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Author Biography
Plot Summary
Media Adaptations
Topics For Further Study
Historical Context
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Critical Overview
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Further Reading

Ralph Ellison


Juneteenth (New York, 1999) is Ralph Ellison's posthumous publication composed of nearly four decades and thousands of pages of work. The book was started in 1955. Pieces of Juneteenth were published during his four decades of work. In 1960 the literary magazine The Noble Savage published a portion entitled "And Hickman Arrives." Seven years later, a fire razed the Ellison's summer home, destroying a significant portion of Juneteenth. Given this setback, Ellison's forthcoming second novel continued to be delayed and was left unfinished even after his death in 1994. However, in 1999, after countless hours of work, John F. Callahan, Ellison's literary executor, pieced together cohesive selections from the mammoth, unfinished manuscript creating a cogent work of vast literary merit.

The title comes from an event that occurred on June 19, 1865. On this date in history, General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas to deliver the news that the Civil War had ended and that Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves. What is most notable about this event was that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was given on January 1, 1863, nearly two and half years before Granger reached Texas. Hence the vague term "Juneteenth" holds the innuendo of a vague date in history.

Similar to Ellison's other works, most notably his first novel Invisible Man, Juneteenth questions the cultural fabric of the United States. It digs into the underbelly of America, uncovering the foul history of racism and segregation in America. However, in classic Ellison style, the work does not fester in the negative. Juneteenth is an affirming narrative in that the black characters are strong, educated and cognizant. They do not cling to their oppression. Instead they yearn for something better and strive to find a way to achieve a better America—not a better black America—but a better overall America where the segregated races coexist and prosper, where racism is not forgotten, but absolved. Unfortunately, Ellison's dream as it existed in his mind and the minds of his protagonists has yet to be achieved. Nonetheless, his works, like Juneteenth, can only help to enable Americans with the knowledge necessary to move the nation closer to Ellison's aspiration.

Author Biography

Ralph Waldo Ellison, a twentieth-century African American writer and scholar, is one of America's most powerful and notable voices in the history of black America. A productive writer of essays and criticism, Ellison only wrote two novels during his lifetime, Invisible Man and the posthumously published Juneteenth. Although not prolific in the world of fiction, Ellison's writing changed the way Americans thought about race, politics, religion and culture through his essays and teachings.

Ellison was born into segregation on March 1, 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His father died only three years later, leaving his mother alone to raise their poverty stricken family. In 1933, Ellison attended Tuskegee Institute with the intentions to pursue a career in music. However, studying modern literature piqued his interested in writing. After leaving Tuskegee Institute in 1936, Ellison moved to New York City, where he met the author Richard Wright. From this friendship, Ellison was inspired to write and became associated with the Federal Writers' Project and published his first short stories and articles.

In 1945, Ellison began work on his most famous work, Invisible Man. Ellison's friendship with Wright helped to develop his most notable character, the nameless black protagonist in Invisible Man. Unlike Wright's angry, uneducated and inarticulate character in his powerful novel Native Son, Ellison's character was educated, well spoken and self-aware. Although both characters sprung from the consequences of oppression, Ellison focused his attentions on affirming what blacks have achieved as opposed to Wright's protest literature focused on the brutality of racism. In 1946, Ellison married Fanny McConnell who helped support them during the writing of Invisible Man. Finally, seven years after he began, Ellison achieved international fame with the publication of Invisible Man. In 1953, Ellison became the first black American to win the National Book Award when Invisible Man was awarded the coveted prize.

Although his first novel took seven years to complete, it would be a short duration in comparison with his second novel. Ellison began work on his second novel in 1955 while in Rome as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1958, Ellison accepted a position at Bard College as an instructor in Russian and American literature. In 1962, Ellison took a creative writing position at Rutgers University. Ellison continued to work on his second novel. Sadly, in 1967, a substantial portion of the manuscript was destroyed in a fire that burned the Ellison's summer home in the Berkshires. Although the fire was a setback, Ellison continued to garner praise and was appointed Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at New York University in 1970. He served in this position until 1980.

Over the four decades following the publication of Invisible Man, Ellison published countless reviews, interviews, essays and critiques of literature, folklore, jazz and other aspects of race and culture. A collection of his work was published in 1964, Shadow and Act, and another in 1986, Going to the Territory. Yet, during his lifetime he never published a second novel. At the age of eighty, on April 16, 1994, Ellison died in Harlem, New York. Some five years after the author's death, through keen selections from thousands of pages of Ellison's unfinished magnum opus, John F. Callahan, Ellison's literary executor, helped finally publish Ellison's second novel, Juneteenth.

Plot Summary

Chapters 1–3

The novel opens with Reverend Hickman and the members of his parish attempting to see the racist Senator Adam Sunraider. They are denied entry to the senator's office and, eventually, they are thrown out of the lobby by Sunraider's security. The parish moves on to Senate's Visitors' Gallery to watch Sunraider in action. He is giving a riveting speech about black Americans. It is a racist monologue, even containing the demeaning phrase "Coon Cage Eight"—a Cadillac full of "eight or more of our darker brethren crowded together enjoying its beauty, its neo-pagan comfort, while weaving reckless through the streets." While giving his speech the senator is having hallucinatory visions of the emblematic eagle from Great Seal. Alas, as Hickman and his parish watch on from the Visitors' Gallery, an unnamed black man rises up and shoots Sunraider several times. Fleeing the pursuit of security, the assassin falls to his death from the Visitors' Gallery down to the Senate floor. Hickman is distraught. His only son, the adopted white Sunraider, has somehow transformed himself into racist and, now, he has been mortally wounded right before his eyes.

Chapter 4

The unnamed assassin found his mark, but Sunraider is holding on to the last strings of life in a hospital bed. After falling from the assassin's bullets, Sunraider began calling for his adoptive father, Reverend Hickman. From his deathbed, Sunraider, with the help of Hickman, begins a lengthy series of flashbacks and recollections to his past. Before becoming a racist senator, Sunraider was a young, white preacher named Bliss Hickman, raised by a parish of kind, religious black Americans. Bliss is a young boy with a remarkable skill for preaching. Sometimes his skill made him the envy of others. On one such occasion, a young black boy was taunting Bliss about being a preacher. The boy teased Bliss and eventually Bliss hit the boy with a rock. Bliss is an important aspect to Reverend Hickman's revivals. He lies in a coffin and eventually rises up representing the resurrection and the life. Bliss moves the parishioners. He is a great preacher, even at his tender young age.

Chapters 5–7

In the hospital Sunraider again flashes back to his early years, remembering his first love and his years as an unsuccessful filmmaker. A young woman named Laly is accompanying Bliss on a picnic under a tree out in a field. Bliss calls Laly a "Teasing Brown" and she calls him "Mr. Movie-Man." The two enjoy an enormous picnic of sandwiches, fried chicken, Texas hots, boiled eggs, cake and tea with lemon and mint. The two are in love and eventually have sex underneath the tree.

Bliss also recollects his unsuccessful attempts at filmmaking with his partners Lester Donelson and Karp. They have a run-in with unfriendly towns-people, who beat them and pour whiskey on their heads, and forgetful Donelson ruins a remarkable scene when he forgets to load film in the camera.

Senator Sunraider wakes up in the hospital and is pleasantly surprised that Reverend Hickman is still by his side. The unlikely father and son team discuss the past and, eventually, Hickman convinces Sunraider to preach to him. Hickman continues their discussion, redirecting it through his recollections about their teamwork at the revivals. Hickman is using his time by the senator's side to re-educate his son about the struggles of black Americans. The Reverend talks about the history of Juneteenth and how it was not the first, nor the last, step of the black American on his road towards freedom.

Chapters 8–10

Hickman and Sunraider recount a crucial revival in which a deranged white woman, Miss Lorelli, storms through the meeting, claiming that Bliss is her son. She grabs the young white preacher and tries to kidnap him. The women of the parish attack her and try to wrestle Bliss from the crazed woman. The church is in an uproar. Eventually, Sister Bearmasher grabs Miss Lorelli by her hair and drags her out to her carriage. Hickman and Bearmasher take Lorelli to jail, where, subsequently, they are incarcerated for being black.

Knowing that Hickman may meet opposition at the jail, Sister Georgia takes Bliss back to her home for the night. The two share a melon and conversation. Bliss is attracted to Georgia in a way he cannot understand because of his youth. Following a nightmare, Georgia allows Bliss to sleep in her bed, where he sneaks a peak under her nightgown. He catches a glimpse of her womanhood and is ashamed of his immorality. He admits his indiscretion to Georgia, and she condemns his act, calling him a "jackleg" and throwing him crying out of her bed.

After being beaten by the police and released from jail, Hickman returns to Bliss. Bliss asks if Lorelli is his mother. Hickman tells the boy that she is just a crazy woman who comes from lots of money. She has a history of kidnapping children and claiming they are her babies.

Later, Bliss is laying under the porch in the shade when he decides to eavesdrop on Mrs. Proctor and Body's Mother. The two women discuss the episode with crazy Miss Lorelli and some of her other more bizarre habits. However, although both women cannot believe the woman could be Bliss' mother, they both admit that they do not know for sure.

Chapters 11–14

Hickman takes Bliss to his first movie. The Reverend explains that the film must be Bliss's first and last movie because films are of bad shadow worlds that are too sinful to make a common practice in a preacher's life. They attend the film and Bliss is terrified because he believes that the woman in the picture is his mother, the deranged woman from the revival, Miss Lorelli.

From the revival forward, Bliss begins to pull away from Hickman and the parish. Soon he runs away and goes to the all-white movie houses to escape from the searching parishioners. As Hickman recounts these memories, the senator begins experiencing frantic, fragmented recollections of his life—who he was, what he has become—and how his past and his emotions have shaped and morphed him into his present being. Soon both men, Hickman and Sunraider, sleep in the hospital room. Hickman dreams and contemplates freedom, violence, blackness in America and his role in it all. It is insightful, but vague.

Chapters 15–16

Hickman recollects how Bliss came to him. Bliss's mother, an unnamed woman, accuses Hickman's brother, Robert, of rape. Although innocent, Robert is murdered by a lynch mob. The woman is shunned from the community for engaging in sex with a black man. Pregnant and needing to give birth, the woman turns to the most unlikely of places, Alonzo Hickman's home. Hickman takes her in and plans to kill her, the child and himself after she gives birth. However, after the child is born, Hickman feels pity for the pathetic woman and begins to love the young boy. He cannot carry out his original plan. The woman abandons the child and leaves Hickman's home. Hickman names the child Bliss "because they say that's what ignorance is." With the birth of Bliss, Hickman experiences his own rebirth, finding God and changing his ways from a partying jazz musician to a powerful preacher. Hickman raised Bliss to the best of his abilities, but the boy grew up, went out on his own, and became a multimillionaire, a racist and senator.

Media Adaptations

  • Segments of an interview conducted by Elizabeth Farnsworth with Ralph Ellison in the 1960s, followed by an interview in 2000 with John Callahan, the editor of Juneteenth and Ralph Ellison's literary executor, is available at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/jan-june99/ellison_6-21.html (accessed November 24, 2004) and maintained by The Public Broadcasting Service Web site.
  • An interview from 1977 is available at http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/06/20/specials/ellison-conversation.html and is conducted at Ellison's home by Ishmael Reed, a novelist and poet.

After this final recollection, Sunraider appears to be reaching the last moments of his life. Laying in his deathbed, the senator begins a hallucinatory journey through a landscape composed of people shooting pigeons, foxes that bring men to tears, and a rude boy from a Goya painting. It ends with a massive, ominous black car full of black men. It is no ordinary car—it hovers, screeches and appears to be an amalgamation of random parts. The occupants of the car dislike Sunraider because they know he is a racist. Yet instead of running him over, they load the senator into the car taking him away on his final ride.


Sister Arter

Sister Arter is one of the members of Reverend Hickman's parish that accompanies him to Washington, D.C. with the hopes of making contact with Senator Sunraider.

Sister Bearmasher

Sister Bearmasher is a member of Reverend Hickman's parish who wrestles Miss Lorelli away from Bliss during a revival. During the revival, an unfamiliar, wild, red-haired white woman rushes through the procession, grabbing the young preacher, Bliss, and rips him from his little coffin. The woman appears insane and is screaming that the boy is her son. Many women from the parish attempt to pull Bliss from Miss Lorelli. However, the woman's craziness makes her incredibly powerful. Finally, Bearmasher pushes her way through the crowd to Miss Lorelli where she winds handfuls of the woman's hair around her arms and pulls the woman free of Bliss. Reverend Hickman loads Miss Lorelli, whose hair is still wound up in Bearmasher's fists and arms, and Bearmasher into Miss Lorelli's buggy. The three speed off through the night to delivery the crazy woman to the police.

Bliss's Mother

Bliss's Mother is an unnamed woman who accused Robert Hickman, Alonzo's brother, of rape. Her false accusation leads to Robert's murder at the hands of a lynch mob and her banishment from the white community. Pregnant and with nowhere to turn, Bliss's mother goes to Alonzo's home to give birth to her son. She admits that the boy could not have been Robert's and Alonzo decides to murder the woman, her child and himself after the child is born. Alonzo finds it impossible to commit the crimes because he begins to pity Bliss's mother and love the young, white boy as his own. Bliss's mother flees his home, leaving her son, never to be heard from again.


Body is a black boy who is one of Bliss's best friends. Bliss often calls Body his "right hand." The two spend all of their time together, except in church where Bliss is too busy preaching. Body often questions Bliss about scripture and preaching, but Bliss does not want to talk of things when he is spending time with Body because preaching is his work. Bliss enjoys playing and being a kid with Body. During one such time, Body and Bliss are on the porch and Body tries to explain Sammy Leaderman's movie projector to Bliss. Unfortunately, since neither child has the vocabulary or understanding to simply talk of a movie projector, they banter back and forth as Body tries to explain the box that has the people in it. Eventually, Bliss ends up frustrated, believing that such a thing cannot exist. Regardless of the outcome of this conversation, Body and Bliss's friendship represent one of the few opportunities for Bliss to behave like a little boy, thus, Bliss cherishes the moments he is allowed to spend with Body.

Body's Mother

Body's Mother, as the name implies, is the mother of Bliss's friend, Body. Bliss is envious of the love between Body and his mom because Bliss is an orphan. In addition to being an orphan, he has been forced to grow up fast because of Reverend Hickman's efforts to cultivate Bliss's natural preaching talent. Body's Mother was also at the revival when Miss Lorelli came storming in like a mad woman. At one point, Body's Mother and Mrs. Proctor are having a discussion on Body's Mother's front porch. Unbeknownst to the ladies, Bliss is laying silently underneath the porch in the shade. The two discuss Miss Lorelli, her craziness and whether or not she could truly be Bliss's mother. Both agree it is unlikely, but they admit that they cannot say for sure. Eager for any type of maternal love, this overheard conversation confuses Bliss and leaves him wondering whether or not Miss Lorelli is his mother.


Bowlegs is a black boy who comes to Bliss's defense during an encounter with some young boys. A group of boys are hanging around an empty lot pushing a truck around in the dirt, when Bliss walks through. A young, unnamed boy begins to taunt Bliss, teasing him about being a preacher. Bowlegs steps to Bliss's defense, stating that the young white boy is a real preacher who is capable of delivering salvation. He criticizes the unnamed boy for his rudeness and blasphemy.

The Boy at Waycross

The Boy at Waycross is the nameless black boy who taunts Bliss during an encounter in an empty lot. The unnamed boy mocks Bliss's preaching and insults him. Eventually, Bliss turns the table on the unnamed boy, trapping the boy in an idiom that makes him look foolish. All the taunting angers Bliss, but he tries his best to hold his composure. Yet, in the end, Bliss's verbal jabs back at the boy incite the nameless youth to charge the young preacher. Bliss smashes an egg-sized rock against the boy's forehead and runs from the crowd of young boys.

Lester Donelson

Lester Donelson is Bliss's cinematographer partner during his years as an unsuccessful filmmaker wandering through rural, Midwestern towns. Donelson is a lazy, volatile man who frequently forgets to do important tasks, like load the film into the camera.

Sister Georgia

Sister Georgia is a member of Reverend Hickman's parish who takes Bliss to her home after the meeting when Miss Lorelli attempted to kidnap him. After Sister Bearmasher ripped Miss Lorelli from Bliss, the congregation fussed over what to do with Bliss since Reverend Hickman left to deliver the crazed woman to the police. Eventually, the women decide it was best for Sister Georgia to take him home because she is younger, has no children and lived close by. Sister Georgia scoops up the scared, little preacher and runs through the woods with him to her home. During the run through the woods, Bliss feels a response to her womanly aspects and scents. He feels ashamed. Once home, the two share a melon and talk on the porch. Soon, Sister Georgia puts Bliss to bed on the couch. He wakes Sister Georgia because he is tossing and turning with a nightmare. She decides it is best for Bliss to sleep with her that night. Bliss agrees, but succumbs to his temptations and his earlier feelings about Sister Georgia, sneaking a peak at her womanhood underneath her sleeping gown while she sleeps. Ashamed and writhing with sin, Bliss admits his dishonorable act and cringes under his own immorality. However, Bliss also recognizes that the impure glimpse could have been less disreputable if Sister Georgia would have been a little girl of Bliss's own age, again showing that he has been forced into adulthood at too early of an age.

Reverend Alonzo Hickman

Reverend Alonzo Hickman is the man responsible for adopting and raising Bliss. He is the leader of the parish and an accomplished trombone player. Hickman, also called A. Z. and Daddy Hickman, slowly moves towards a life devoted to God after his brother is unjustly lynched for raping a white woman. The woman, pregnant and shunned by her community, goes to Hickman's house as a last resort to give birth. Hickman plans to kill the woman, her child and himself, but cannot complete the task. He begins to feel pity for the woman and love for the child. The woman leaves Hickman with the child, and he names the boy Bliss.

Hickman had wild younger years playing trombone with bands, drinking, dancing and fornicating. However, such behavior becomes too difficult with a young boy and soon his musical talent leads him to play tamer venues, such as churches. Finding God, Hickman begins to not only play music in churches, but also preach the Word. As Bliss gets older, Hickman sees and cultivates a natural talent for preaching in the young, white boy. Soon, Bliss becomes an important part in Hickman's meetings and revivals. Hickman tries his best to teach the young boy about race, religion, politics and sermonizing because he sees that the young boy could be a bridge or a "tie that binds" between the two segregated cultures of America. However, Hickman's eager prodding eventually pushes his white son away and, although Hickman loved the boy, he allows Bliss to become his own person. Watching from a distance, Hickman is saddened by what has become of his son. Eventually, with a letter from Janey Mason outlining the racist Bliss has become, Hickman forces himself to go to Washington, D.C. to confront and question his confused, beguiling son. Unfortunately, he is too late, and he witnesses Bliss being shot on the Senate floor.

Bliss Hickman

Bliss Hickman is a young, white orphan left in the hands of a black jazz musician, Alonzo Hickman, by his mother. Alonzo raises Bliss the best way he can, trying to make enough money playing trombone in jazz clubs. However, the lifestyle is hardly an acceptable way to raise a child. Soon Alonzo begins playing trombone at churches and eventually finds his own voice as a preacher. At a very early age, Bliss also shows great promise as a preacher. He is incredibly skilled in the understanding and memorization of scripture. Bliss has a voice and delivery enviable of any full-grown preacher. Alonzo sees this gift as an opportunity that could benefit all of America. A young, intelligent, religious white boy raised to love and understand black culture, with the capacity to speak with eloquence beyond his years, could be a bridge that spans the gap between the two segregated American cultures. Unfortunately, this burden is too much for young Bliss to bear and he runs away. The boy grows older, explores filmmaking, falls in love and travels with his friends. All the while Alonzo keeps a close eye on him through the help of his far-reaching constituents. Much to Alonzo's dismay, his young hope eventually turns against his upbringing, becoming a vile racist: Senator Adam Sunraider.

Robert Hickman

Robert Hickman is Reverend Alonzo Hickman's brother. He is murdered by a lynch mob after being accused of raping a white woman. Robert Hickman is innocent, yet he is still killed for the crime. The woman who accuses him is Bliss's mother.


Karp is Bliss's production partner during his years as an unsuccessful filmmaker wandering through rural, Midwestern towns. Karp is a kind man who does not seem as driven as Bliss, but is also much more dedicated and adept than their third partner, Donelson.


Laly is Bliss's "Teasing Brown" love interest from his filmmaking years. The two share a beautiful afternoon together picnicking and making love under a tree. Laly calls Bliss "Mr. Movie-Man" and the couple talk of love and the future. Their relationship is precious in that Bliss finally feels true love for a woman, but it is also short-lived.

Miss Lorelli

Miss Lorelli is the crazed woman who storms into Reverend Hickman's meeting, crashes through the members of the parish and attempts to kidnap Bliss from his coffin. The woman is eventually wrestled away from Bliss by Sister Bearmasher and delivered to the authorities by Bearmasher and Hickman. According to Hickman, Miss Lorelli has a torrid history of kidnapping children and claiming them as her own. She is not so much wicked as she is deranged. Hickman assures Bliss that Miss Lorelli is certainly not his mother, but the boy is left skeptical, both from his yearning for a mother and an overheard conversation between Body's Mother and Mrs. Proctor.

Sister Lucy

Sister Lucy is one of the members of Reverend Hickman's parish that helped care for Bliss after Miss Lorelli attempted to kidnap the young preacher.

Janey Mason

Jane Mason is one of Hickman's many constituents who is instructed to keep an eye on Bliss after he leaves the parish. Mason sends Hickman a letter stating that Bliss has become a horrible, racist Senator and that there is little hope for his recovery. She also fears that the Senator's life may be in danger. Mason's letter prompts Hickman and members of his parish to leave the south and head for Washington, D.C.

Sister Neal

Sister Neal is one of the members of Reverend Hickman's parish that accompanies him to Washington, D.C. with the hopes of making contact with Senator Sunraider. Sitting in the Senate's Visitors Gallery, Sister Neal is horrified at what has become of the once-shining hope the preacher Bliss had been.

Mrs. Proctor

Mrs. Proctor is a friend of Body's Mother and was present during the meeting in which Miss Lorelli attempted to kidnap Bliss. At one point, Body's Mother and Mrs. Proctor are having a discussion on Body's Mother's front porch. Unbeknownst to the ladies, Bliss is laying underneath the porch in the shade. Mrs. Proctor tells a story about one of her former white employers who always had to complain about some aspect of Mrs. Proctor's work. Eventually, the white woman found herself caught in a lie, accusing Mrs. Proctor of doing something impossible, and Mrs. Proctor called her out, stating she was only looking for something to complain about. The altercation led to Mrs. Proctor losing her job.

Senator Sunraider's Secretary

Senator Sunraider's Secretary refuses to contact the Senator when Hickman and the members of his parish arrive at his office in Washington, D.C. Eventually, the secretary has them thrown out and never mentions anything of their visit to Senator Sunraider.

Senator Adam Sunraider

Senator Adam Sunraider is the racist outcome of young Bliss Hickman. After leaving the parish and stumbling through years as a filmmaker, Bliss eventually finds wealth and a desire for politics. Somehow, whether it be through his indoctrination into his culture as a white American or his revolt against his upbringing as a black American, Bliss is morphed into the vicious Sunraider. Sunraider is outspoken about the evils of black America. He uses the skills he learned behind the pulpit in Reverend Hickman's parish to scrutinize and deprecate the very culture that raised him. Sunraider's speeches eventually lead to his tragic demise at the hands of young, black assassin, but not before he spends several days on his deathbed recollecting and recounting what had occurred to drive him to this, his final place in history.

Deacon Wilhite

Deacon Wilhite is a member of Reverend Hickman's parish that helps lead revivals with Bliss, the young preacher. He is an honest man with a powerful voice and message. Wilhite stands tall and proud as a leading member of Hickman's congregation.

Sister Wilhite

Sister Wilhite is one of the members of Reverend Hickman's parish that helps care for Bliss after Miss Lorelli attempted to kidnap the young preacher.

Topics For Further Study

  • Ellison's characters express their feelings through speeches and sermons, both political and religious. Describe at least two speeches or sermons, whether they be famous or personal, that have affected your life. Examine the impact and message of these speeches. Are they of a religious or political nature? Both? Neither? Who are the people addressing you and how do you relate to them and their place in time and history? Write a short essay summarizing the speeches and examining these questions.
  • Bliss Hickman and Adam Sunraider are effectively the same individual. However, they are polar opposites with regards to their beliefs, understandings and perceptions of race, culture, religion, and politics. This type of juxtaposition is popular in fiction. Try to come up with other characters that share the polarity of Reverend Bliss and Senator Sunraider and compare their differences. What makes the characters change? What are the different personalities of the different characters? To get you started, it may be helpful to think about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
  • Juneteenth as it is published is only a fragment of the work that Ellison put into developing his second novel. Select two to four aspects from Juneteenth that you feel were left underdeveloped and write a short passage that would help to clarify or further explicate the character, scene, setting, or theme that left you unfulfilled and wondering.
  • Music is an important factor not only in Ellison's life but also in the characters he develops. Jazz music in particular plays an important role in the development of Ellison's writing. As a young man, Ellison was an accomplished trumpeter and as an older, educated scholar, Ellison made many accomplishments writing about jazz music and musicians. Reverend Hickman is also tied to music, as his life before Bliss was dedicated to the trombone. Spend time listening to some jazz music from the 1950s and 1960s, like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus. How does this music feel in relation to the tone established in Juneteenth? Do the characters move in a way that mimics jazz music? Do you believe jazz music could be the soundtrack to Juneteenth? Why? Would you select a different type of music or different jazz musicians to compose your soundtrack of Juneteenth? If so, what would you pick and why?


Darkness and Light

Darkness and light play an important role in Ellison's Juneteenth. The words both represent race, Caucasian and African American, and are personified in the white preacher, Bliss, and his grownup alter ego, racist senator Sunraider. The term bliss means complete happiness or paradise. It is heavenly, full of light and devoid of evil and immorality. On the other hand, the term Sunraider carries the implied meaning of an individual that raids the sun, i.e., removes all aspect of light. Sunraider is the personification of darkness, just as Bliss is the personification of light. The importance of light and darkness appears in other places. When Bliss is contained within the coffin at the revivals he is trapped inside the darkness. However, inside the darkness of the box the young, white preacher is dressed in his white satin outfit and upon his cue, he is reborn from the darkness into the light of the parish. His repeated rebirth is a metaphor for the resurrection. The metaphor, in turn, builds Bliss up as an allusion to Jesus. Like the savior, Bliss possesses a remarkable ability to preach salvation. In addition, his rebirth at revivals instills faith in the parishioners. Finally, with Bliss's actual birth, he brought Hickman out of the darkness and into the light of God. If Bliss would not have instilled light in Hickman, the Reverend would have murdered him, his mother and himself in a fit of rage, shrouded in the darkness of his brother's unjust lynching. Ellison uses light and darkness to repeatedly create strong metaphors throughout Juneteenth, describing race and religion through a figurative use of language.


Dualism is an important theme in Ellison's Juneteenth. Bliss is an example of the dualism of flesh and spirit. He is young and, although his body is youthful, his spirit is advanced. Thus, with an advanced spirit, he is expected to deny his flesh as it catches up with his mind. He is forced to ignore his physical yearning for swimming, ice cream, playing with his friends, girls and living a carefree, young life. Bliss is forced into a spiritual recognition that most adults never achieve. His identity is built upon his understanding of scripture and his ability to preach salvation. Hickman saw this ability in his young, adopted son and wanted to cultivate it. However, his pressures eventually drove Bliss away, sending him to chase his lost childhood and seek out his physical nature. Unfortunately, Bliss did not achieve a balance between his dual natures. Instead of falling temporarily into the grips of the flesh to again return and tend to his spirit, Bliss continued away from his spiritual upbringing. He tried his best to deny his other side, to squelch it from existence, by becoming his own antithesis: a rich, racist senator.

Memory and Reminiscence

Memory, or reminiscence, is the most central theme of Ellison's work. The device is used both by Hickman and Sunraider to recount feelings, emotions and actions. In fact, there are often memories within memories that create a collage-like narrative. It is very effective in creating a relationship between Hickman and Sunraider, especially since their emotions are presented as collage-like, too. Without the tool of memory, or reminiscence, it would be hard to develop the fabric that binds the two very different men together. They, in many ways, grew up together. Bliss was a mature, spiritual young preacher, just like his adoptive father. Although they ended up standing diametrically opposed to one another, they seemed permanently intertwined, as if their shared memories held them together as a unit even though they grew apart as individuals.



Through the use of contrasting images, e.g., light and darkness, and emotions, e.g., bliss and fear, Ellison underscores the impact race has on the characters in the South prior to the Civil Rights movement. In one scene, parishioners are engrossed in the power and vitality of salvation and the Word, and then they are suddenly wrought with fear regarding the backlash they will endure from having to wrestle a deranged, white woman out of their revival. Juxtaposing these feelings and images allows Ellison to reveal the heart of race relations in the South. He is able to exemplify the intelligence, integrity and devotion of black Americans in opposition to the oppression and racism imposed on them during this time in history.

Figurative Language

Figurative language is a technique imposed by Ellison in Juneteenth to interrupt the order of his storytelling. The novel is composed of the linear story of Bliss, Hickman and Sunraider. However, the literal use of language to explain their history is broken up by dreams and memories that are brought to life through hyperboles, similes and ironic visual constructs. For example, when Sunraider is giving his speech before the Senate, he is hallucinating that the eagle from the Great Seal is attacking him, flapping its wings in front of his face, clutching the olive branch and the arrow. The bird is staring deep into the speaking senator's eyes. All the while, Sunraider is delivering a speech before his fellow senators and those in the Visitors' Gallery. This is one of several examples of a literal description of an event being interrupted by a figurative use of language.

Historical Context

Pre-Civil Rights Movement America and the Emancipation Proclamation

The title of this novel is pulled from a moment in history known as Juneteenth. The term refers to June 19, 1865. Although Abraham Lincoln gave the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, it took nearly two and a half years for the news to spread. On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War had ended and, along with it, slavery. The enslaved were elated. Many moved north as it symbolized freedom. Others left for the deeper South to try and find relatives and family members. Still others stayed to see what type of employer-employee relationship would develop out of slavery. Much is unknown as to why there was a two-and-a-half year delay in delivering the news of freedom to the slaves in Texas. One story that is often told is that the messenger delivering news of freedom was murdered on his way to Texas. Another is that the plantation and slave owners deliberately withheld the news in order to maintain the labor force. Lastly, it is speculated that federal troops waited for one last cotton harvest to financially benefit the slave owners. Of course, none of these speculations has been proven true. Regardless, what is known is that Texas retained the status quo, enslaving blacks for two years beyond what was lawful.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1930s–1940s: Benjamin Davis Sr. becomes the first black general in the United States Army in American history.

    Today: African Americans hold important positions in Congress and all divisions of the armed forces. Colin Powell, an African American, held the prestigious position of Secretary of State under the first term of the George W. Bush presidency.

  • 1930s–1940s: Jackie Robinson becomes the first black to play Major League Baseball.

    Today: Players of all ethnicities, races and nationalities play throughout the United States in Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, National Football League and the National Hockey League.

  • 1930s–1940s: Franklin Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act and the Wealth Tax Act is passed, helping alleviate the unjust concentration of wealth and power.

    Today: The United States is enduring a struggling economy. In the last quarter of 2003 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports nearly 8.8 million people are unemployed. By October 2004 there are still about 8.2 million people without work.

  • 1930s–1940s: The apartheid program is established in South Africa. Racial discrimination is institutionalized in laws that marginalize black Africans, often defining specific areas where they can live and work. Many black Africans are relocated several times to various locations determined by a prejudiced government.

    Today: South Africans crushed apartheid in 1994 with the all-race elections and, although the nation still suffers, they are making strides to becoming a safer, democratic state.

Although Ellison's book does not take place during this historical time, the term Juneteenth acts as metaphor for all of the steps black Americans have taken, and continue to take, towards ending slavery, achieving equality and eliminating racism. Reverend Hickman states, "There's been a heap of Juneteenths before this one and I tell you there'll be a heap more before we're truly free!" The novel takes place in the decades prior to the Civil Rights movement. Although this is not explicit, the time and setting implies this period of history.

In relation to the fifty years following the Emancipation Proclamation, the two decades before the Civil Rights movement, 1935–1955, were a time of relative prosperity and growth for black Americans. Black Americans were being recognized for their work and achievements. Authors, activists, athletes and educators were voicing opinions, spurring change and stirring people of all races to action. However, there were still many who were opposed to the equality march of the black American. Black Americans were still being quickly convicted of crimes they did not commit. Lynch mobs still roamed the South, murdering unsuspecting and innocent black men. Black women were still exploited and demeaned in the homes of rich whites. Yet, black Americans still strived to overcome the oppression of white Americans. Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. In 1941, A. Philip Randolph pressured Franklin D. Roosevelt, who eventually issued an executive order to end discrimination in the defense industries. The United Negro College Fund was founded in 1944. In 1954, the first giant step to overturn segregation was completed with the Supreme Court ending legal segregation in all American schools. These are only a few of the many Juneteenths paving the way on the African American journey towards equality, true freedom and a better America.

Critical Overview

Ellison's novel Juneteenth was only recently published in 1999, thus there is not a great deal of criticism written about the book. It has received a vast amount of praise, but also some reviews critical of the novel construction. Nonetheless, there has not been enough time for concrete reflection to develop a corpus of lengthier criticism. Richard A. King stated in Journal of American Studies that Ellison's Juneteenth "can be read as an allegory of the history of America. Though nurtured and cared for by long-suffering blacks, white Americans have spent their lives—and the nation its history—denying that originary link of intimacy." King is touching on what has made Ellison one of America's most important and cherished authors. Ellison is capable of creating a story that is rich with history, entrenched with allegories and metaphors, but not hinged to oppression or evil. Ellison's other works, most notably Invisible Man, all explore and shed light on the evils of racism, segregation and hatefulness, but they are rooted in the affirmation of blackness, not in the literal exploration of the obviously negative, incredulous evils of racism.

Yet, although this book has received much praise in terms of reviews from magazines and newspapers, the academic journals that have delved into the book note several problems with the book. Again, from Richard A. King in Journal of American Studies, "In structural terms, too much of Juneteenth is made up of the two men's [Hickman and Sunraider] exchanging set speeches about their shared pasts. Upon reflection, none of this is surprising considering Hickman's religious and [Sunraider's] political vocation." Although the sermonizing and speechmaking of both characters helped to develop their relationship and the collage of their intertwining emotions, it is excessive.

Overall, Juneteenth is an incredible work. With Ellisonian wit, humor, assumption and evocation the novel explores the ever-changing climate of race in America. Yet, as forthcoming criticism will analyze, this book is the construct of over two thousand pages of work and, albeit far from perfect, a remarkable novel has sprung forth from that formidable collection of thoughts, ideas, allegories and anecdotes.


Anthony Martinelli

Martinelli is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor. In this essay, Martinelli examines the effects of race—as personified by the opposing characteristics of Bliss Hickman and his adult self, Senator Adam Sunraider—on religion and America during the decades prior to the Civil Rights movement.

In Juneteenth, Ralph Ellison tells the story of a young, white orphan, Bliss, who is taken in and adopted by a black musician, Alonzo Hickman. Although completely white in appearance and blood, Bliss developed an incredible understanding of black culture and religion. In fact, he had such a keen knowledge of scripture that it becomes apparent to Hickman that Bliss had a prodigious ability for preaching the Word. Hickman became righteously devoted to cultivating Bliss's abilities because he saw in Bliss the qualities of a savior, not only for individuals but also for America. Unfortunately, Hickman's focus on Bliss's religious development blinded him to a wholly necessary development of his son's being: his physical, flesh side. It was apparent that Bliss had a strong inclination for the spirit and, thus, an ability to be the "the tie that binds" blacks and whites, unifying America through the Word and the light of goodness. However, given such blind one-sidedness, without proper attention given to his duality as a flesh-and-bone human being, it became inevitable that Bliss was doomed to fall victim to himself. Through being denied access to tactile things, e.g., playing with friends, attending movies, flirting with girls, Bliss was forced to revolt against Hickman and his black upbringing in order to pay needed attention to his physical side. He ran from his adoptive father's parish to pursue filmmaking, sleep with women, make millions and eventually turn into an antithesis of his former, younger self: a white, racist Senator named Adam Sunraider. The duality of the protagonist-antagonist character in one single body, i.e., Bliss and Sunraider, is a representation of race and its effect on religion and America.

Bliss came to Hickman through an extraordinary and sad turn of events. Bliss's mother had accused Hickman's brother, Robert, of rape. A lynch mob heard of the accusation, sought out Robert and murdered him. Bliss's mother was, in turn, shunned by the white community. Pregnant with not Robert's but an unnamed white man's child, Bliss's mother turned to the most unlikely of individuals: Alonzo Hickman. Hickman brought the woman into his home and planned to murder the woman, her child and himself once she gave birth. However, upon the child's birth, Hickman, a jazz musician with a lewd and hedonistic past, began to feel pity for the woman and a deep love of the newborn boy. The birth of the small child pulled Hickman from the darkness of his past and his murderous plan, removing him from his past and future sins, showing him goodness. Recalling holding the newborn Hickman thought, "I'll call him Bliss, because they say that's what ignorance is. Yes, and little did I realize that it was the name of the old heathen life I had already lost." Bliss's birth is also a rebirth of Hickman in that he has found a new life and a new beginning, refocusing his life and passion on religion and preaching instead of jazz music, drinking and women.

With Hickman on a religious path and Bliss as his catalyst, it is no wonder that it became important to Hickman to introduce his young, white adopted son to religion and the Word. As the boy grew, Hickman realized that at an early age Bliss possessed a natural talent for preaching salvation. Even though Hickman told Bliss, "I still couldn't tell who your daddy was, or even if you have any of our blood in your veins," Hickman believed the boy possessed an ability that transcended his race. Bliss was a white boy bringing salvation to the souls of black parishioners in a time of deep segregation and racism in America. Bliss had learned and cultivated so much of the black culture that his race was no detraction from his preaching of the Word. However, for Bliss, black culture, even though he was white, became his integrated pattern of knowledge and belief. He personified an American race battleground—a white-skinned, black-spirited boy. Alan Nadel supports this claim in American Literary History:

... the problem for Bliss is to remember. He must take himself—and us—to the depths of that American unconscious where the contradictions that undermine democracy can be confronted. Pursuing that search from Bliss's and Hickman's perspectives makes clear that Bliss is not only Christ but also America, both the sacrificial spirit and the historical embodiment of democracy.

Although Nadel takes Bliss to a higher religious standpoint as Christ, his statement supports the concept of Bliss as a personification of the American democratic dream of true equality and understanding, free of racism and violence.

Yet, for all that Bliss was, Hickman's desires pushed Bliss away. In opposition to Nadel's statement, Bliss was not Christ. He was not the Son of God; he was merely man. As to be expected from all youths, Bliss had to revolt against his father to become his own man. He fled from the parish, disappearing into whites-only movie houses to escape the parishioners' attempts to reclaim their prodigy preacher. Films were Bliss's most effective form of rebellion against father, because Hickman told his son that "if they look at those shows too often they'll get all mixed up with so many of those shadows that they'll lose their way. They won't know who they are is what I mean." Hickman's lesson proved true. The catalyst for Bliss's transformation into the racist Sunraider was the young preacher's decision to leave the parish, the Word and his culture to wander the Midwest unsuccessfully attempting to make movies.

Upon Bliss's final decision to leave, Hickman decided to no longer attempt to bring the boy back to the parish. Hickman was full of anxiety because he still believed the boy held the key to the future of America. However, he understood that continued pressure would only further drive Bliss from what Hickman believed was his true calling: to bind America and the races together. Unfortunately, Bliss continued to rebel, to the point of complete cessation. No longer Bliss—an individual of enlightenment, happiness and a union of the spirits of the races—the boy preacher was transformed into Sunraider—an individual devoid of light, rooted in wretchedness and the Archfiend of the democratic spirit.

Sunraider is assassinated on the Senate floor. On his deathbed and with Hickman by his side for the first time in decades, Sunraider recounted his youth as Bliss, the white preacher boy who could have been the tie that bound America together. He told Hickman, "I couldn't understand my creation. Didn't you realize that you'd trapped me in the dead-center between flesh and spirit, and that at my age they were both ridiculous?" This was Sunraider's first explication of his own rebellion. He articulated an understanding of where he came from and, more importantly, from what he rebelled. Hickman embraced Sunraider's memories. Yet, as Nadel states in American Literary History, "Bliss ought to have destroyed the myth of segregation." Hickman saw this power in Bliss and was thus willing to pressure the boy's growth as the grand unifier of America. Also, Hickman was complacent and eventually willing to let the boy rebel and temporarily flee from his calling. However, he was surprised as to the extent that Bliss was willing to wander from the Word, his culture and, most unbelievable, the community that loved him. Hickman told his son, "Bliss, how after knowing such times as those you could take off for where you went is too much for me to truly understand. At least not to go there and stay." Hickman believed that when his adopted son left him he would eventually return. He believed he had instilled in his son a true love of the Word and of the blackness that was imbedded under his white skin, deep within his spirit, and that these concepts would lead Bliss back to his calling.

Unfortunately for Hickman, Sunraider, and America, the savior-son Bliss left, never to return. His solitary position between black and white, racism and democracy, the spirit and the flesh, all created too much anxiety for such a young man. The powerful, unseen force of Bliss's position is clarified in a scary, lengthy passage from Sunraider's memory of being locked in a coffin at Hickman's revival:

... Screaming, mute, the Senator thought, Not me but another. Bliss. Resting on his lids, black inside, yet he knew that it was pink, a soft, silky pink blackness around his face, covering even his nostrils. Always the blackness. Inside everything became blackness, even the white Bible and Teddy, even his white suit. Not me! It was black even around his ears, deadening the sound expect for Reverend Hickman's soaring songs; which now noodling up there high above had taken on the softness of the piece of black velvet cloth from which Grandma Wilhite had made a nice full-dress over coat—only better, because it had a wide cape for a collar. Ayee, but blackness.

On his deathbed, Sunraider was ravaged by his tumultuous position between the races of America. The passage is riddled with oppositions and references to black and white, religion and rebirth. Sunraider's memory is still vivid, even on his deathbed. Internally, he is violently pulled in multiple directions by everything that he was supposed to bind together. This responsibility was simply too much and, thus, Sunraider gave in, releasing himself from the daunting task that Hickman had lain out before him.

In the final moments as Sunraider fades into death, the American dream of a true freedom and unification of the races slips away with Bliss's life. Hickman called out, "Bliss! You were our last hope, Bliss; now Lord have mercy on this dying land!" Although Ellison does not hold Hickman's opinion, the death of Sunraider-Bliss does represent Ellison understanding that even up to the author's own death in 1994, the American dream was still unrealized. The death of the Sunraider-Bliss character is not one of doom for America, it simply represents that there still exists a chasm between the races, one that will not disappear until Americans have moved beyond their final Juneteenth, forming a "tie that binds," unifying all Americans under a true democracy.

Source: Anthony Martinelli, Critical Essay on Juneteenth, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Robert J. Butler

In the following essay excerpt, Butler examines the narrative structure of Juneteenth, positing that critics who find the novel too "loosely connected" misinterpret the way the structure is "inspired by musical techniques rather than conventional narrative plotting."

A close reading of Juneteenth reveals that the novel is anything but the "Frankenstein monster" which [Louis] Menand described and much more than the loosely connected fragments which several other reviewers perceived. But the book's principle of organization, like the structure of Invisible Man which early reviewers and critics were also unable to see, is not apparent on a first or second reading because it is inspired by musical techniques rather than conventional narrative plotting. The structural "patterns" of Juneteenth which are used to give shape and meaning to the "raw experience" which Ellison struggled for over forty years to refine, are, like those of an impressionistic symphony or a jazz composition, based upon free rhythms and loose repetition rather than a mechanical plan or linear plot.

The most important structural device employed in Juneteenth is the careful placement of three key scenes, the assassination of Senator Sunraider at the beginning of the novel, the Juneteenth celebration at the center of the book, and Hickman's meditations at the Lincoln Memorial toward the end of the narrative. Each of these scenes takes place in a setting of great national and cultural importance and, as they resonate against each other like the movements of a symphony or the parts of a jazz performance, they not only give the book a loose but discernible overall shape, but they also allow Ellison to develop central themes, define important characters, and provide a comprehensive vision of American experience. For unlike Ellison's earlier fictions, which are centered in quintessentially modern figures who are alienated from a social context, Juneteenth is, in the best sense of the word, a "national" narrative which is centered around a large-scale figure of epic proportions who heroically assumes the "socially responsible role" which Invisible Man seeks but has trouble finding at the end of the novel. Father, minister, and citizen, Alonzo Z. Hickman is no underground or marginalized person afflicted with twentieth-century anomie; rather, he is a "citizen-individualist" whose story is integrally related to a larger national narrative which provides Juneteenth with a power and resonance missing in much modern and postmodern literature.

The first major scene, the assassination of Senator Adam Sunraider on the floor of the United States Senate in the mid-1950s, dramatizes the disastrous cultural conflicts and contradictions of post–World War II American culture. Like the battle royal scene in Invisible Man, it is a frightening epiphany of a disintegrating society because it reflects a fundamental conflict between democratic ideals and racist practices. Just as the battle royal is an ironic inversion of the Alger myth, Sunraider's speech is an ironic commentary on the classic pre-Civil War myth of America as a pre-fallen Eden. Carried away by his own "verbal exhilaration," he releases the "full resonance of his voice," giving "expression to ideas the likes of which he had never articulated." The first part of the speech is a powerful evocation of the "transcendent ideas" that go to the heart of the American myth, picturing America as an "edenic landscape" which has broken free of a corrupt European past and promises "a more human future." Sunraider urges his audience to embrace a "democratic passion" and assures them that "we are defeated only if we fail in the task of creating a total way of life which will allow each and every one of us to rise above his origins." He then concludes this unlikely speech, which arises from "some chaotic region deep within him," by citing two African American figures, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, as people who did indeed establish themselves as exemplary American men who rose well above their origins, black men from the "dark side" of America who became prominent at a "dark time" of African American history. They are evidence for Sunraider of the fluidity of American life and the fact that "brightness sometimes hides itself in darkness."

The setting in which this scene is enacted emphasizes the mythic resonance of Sunraider's speech. His audience is seated behind "circular, history-stained desks," and as he delivers this speech, he gazes at another circular object which calls to mind the nation's history and mission, "the Great Seal" containing the "national coat of arms." Gazing at this "mystic motto of national purpose" and especially the "emblematic" eagle at the center of the seal, he is shaken for a time from racist diatribes which he has used to gain power and delivers an uncharacteristically democratic speech arising from a subconscious self "deep within him." Spurred on by his audience's rapt attention as they await "some crucial and long-awaited revelation that would make them whole," Sunraider taps into an ideal vision of America which is diametrically opposed to the racism and demagoguery he has used to vault himself into a position of national prominence and power.

But if the first section of Sunraider's speech expresses that part of his divided personality suggested by his first name, Adam, the second part of his speech comes from his outward political self which divides people by exploiting their baser selves. (This part of the speech could well be suggested by the initials of his two names, B.S.) Shifting from a "lovely dream of progressive idealism," he launches into his stock-in-trade, a Negro-baiting invective eliciting "enthusiastic rebel yells." It is precisely at this point that he is shot by an anonymous assailant whose motives and racial origins are not clear. Is he a black man who objects to the crude racism of the second part of the speech, or is he a white man offended by the democratic idealism of the first part of the speech? The text remains ambiguous on both points.

In his New York Times Book Review article, Louis Menand argued that the scene culminating in Sunraider's being shot is not successful because its two parts blatantly contradict each other:

Callahan's insertion of the excerpt from "Cadillac Flambé"—an anti-black diatribe—into the speech Sunraider is delivering when he gets shot is consistent with the rest of his speech which is in praise of democracy and diversity. Did Ellison want his character to have undergone a political conversion on the eve of his assassination? If he did, it's too late now.

But Menand's criticism misses the point which goes to the heart of the scene's meaning. Sunraider's sometimes raving speech is a surprisingly lucid example of what he calls "our national ambiguities"—America is both a visionary world defined by lofty ideals and a historical entity which has consistently contradicted those ideals. And like America, Sunraider is sharply divided—he is both a racist demagogue and someone who takes seriously the America created by "our visionary fathers." The first part of his speech is rooted in his childhood past when as Hickman's adopted son and revivalist partner he would have indeed embraced the mythic vision of America as a new Eden, a redemptive force transforming human history. But he is also Senator Sunraider, the man who defiled American ideals to secure his own political advantages. Although the scene stresses the ambiguous duality of both America and Sunraider's own nature, it is altogether lucid on this point which Sunraider makes mid-way through his speech—America's "transcendent ideals" do indeed "interrogate us, judging us." Just as Sunraider is judged and found wanting in this scene and pays the price of his demagoguery with an assassin's bullet, so too is post–World War II America interrogated and judged by Ellison for failing to square its democratic ideals with its history.

Underneath the bitter ironies of Sunraider's speech, therefore, emerge important thematic matters which the novel's other key scenes will attempt to clarify. Among these important ideas are the three questions which Sunraider raises: "How can the many be one? How can the future deny the past? And how can the light deny the dark?" These "three fatal questions" which "history has put to us" are not answered by Sunraider, but Ellison does make him the frail vessel who poses such questions, which the remainder of the novel will meditate upon seriously.

The Juneteenth celebration, which is located in the two chapters at the exact center of the novel, also takes place in a setting of profound national and cultural importance, a campground which in the past has served as a sacred burial ground for slaves and in the present is the place where Hickman and seven other ministers hold a weeklong celebration of African American freedom promised by the Emancipation Proclamation. Indeed, Hickman regards Juneteenth as a day of enormous cultural importance, a "God-given day" to "celebrate our oneness." It is in fact a day when the "transcendent ideals" described in Sunraider's Senate speech are finally extended to black Americans and, accordingly, Hickman sees this day as "a great occasion. A great occasion." A crucial moment in the historical experience of all African Americans, it is also a pivotal moment in Sunraider's personal life since it is at this point that a white woman claims him as her son and begins a process which eventually culminates in his leaving Hickman and denying his profound ties with black people. And Sunraider's betrayal of his roots reflects a larger betrayal of blacks by American society since the promises of freedom and justice which were made in the original Juneteenth in 1865 were eventually reneged upon by the Compromise of 1877, which laid the groundwork for the re-enslavement of American blacks through a system of racial segregation. As was the case with the assassination scene at the beginning of the novel, Ellison connects personal and cultural narratives to stress the integral connection between individual lives and the life of the nation.

And Hickman's extraordinary sermon, like Sunraider's speech, is heavily infused with myth and rituals which help to define American identity. But unlike Sunraider, who evokes the romantic pre-Civil War myth of America as Eden before the Fall, Hickman conjures up a tragic post-Civil War vision of America as a postlapsarian world in which the "calamity" of slavery betrays "the principles of Almighty God," making America a kind of "hell." But if slavery is linked to "the fall of proud Lucifer from Paradise," Hickman's powerfully Christian imagination offers hope for a redeemed America by drawing skillfully upon the paradox of the Fortunate Fall which is central to Christian theology. Hickman assures his congregation that the "calamity" of slavery was "laced up with a blessing," and this blessing is "the Word." And the Word empowered blacks to transcend the "pain and suffering" of slavery by constructing a spiritually rich African American culture.

The most compelling image Hickman uses to dramatize the concept of the Fortunate Fall is the underground, a rich and complicated symbol of the historical experience of black people in America. Designed by whites as a tomb into which slaves would fall, it becomes transformed in Hickman's mythic imagination as a transcendent symbol of regeneration:

Ah, but though divided and scattered, ground down and battered into the earth like a spike being pounded by a ten-pound sledge, we were on the ground and in the earth and the earth was red and black like the earth of Africa. And as we moldered underground we were mixed with this land. We liked it. It fitted us fine. It was in us and we were in it. And then—praise God—deep in the ground, deep in the womb of the land, we began to stir!

Seen in this context, the minuses of African American experience become plusses and, to use the metaphor of electricity which Ellison employed so brilliantly in Invisible Man, the minuses and plusses together produce energy and power. Converting their dead underground tomb to a live womb, African Americans are "rebirthed dancing" and "crying affirmation." Deprived of their African languages, they create "a new language and a brand-new song" which enables them to found a new culture in America. As Hickman envisions the history of black people in America, therefore, he sees blacks as "a new kind of human," a "well-tested people" who are charged with the sacred task of "transforming God's Word into a "lantern." They are what Albert Murray called "omni-Americans" whose historical mission is to resolve the kinds of contradictions in American history which were dramatized in Sunraider's Senate speech.

Seen in this light, Hickman's Juneteenth sermon provides real answers to each of the "three fatal questions" posed in that speech. While Sunraider can provide only abstract and highly rhetorical responses to these questions which he contradicts in his personal and political life, Hickman's sermon answers these questions in ways which are morally compelling because his responses are rooted in the concrete facts of lived African American experience. The many are one because all Americans share a common history in the New World and are unified by a coherent set of moral and political principles. The "communion" that Hickman finally celebrates transcends racial limits and is not only a "coming together" of black people but all people because the principles epitomized by Juneteenth are broadly American values unifying all races and creeds. Thus, Ellison stressed in a testimonial to John Wright given in the early 1980s, "Fortunately American experience is of a whole and despite the differences of race and religion, class and region, it is still inspirited by the same ideals" (Callahan, "Reflections" 20). Hickman also provides a clear and emphatic answer to the second question posed by Sunraider—the future can deny the past only by destroying itself. Just as Sunraider brought about his own moral disintegration and death by denying his past, America will be destroyed by larger versions of the senseless violence which claims Sunraider's life if it forgets the sacred principles of its founding. For this reason, Hickman exhorts the wounded Sunraider to "Continue! Remember!" as a way of reviving himself in the present by recalling and re-experiencing the richly human life he shared in the past with Hickman. And in a similar way, Ellison is telling late twentieth-century Americans that there is still hope for the country if it can "remember" the founding principles of America and "continue" on with them. Lastly, Hickman's sermon provides a lucid answer to the third question raised in Sunraider's speech, "How can the light deny the dark?" As Bliss's/Sunraider's life vividly demonstrates, the experience of blacks and whites in America are integrally bound up with each other, and terrible personal and political calamities will result from the separating of the two races. By recreating his Juneteenth sermon to Sunraider, he tries to remind him of the central mistake of his life and urges him to rejuvenate himself psychologically and spiritually by reintegrating himself with the black people who provided him with the only family he has ever known.

Sunraider's response to Hickman's redeeming words, however, is a curious mixture. Part of him reacts favorably to Hickman's evocation of a past world centered in communal love and purpose, and he is at times "dragged irresistibly along" by Hickman's "reminiscing voice," which compels him "to make the connections." But throughout Hickman's meditations in Chapters 7 and 8, Sunraider also stubbornly resists the voice which asks him to rejuvenate his life by moving beyond the self. As Hickman encourages him to assume a "discipline" needed to overcome a condition of being "self-blinded," he thinks, "No . . . no more of it! No! And at the end of Chapter 7 he reduces Hickman's magnificent sermon to "Words, words" as he "wearily" tries to sink back a state of safe but enervating isolation. In Chapter 8 when he remembers his own participation in the Juneteenth celebration which Hickman so lyrically recreates, he is able to recall only negative memories which serve to alienate him further from the past. Even in the transcendent moment when he rises from the coffin, he can think only in trivialized terms, resenting the fact that Hickman refuses to reward him outwardly for his services by providing him with ice cream:

And not even ice cream, nothing to sustain myself in my own terms. Nothing to make it even worthwhile in Bliss's terms.

In essence, Bliss's life is destroyed because of his very modern insistence on having everything on his "own terms," and this gives him momentary outward satisfactions but locks him into a selfishness which separates him from a nourishing past and a vital community. Like the woman claiming to be his mother and who asserts, "He's mine, MINE!," Bliss is destroyed by the selfishness which compels him first to become "Mr. Movie Man" and later Senator Sunraider, roles which provide him with various forms of "ice cream" (sex, money, power) but destroy him as a person. Appropriately, he is assassinated by a nameless, lone gunman whose identity, like Sunraider's, is indeterminate.

So Hickman's heroic efforts to save Sunraider by reconnecting him to his past and his community probably fail. But Hickman succeeds magnificently on another level, for he provides the novel's modern readers with an eloquent and potent vision of personal and cultural revival. And this is made clear not only in the Juneteenth sermon but also in the novel's third major scene, Hickman's meditation at the Lincoln Memorial at the end of the novel.

Significantly, this scene is recalled through memory as Hickman is nearly overcome in the present by a rare moment of self-doubt and depression as he gazes at the dying Sunraider and thinks "[w]hat an awful time" his visit to Washington has "turned out to be." Not only has his group been insulted by being treated as an "annoyance" precisely at the point when they have "arrived" in Washington to plead their case as American black people seeking delivery on the promises of American democracy set forth by our founding documents such as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but Hickman is also terribly disappointed in his attempts to rejuvenate Sunraider. At this stage of the novel, therefore, Hickman is beginning to lose confidence in his ability to succeed on both personal and cultural levels, losing faith in his ability to find some meaning in the tragic events of Bliss's life, his own life, and the life of the nation. Indeed, he wonders if "[t]here are simply too many snares and delusions, too many masks, too many forked tongues. Too much grit in the spiritual greens."

He is saved from such despair as he closes his eyes and remembers an earlier point in the day when he and his group went to the Lincoln Memorial to pray after they had been turned away so rudely from Sunraider's office. Experiencing "a sudden release from the frame of time," he moves away from a troubled present and is refreshed by the "awe and mystery" of the "serene, high-columned space" of the Lincoln Memorial. Indeed, the transcendence he experiences in this scene is comparable to the ecstasy he had felt as a blues musician "improvising on some old traditional riffs" or the rapture he had felt as a minister preaching the Gospel, feeling "the Sacred Word surging rapturously within him."

His physical eyes closed but the eyes of his soul awakened in an "inward-turning vision," Hickman experiences an epiphany which enables him to reaffirm a strong belief in his own life, Bliss's life, and the life of the nation. More importantly, he comes to a powerful understanding of how all three are related. Gazing at the statue of Lincoln, "the great image slumped in the huge stone chair" and then peering into Lincoln's "great, brooding eyes," he is uplifted by the tragic vision of America embodied in Lincoln's story. And he realizes how that story is connected to the experience of African Americans, since Lincoln's own suffering and his emancipation from his culture's hatreds, fears, and divisions convince Hickman that he was one of them:

So yes, he's one of us, not only because he freed us to the extent he could, but because he freed himself of that awful inherited pride they deny to us, and in doing so he became a man and he pointed the way for all of us who would be free—yes!

Hickman finds in Lincoln a heroic man whose life embodied positive answers to each of the "three fatal questions" which Sunraider poses in his Senate speech. For he made it possible for the "many to be one" by preserving the union; he guaranteed the American future by squaring it with sacred principles from its past; and he did his best to ensure that the "light" not deny the "dark" by extending citizenship to black Americans. He truly possessed the "balanced consciousness" necessary to perceive "unity in diversity" which Sunraider rhetorically describes but which Lincoln lived and paid for with his life.

Lincoln, therefore, becomes the true "Father" of the United States in ways that George Washington, a slaveholder, failed to be. For Lincoln was able to link all Americans together by healing "wounds that have festered and run and stunk in this land." Although his vision of America "has been undone" in the "betrayed years" after the Civil War, people such as Hickman can be inspired by Lincoln's example and get their "second wind" and then "do all over again what has been undone." The values which Lincoln embodied are rooted in the country's founding documents and can be used to rejuvenate America in the present.

Thus "possessed by the experience at the Memorial," Hickman surely does get a "second wind" which helps him to recover belief in himself, his nation, and even Bliss/Sunraider. Reminded that "for a hope or ideal to be real it has to be embodied in a man," he has witnessed the purest American ideals embodied not only in Lincoln but in himself as well. Just as he regards Lincoln as the true father of the nation, he envisions himself as "Daddy Hickman," the true father of Bliss and the spiritual father of his congregation. And as Lincoln strove to preserve the Union, Hickman has come to the conclusion that America is one people, "human cloth" which is "woven too fine" to be cut in pieces. His extraordinary vision at the Lincoln Memorial, therefore, rejuvenates him by reminding him that—"the big things can save us." In so doing, he links the novel's three major scenes together in an impressively affirmative way—the doubts which were generated by him as he witnessed the shooting of Senator Sunraider are resolved by his creative acts of memory. Distilling a faith in America and himself from his meditation on Lincoln in the near past, he links this vital moment with an equally vital moment in the distant past, his Juneteenth sermon. In the process, he joins the "light" and the "dark," rather than denying them, and thus avoids the despair that consumes Sunraider.

With this restored belief in himself and his people, Hickman is then able to productively revisit the most troubling episode in his personal past: the lynching of his brother, the death of his mother, and the birth of Bliss. The outlines of these events were vaguely suggested in Chapters 8 and 9 but are fully dramatized in Chapter 15, which directly follows the scene at the Lincoln Memorial. This story of personal anguish and tragedy is a microcosmic version of the story of post-Civil War America, a world betrayed by racism and violence but containing the possibility of redemption through love. In both personal and national narratives, to use a metaphor from Hickman's Juneteenth sermon, "calamity" is mysteriously "laced up with a blessing."

The scene begins with Hickman expecting his death as he awaits the white men who lynched his brother Bob for allegedly impregnating a white woman. Hickman has actually recorded his own death in the family Bible and is fatalistically "dedicated to one last act," retaliating against the whites by killing them as they seek him out. What the reader expects from this scene is a miniature version of the Civil War, but what follows is a masterfully written parable of regeneration through love, a tale of "Eden and Christmas squeezed together."

Intent on racial violence and his own death, Hickman is surprised by the appearance of the white woman who was responsible for Bob's death by naming him as the father of her unborn child. Hickman's first response is to kill both the woman and her child, gaining the satisfaction of a "God-cursing crime" as an act of pure revenge. But when she asks for his assistance in delivering the child and tells Hickman that she is a Christian, he is strangely moved by her pleas and actually delivers the baby and nurses its mother back to health. It is precisely at this moment that Hickman begins his "change," eventually undergoing a conversion from a roustabout who centers his life in "heathen freedom" to a heroic person who will sacrifice the self in order to assume two important social roles—first, a father who names and raises Bliss and, later, a Christian minister dedicated to the "Christ-like" ideal of being a self for others. His story, therefore, dramatizes in a powerful way the Christian concepts of good coming out of evil, growth emerging from suffering, and life growing out of death. In an altogether mysterious way, the terrible violence inflicted upon his brother and the death of his mother has resulted not only in Bliss's birth but also Hickman's rebirth.

Here again, Hickman's story is strongly connected to Lincoln's life, death, and rebirth as a mythic figure who helped create a new America after the Civil War. Like Lincoln, who had to free himself of "that awful inherited pride" in order to become a leader for the whole nation, Hickman must overcome his socially constructed "pride" in order to transcend his desires to murder the white woman who gave birth to Bliss. And like Lincoln, who had a profound belief in the basic unity of American society and gave his life to preserve the "Union," Hickman overcomes his early perception of Bliss and his mother as strangers, sensing on a very profound level "some cord of kinship" between them which is "deeper than blood, hate, or heartbreak." Just as Lincoln preserved the unity of the nation, Hickman as father keeps his small family together and as a minister brings his people together in a vibrant, unified community. A person who has successfully harmonized private and public selves, he is one of the "citizen-individualists" whom Sunraider describes in his Senate speech but fails to become.

Throughout his career, Ralph Ellison expressed a strong dissatisfaction with the stylistic limitations and philosophical gloom of the modern American novel, tracing both problems to the twentieth-century writer's recoil from public experience into a world of narcissistic privacy. In his 1953 acceptance speech for the National Book Award, for example, he objected to the "narrow naturalism" and "unrelieved despair" which he felt characterized "so much of our current fiction" (Shadow and Act) and observed that "something vital has gone out of American prose after Mark Twain" (Shadow). Ellison therefore found his inspiration in the work of nineteenth-century masters such as Twain, Melville, and Emerson, who envisioned America as a democratic society endowed with an "almost magical fluidity and freedom," a country that provided both "individual self-realization" and "human fraternity" (Shadow).

In "Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity," written in 1946 but published in 1953, Ellison argued this point more fully, claiming that "the broad conception of democracy which vitalized the work of our greatest writers" (Shadow) had disappeared from American fiction, citing Hemingway as a particularly vivid example of a writer who had withdrawn from public reality into an "artistic individualism" (Shadow) which produced a narrow "technical perfection" at the expense of "moral insight." He felt that Hemingway paid an unacceptably steep price for rejecting "national myth" and retreating into "personal myth" (Shadow) because such a strategy robbed his art of social relevance and moral resonance, trapping Hemingway into a "tradition of intellectual evasion" (Shadow).

By the time that Ellison was engaged in the writing of Invisible Man, he was deeply committed to the belief that "Art by its nature is social" and that one of the most important responsibilities for the writer was to shape experience into "socially meaningful patterns" (Shadow). He therefore devoted himself to recovering "a body of unassailable public beliefs" (Shadow) which would enable him to write fiction which would harmonize American individualism with the life of a democratic society. Like Melville, Emerson, and Twain, Ellison was seriously interested in "portraying the moral situation of a nation" (Shadow) rather than making his writing "the instrument of a questionable personal freedom of the artist" (Shadow).

Juneteenth, much more fully and explicitly than Invisible Man, fulfills the exceptionally high standards which Ellison set for himself as a twentieth-century American novelist. Invisible Man concludes with the central character rejecting the narcissism that has nearly destroyed him and searching for the "next phase" (Invisible) of his life in which he hopes to play a "socially responsible role" (Invisible). But Juneteenth carries this story much further and is centered in a hero who is a "citizen-individualist," one whose personal life is nourished by a series of important social roles. Father, minister, and leader, Hickman draws from his nation's traditions and performs a series of heroic actions which have great personal and cultural importance. His narrative stands in stark contrast to Bliss's/Sunraider's story, which reads like a cautionary tale warning against what Robert Bellah and others have defined as a major problem in modern American culture, an individualism which has become "cancerous" because it produces a "socially unsituated self," resulting in a sterile narcissism and cultural disintegration.

By artfully structuring Juneteenth in terms of scenes which draw heavily from national myth and ritual, Ellison endows Hickman's story with a power and resonance missing from much modern literature. The novel has a special significance for twenty-first century Americans because it is much more than a diagnostic tool which can bring our cultural problems into sharper, clearer focus. Offering imaginatively compelling strategies for creatively handling and perhaps solving such problems by a renewed commitment to public reality, Juneteenth is that rare thing in modern fiction, a robust national narrative which is a genuine curative force.

Source: Robert J. Butler, "The Structure of Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth," in CLA Journal, Vol. 46, No. 3, 2003, pp. 291–311.

Alan Nadel

In the following essay excerpt, Nadel considers Juneteenth a version of "Ellison's America," in which Ellison tries to reconcile the American psyche with the repressed "sin of American racial pride."

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What Do I Read Next?

  • Invisible Man (1952) is Ralph Ellison's first novel. It is about a nameless black man traveling through the perils of American racism and cultural blindness.
  • The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (2003) contains some of the greatest essays, criticisms and interviews, both published and formerly unpublished, from one of the most cogent and vital voices in American race commentary and examination, Ralph Ellison.
  • Living with Music: Ralph Ellison's Jazz Writings was published as a collection in 2002. Before ever becoming a renowned writer and scholar, Ellison was an accomplished trumpeter. This collection is full of great meditations on jazz classics and profiles of famous jazz musicians. It also offers a window into the lives and culture of black Americans.
  • Flying Home and Other Stories (1998) is a collection of thirteen previously unpublished works of short fiction that depict Ralph Ellison's interesting development as a writer.
  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. The novel traces the life of a slave woman, Sethe, who decides to kill her infant daughter rather than allow her to be enslaved. The novels explores the atrocities of slavery and the deep struggles of a woman entrapped by a lifetime of unbelievable pain.
  • Native Son (1940), by Richard Wright, is a powerful novel set in the 1930s about the hopelessness and destitution of black Americans in the inner city. The meditation of the book reflects upon the ever-changing question of what it means to be black in the United States.
  • The Fire Next Time (1963), by James Baldwin, was a plea to "end the racial nightmare." The book has proven timeless, not only as a galvanizing voice of the Civil Rights movement, but also as a personal and provocative work reflecting upon a changing nation through the eyes of a brilliant black American.

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Ellison, Ralph, Juneteenth, Vintage, 2000, pp. 23, 38, 112, 131, 143, 162, 223, 307, 311.

King, Richard A., "The Uncreated Conscience of My Race/The Uncreated Features of His Face: The Strange Career of Ralph Ellison," in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 34, Pt. 2, August 2000, pp. 306–07.

Nadel, Alan, "Ralph Ellison and the American Canon," in American Literary History, Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer 2001, p. 402.

Further Reading

Burke, Bob, and Denyvetta Davis, Ralph Ellison: A Biography, Oklahoma Heritage Association, 2003.

This biography spans the entirety of Ellison's life, most notably chronicling his experiences with segregation in his hometown of Oklahoma City.

Eichelberger, Julia, Prophets of Recognition: Ideology and the Individual in Novels by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, and Eudora Welty, Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

This book explores the treatment of the individual in relation to society through the four of America's greatest literary giants. Questioning more than just race, the novels of Ellison, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow and Eudora Welty explore ethnicity, gender, class, and religion during the most volatile years of American history.

Ellison, Ralph, Albert Murray, and John F. Callahan, Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, Vintage Books USA, 2001.

This collection of letters spans a decade of friendship between the remarkable authors Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. Beginning in 1950, the letters exchanged over the following ten years offers a glimpse into literary history and race in America.

Jackson, Lawrence, Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius, Wiley, 2001.

This biography recreates the first forty years of Ellison's life, taking us through the publication of his greatest masterpiece, Invisible Man.

Tyson, Tim, Blood Done Sign My Name, Crown, 2004.

In this incredible personal history, Tyson, a professor of African American studies from University of Wisconsin–Madison, examines with a blunt, precise eye the struggles of black Americans and the Civil Rights movement in the South.

—, Radio Free Dixie, University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

This biography traces the remarkable life of Robert F. Williams, one of the most influential and powerful black activists in American history. Although his name is often overshadowed by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Williams played an integral role in the Civil Rights movement pushing blacks towards "armed self-reliance."

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Juneteenth Day in the US, 19 June, originally a holiday in Texas marking the day on which slaves there were emancipated.