and maybe there are or should be better novels to capture this idea of liberty for all of us, but I’d sooner say I’m just not the right reader for this novel at this time.