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(en) The Utopian #2 - Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth and African American Identity - By CHRISTOPHER Z . HOBSON

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>(http://www.utopianmag.com/)
Date Tue, 15 Oct 2002 03:51:31 -0400 (EDT)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

One weakness of much radical thought is its use of abstract, formalized categories and a
reductionist method. Radical theories often begin with some area of social existence--
the nation and national identity, the system of production and class, race/ethnicity, gen-
der, and others--that they use as a basic category to explain social life. Though there is
nothing wrong with using such categories, they are most often reified, that is, treated as
real and objective; for example, gender theories assume that people really are of one
gender or another, whether "essential" or "socially constructed," rather than that gender
is an idea that partly explains some ways people act. Radical theories further often take
a reductionist approach, treating the chosen categories as exclusive of and/or more basic
than others rather than simultaneous and functional (that is, the same person may act
in terms of class in some situations and nationality in others). Abstract and reductionist
thinking misses the complexity of social experience, most of which occurs through the
interaction of multiple categories of experience. In particular, thinking that reduces
social behavior to seemingly objective categories like economic-social class misses (or
deliberately discounts) the importance of cultural ideas of various kinds--political,
social, religious, historical, communal, etc.

One example of the multidimensionality of social experi-
ence is the complex nature of African American (Black)
identity in the U.S. When radicals have tried to explain
African American identity in terms of various social cate-
gories--oppressed nation, superexploited section of the
proletariat, oppressed caste, or a combination of these or
others--they have most often not dealt with the basic role
of culture. Yet African Americans are defined in large part
by African American culture, circular as that may sound.

African Americans take part in a historically defined, evolv-
ing, complex continuum of attitudes characteristic of a par-
ticular group and different from those of other groups, a
way of living, feeling, thinking, and experiencing, and this
culture is largely what African Americans are. One must be
careful not to reduce African American culture to any one
(or two or three) dimension(s), but to see it as a whole, as
"the self-conception in terms of which most Negroes have
actually lived and moved, and had their personal being for
all these years," as the novelist and critic Albert Murray
wrote in 1970.1 Further, culture is not just a reflection of
some more basic (which usually means more material)
aspect of existence; it is a partly individual, partly collective
way of finding pattern in life in the present, past, and envi-
sioned future. To quote Murray again--he is talking about
blues music, but the point is true about Black culture over-
all--it is not just a way of "making human existence bear-
able physically or psychologically," but "to make human
existence meaningful" (58).

One of the best ways to learn about African American cul-
ture is to read African American literature--plenty of it,
fiction, poetry, drama, essays, autobiography, from the
eighteenth century to today. After all, artistic creation of
all kinds often provides as complex and serious a view of
social, moral, and ethical realities as political writing--or
more so. However, in looking at African American litera-
ture one must guard against assuming that one knows in
advance what definition of African American culture is
valid and then evaluating the artists one reads according to
how close they come to this conception. This approach
usually means one assumes that African Americans are
defined by some objective category (nation, superexploited
section of class, etc.) and that the writers' subjective ideas
about identity are accurate or distorted reflections of this
reality. In other words, this is a variety of abstract, reduc-
tionist thinking. One needs to start from the other end:
African American literature is a way African Americans
have had of defining and determining (deciding by defin-
ing) their identity, and by reading different African
American authors, one can see what African Americans
think about this identity, i.e., what it is. And one must
guard against being satisfied with first impressions and
glib generalizations--one must understand the depth and
complexity of the topic, the existence of a long prior dis-
cussion with its own major and secondary trends.

Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) is among the most complex and
original African American novelists and essayists. Ellison was
born in Oklahoma City, attended Tuskegee Institute (now
Tuskegee University) but did not graduate, and moved to
New York in 1937. There, he was helped by Langston Hughes
and befriended by Richard Wright, and was close to the
Communist Party for several years, until he concluded that
the CP subordinated Negroes' interests to its own desire for
power. In later years he was a political liberal. He is most
famous for his novel Invisible Man (1952), which develops a
distinctive view of racial identity and U.S. society--a view he
adds to and also changes in his final novel, Juneteenth. This
work, the central portion of a much larger planned three-
part novel that he worked on for the last forty years of his
life, was edited after his death by John F. Callahan and pub-
lished separately in 1999.2 Most of Juneteenth was written
from the 1950s to the 1970s; Ellison's later work was on
other sections of his unfinished manuscript.

Juneteenth centers on two characters: a racist white U.S.
senator, Adam Sunraider, who is fatally shot on the Senate
floor sometime in the 1950s, and an older African
American minister, Rev. Alonzo Z. "Daddy" Hickman, who,
we learn, raised the future senator as a boy preacher, Bliss,
in his congregation earlier in the century. As even this
sketch suggests, Juneteenth is not intended as a social-real-
ist novel but as a kind of comic-tragic tall tale about racial
identity in the U.S. and what Ellison sees as the impor-
tance of African American culture in and for the struggle
for democracy.

To understand what Juneteenth says about African
American identity, we first need to look very quickly at
Invisible Man's view of the same topic. As that novel's
many readers will remember, it is told by a first-person
narrator who never reveals his name, who is raised and
educated in the south in the 1930s, moves to New York
after being expelled from a Negro college, and eventually
joins and then leaves the Brotherhood, a radical organiza-
tion very similar to the Communist Party. Almost every
scene of Invisible Man mixes realistic description, fable,
folktale, metaphor, and symbolism. (For example, the
tenth chapter, set in the "Liberty Paint" factory in New
York, combines realistic descriptions of production and a
union meeting with a factory floorplan representing the
power relations in U.S. industry and a symbolic account of
U.S. whiteness--"If It's Optic White, It's the Right
White.") Along the way the narrator encounters multiple
models of African American identity, from the middle-
class professionalism of his college to the folk and blues
culture of working-class Negroes to the class radicalism
and racial assimilationism of the Brotherhood, and in the
process works out a conception of his own. In a powerful
scene, he is present when an old Black couple is being
evicted, their possessions piled in the street:

I turned aside and looked at the clutter of household
objects which the two men continued to pile on the
curb. And as the crowd pushed me I looked down to
see looking out of an oval frame a portrait of the old
couple when young, seeing the sad, stiff dignity of
their faces there.... My eyes fell upon a pair of crudely
carved and polished bones, "knocking bones," used to
accompany music at country dances.... Pots and pots
of green plants were lined in the dirty snow, certain
to die of the cold; ivy, canna, a tomato plant. And in a
basket I saw a straightening comb, switches of false
hair, a curling iron, a card with silvery letters against
a background of dark red velvet, reading "God Bless
Our Home"; and scattered across the top of a chif-
fonier were nuggets of High John the Conqueror, the
lucky stone; and as I watched the white men put
down a basket in which I saw a whiskey bottle filled
with rock candy and camphor, a small Ethiopian flag,
a faded tintype of Abraham Lincoln, and the smiling
image of a Hollywood star torn from a magazine. And
on a pillow several badly cracked pieces of delicate
china, a commemorative plate celebrating the St.
Louis World's Fair.... (271)

The old couple's mix of possessions, from lucky charm to
curling iron to Lincoln portrait to flag of African freedom
to memento of the 1904 World's Fair--that magnet for
people of all races--is their African American identity.
Ellison's point is that African American identity is not one
single thing, Negro or African or would-be white
American, but a created culture amalgamating all these. In
a later chapter, he sketches a trio of zoot-suited Black
youths, "their legs swinging from their hips in trousers
that ballooned upward from cuffs fitting snug about their
ankles; their coats long and hip-tight with shoulders far
too broad to be those of natural western men...speak[ing]
a jived-up transitional language full of country glamour,
think[ing] transitional thoughts..." (440-41). Ellison sees
African American identity as self-created, fluid, stitched
together from odds and ends of every U.S. culture; the
zoot suit, a group style of Mexican American youth in
World War II that caught on with Blacks and white hip-
sters, is the perfect emblem of this process. Still later, the
narrator encounters Rinehart, a protean con-man who is
minister, gambler, lover, and numbers-runner for different
audiences. Rinehart clearly embodies the danger of chaos
in a completely fluid identity without any self-imposed or
communal restraints. Still, Invisible Man emphasizes the
"infinite possibilities" of self-created identity in a world
whose very illogic makes it "concrete, ornery, vile and sub-
limely wonderful" (576). Invisible Man's narrator, referring
to his tormentors, calls this self-created, fluid, amalgamat-
ed mix of cultural influences "the beautiful absurdity of
their American identity and mine" (559).

Ellison adds, in later essays, that the overall U.S. culture,
music, and language are partly African American: "The
American language owes something of its directness, flexi-
bility, music, imagery, mythology, and folklore to the
Negro presence. It is, not, therefore, a product of `white'
culture as against `black' culture; rather it is the product of
cultural integration." Therefore, U.S. speech "is partly the
creation of a voice which found its origin in Africa"
(Collected Essays 430).3

Juneteenth restates but also goes beyond and changes this
view of African American identity. Aside from giving a
much more scorching picture of a corrupt political system

<gif of text>

than Invisible Man, Juneteenth places more emphasis on
community, specifically the sustaining value of African
American community and culture. It also stresses what
Ellison sees as an organic link between African American
life and ideals of democracy--as Rev. Hickman thinks to
himself late in the book, "If we can't cry for the Nation,
then who? Because who else draws their grief and consterna-
tion from a longer knowledge or from a deeper and more
desperate hope? And who've paid more in trying to achieve
their better promise?" (274).4 And Juneteenth moves from
irony, the main artistic mode or form of Invisible Man, to
prophetic speech, the kind of speech needed to move
toward a nonracial democracy, "Bliss."

Juneteenth's title refers to the African American Juneteenth
holiday, originally celebrated in Texas and later in other
southern and southwestern states through the early twen-
tieth century, and revived in recent decades. The holiday
commemorates the landing of Union troops in Galveston,
June 19, 1865--two and a half years after the
Emancipation Proclamation--with the news of and power
to enforce emancipation. Thus it celebrates emancipa-
tion--but, specifically, belated emancipation and, through-
out most of its history, freedom promised and denied, and
so it provides an apt focus for Juneteenth's central events.5
The novel begins with the shooting of Senator Sunraider, a
liberal and also a race-baiter who represents a New
England state but--though appearing white--was raised
in the deep south as Bliss in Hickman's African American
congregation, which he later abandoned. Hickman and his
congregants, who have kept track of Bliss through the
years, are in Washington trying to warn the senator of
danger when the shooting occurs as he delivers a speech
that mixes U.S. idealism and slurs about Negroes in
Cadillacs, the "Coon Cage Eight." Hickman is brought to
the hospital at the senator's request, and the rest of the
novel consists of their fragmentary conversations, shared
and individual memories, and finally the senator's dream-
delirium as he sinks toward death. This format lets Ellison
move back and forth in time to create a kind of memory-
montage. The memories veer among the future senator's
young manhood in 1920s Oklahoma (an idyllic love affair
mixed with references to mob violence and KKK rallies), a
sequence of several chapters at the Juneteenth festival that
supplies the book's title, Bliss's early curiosity about the
white world at the movies and the circus, a few hints of his
later political career, and Hickman's memories of his birth,
near the end of the book. (It appears that Bliss's mother
and perhaps father were white, but that the mother
accused Hickman's brother of rape, bringing about his
killing by a white mob; in a reluctant act of mercy,
Hickman later accepted the newborn child from the moth-
er and raised him.) Despite his white skin, Bliss is accepted
by others in his childhood community as completely
African American--though his playmates think they detect
"colored," "Indian," and "cracker" blood in his actions (55).
And we realize not only that young Bliss was African
American--because his culture was--but that his Edenic
boyhood name is meant seriously; the time when this
white boy lived among African Americans and was African
American was paradise.

Several parts of this deliberately tangled pattern of memo-
ry are crucial for Ellison's ideas about African American
and U.S. identity. The first is the Juneteenth festival that
fills four central chapters. During the festival, Hickman
delivers a long sermon that essentially contains Ellison's
own ideas. It is a symbolic-metaphoric narrative of African
enslavement, survival, and fusion with a new land,
preached in call-and-response fashion with the child Bliss.
This mythic narration evokes the kabbalic tradition of
Adam Kadmon, the primordial human divided to form
present humanity, as well as the prophet Ezekiel's promise
of resurrection in the valley of dry bones, a central
redemptive text in African American tradition (125-27).

Ezekiel's vision of the bones that "stood up upon their
feet, an exceeding great army," and of God's promise, "O
my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come
up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of
Israel" (37:10-12), becomes one of a primordial collective
human stolen from its homeland, chopped into pieces and
buried in American land, watered in it, then joined togeth-
er, "rebirthed from the earth of this land and revivified by
the Word" (127). Given "a new language...a new name and
a new blood" (127), this people has fused with American
soil yet retained its difference:

This land is ours because we came out of it, we bled in
it, our tears watered it, we fertilized it with our
dead.... We know where we are by the way we walk.

We know where we are by the way we talk. We know
where we are by the way we sing. We know where we
are by the way we dance. We know where we are by
the way we praise the Lord on high. We know where
we are because we hear a different tune in our minds
and in our hearts. (130)

This sense of a culturally distinct, sustaining African
American identity and destiny rooted in U.S. history is the
core of Hickman's message. Hickman's words maintain
some similarity to the idea of a self-created, profoundly
African American identity in Invisible Man's zoot-suiters
episode. But the differences are significant. Juneteenth
speaks of a historically forged, collective identity of
endurance, specifically African American in a cultural
rather than genetic sense--a cultural fusion born of dis-
memberment, burial and resurrection in American earth,
an identity of "we" as opposed to "they" (130-31), even
though the relationship to "they," "the others," is not
antagonistic but redemptive.

This identity is prophetic, being created by God for the
purpose of forming what Hickman calls "a new kind of
human. Maybe we won't be that people but we'll be a part
of that people, we'll be an element in them" (128). And the
African American people are charged with the task of
redeeming the whole nation: "Time will come round when
we'll have to be their eyes" (131). This extraordinary sense
of a redemptive African American mission of service to
democracy is, of course, symbolized by Hickman's--the
hick man's--fidelity to and vigil over the dying senator,
the sunraider who has flown too high and fallen.

Another episode crucial for Ellison's sense of African
American and U.S. identity grows out of later events at the
festival, when a white woman bursts into the prayer area
and claims Bliss as her child. (Since we have not yet
reached Hickman's memories of Bliss's birth, we are not
sure that her story is false; nor is Bliss.) Although the con-
gregation repulses her, the incident begins the fascination
with the white world that ultimately leads Bliss away from
his African American community. If Juneteenth partly cele-
brates possibilities of nonracial democracy, embodied in a
child who appears white but is raised African American,
this section warns of the dangers of unrootedness and the
powerful gravitational pull of the majority U.S. culture.

Bliss begins almost at once to accept the white woman's
claims, transfers to her both his questions about his
unknown mother and his awakening sexuality, learns to
devalue the African American women who surround and
care for him, and begins to glimpse the possibility of
becoming or seeming white. Ultimately, in a later episode,
having run away from the congregation in Atlanta, he sees
"her"--the white actress in a movie poster, whom he fan-
tasizes as his mother--in a movie palace colored red,
white, and blue (257). Alone, he is able to pass for white,
but postpones the attempt while he engages in a ritual of
imitation, following (and briefly preceding, backwards), a
white boy on a bicycle adorned with icons of racial, sexual,
military, and civil power--Confederate flags and coon
tails, a bull, a U.S. eagle, a policeman (258). Ultimately
entering the theatre (though the ticket-taker is on to him)
young Bliss fails to fuse with the film's white mother-god-
dess, yet realizes his possible future:

...the world had grown larger for my having entered
that forbidden place and yet smaller for now I knew
that I could enter in if I entered there alone. (265)
We realize that this is the crucial moment in Bliss's mental
development: he can have all the U.S. offers if he enters the
palace of its culture "alone," separated from the African
American community that has nourished him.

>From this crossroads Hickman's and the senator's memo-
ries develop separately, leading to a final dream-delirium
episode in the dying senator's mind. Too complex to sum-
marize fully, the sequence recaps parts of the senator's life
in dream symbol, including a drawn out, grotesque
pigeon-shoot at a country club that basically embodies his
own career in the Senate. Finally, he emerges into a city
street and encounters a "bent little black-skinned woman"
who calls him out: he is an "old jacklegged, knock-kneed,
bow-legged, box-ankled, pigeon-toed, slack-asted piece of
peckerwood trash... You is simply nothing, done gone to
waste" and much more. This sibyl-witch threatens, "SHET
UP! Or Ah'll tell you who you really is!" and the senator
"turned away, amused but filled with a strange foreboding.
Never mind, he thought, I know who I am, and for the time
being at least, I am a senator" (342-43).
Thus he fails his last chance at redemption; at the point of
death he cannot turn from his self-created identity and
reclaim his boyhood community. After an interval, the
Cadillac of his fateful speech appears, a hovering winged
apparition painted with flames and bearing familiar
emblems--bull's horns, coon tails, the U.S. and
Confederate flags--and the slogans "WE HAVE SECEDED
WITH CHARLEY!" It is peopled by three "dark-skinned"
figures speaking in West Indian tones, which Ellison often
uses for the language of race militancy: "The mahn done
low-rated our pride and joy, so don't ask the bahstard
not'ing, just show he whadt de joecah kin do!" (347-48). The
senator realizes that
he was watching no ordinary automobile...it was an
arbitrary assemblage of chassis, wheels, engine, hood,
horns, none of which had ever been part of a single
car!...an improvisation of vast arrogance and subversive
and malicious defiance which they had designed to out-
rage and destroy everything in its path.... They have
constructed it themselves, the Senator's mind went
on.... And they've made the damn thing run!... It's a
mammy-made, junkyard construction and yet those
clowns have made it work, it runs!...(347-48)

Chanting their "mah-toe," "Down Wid de Coon Cawdge, /
Up WID DE JOE CAH!" the three pull the senator into the
car in a "blast of heat" we assume is the moment of his
death, as he seems to hear "the sound of Hickman's con-
soling voice, calling from somewhere above" (348).

This retributive vision, which ends the novel, evokes the
1960s in its imagery of flames and heat. Yet though Ellison
was an integrationist and scornful of (and scorned by)
some Black radicals, the scene does not reflexively deplore
racial violence or use Hickman simply to stake out an inte-
grationist stand. Rather, the scene is a prophetic vision of
one kind of racial justice, the wrong kind according to
Hickman and possibly not justice at all, but justified by the
senator's failure to accept his identity and responsibility.
He has failed, and in the novel's symbolic structure this
means that the U.S. political culture has so far failed,
though Hickman has not failed in his mission and vigil
nor the youths in theirs.

The senator's dream-vision is therefore both prophetic and
apocalyptic, in the sense of an unveiling, a revelation of
hidden truths. The youths, the senator thinks, are "clowns"
who have cobbled up the car "in defiance of the laws of
physics, property rights, patents, everything...and made it
run!" (348). "Clowns" is a charged word in Ellison, signify-
ing a higher-class disregard of the common people
(Invisible Man 25, 33), and the illogic and arbitrariness of
the car's parts mark it as Juneteenth's version of "the beau-
tiful absurdity of their American identity and mine"
(Invisible Man 559): like the zoot-suiters in Invisible Man,
the youths have assembled a culture--in this case a ret-
ributive one--out of odds and ends and "made it run."

And, as the coon tail and other paraphernalia show, the car
is simply a projection of the equally phantasmal bicycle
Bliss imagines he saw long ago, the dream youths' appro-
priation of and counterpart to the young Bliss's worship of
white power. In the senator's mind--which we may take as
the mind of a racist culture--the youths and the car come
to exist through the senator's uneasy yet arrogant and self-
blinded response to the witch-sibyl. Though the "Joe-
cah"--the wild card and the car of the common Joe--is a
destructive machine and though Hickman has rejected ret-
ribution, the answering acceptance from the senator has
not come and may never come and the car is the result.
Hickman's voice, sounding without words at the scene's
end, holds out some future hope.

Ellison's unfinished but powerful second novel develops
but also changes the ideas I have too briefly summarized
from Invisible Man. Among other points, Juneteenth alters
Invisible Man's emphasis on self-selected identity. Invisible
Man takes its narrator on a journey of discovery of amal-
gamation, fluidity, and even chaos--qualities embodied in
the evictees' mix of possessions, the zoot-suiters' "jived-up
transitional language full of country glamour," and the
Rinehart episode. Juneteenth maintains Ellison's basic con-
ceptions--Bliss is surely a declaration that identity and
race are not genetic and objective but socially created and
personally chosen. But Bliss is more than just an idea
Ellison has already explored. Far more than Invisible Man,
Juneteenth focuses on the sustaining qualities of traditiona
African American culture, the value of community identi-
fication, and the danger of forgetting "who you really is," as
the old woman in the senator's delirium warns him.

Further, Juneteenth dwells at length on the dangers of
Rinehart, but locates Rinehart's "vast seething, hot world
of fluidity" (Invisible Man 498) not in the anonymity of
urban African American life, but in the majority society's
ruling circles. For Sunraider is Rinehart, his now-hidden
name and essential nature the same as those--Bliss
Proteus--that Ellison insisted were B.P. Rinehart's.6 Thus
Ellison warns first that improvisational identity in a par-
tially closed society may lead to opportunism and treach-
ery; second, that the U.S. political system is the archetypal
arena of this danger; third, that the possibilities of self-
transformation Ellison himself has celebrated are empty if
they mean forgetting Jerusalem. But at the same time,
Juneteenth holds up against the senator's virtuoso role
shifts the constancy of identification with a historically
constituted community--if one specific to the U.S., as
Ellison contends against nationalists and Africanists.

A second crucial shift in Juneteenth is its use of the language
of prophecy. Invisible Man, in spite of the prominence it
gives to a group that resembles the Communist Party--or
more accurately, because of this--is skeptical about efforts
to make the world better. At most, writing in the politically
conformist 1950s, and opposing the assumed whiteness of
U.S. society, Ellison calls for "diversity" (577). Invisible Man
emphasizes individual action and artistic communication,
in preference to political speech and action. Consistent with
these attitudes, Invisible Man is written in--and cele-
brates--what Ellison calls "an ironic, down-home voice"
filled with "echoes of blues-toned laughter" (Ellison's intro-
duction, Invisible Man xv-xvi). Many of Ellison's best inter-
preters have seen this ironic, blues-derived speech and
thought as characteristically African American--a life style
as well as artistic style "for expressing simultaneously the
agony of life and the possibility of conquering it," as the
critic John G. Wright says (183),7 conditioned by the simul-
taneous openness and exclusion of U.S. life.

But Juneteenth, written from a sense of social crisis, turns
to an equally important African American tradition of
prophetic speech found in writers as varied as Martin
Delany and Frances E. W. Harper in the nineteenth centu-
ry and (in secularized form) Richard Wright and James
Baldwin in the twentieth. In this tradition the authorial
voice and/or one or more characters invoke divine justice
and faith in a new day, or speak of a promised future, ret-
ribution, and/or new dawn of justice in a way that draws
on biblical traditions (and sometimes language, especially
that of Isaiah). Prophecy, as I use it, also means the
attempt to make sense of history through an understood
pattern that moves from corruption or degradation
through redemption to a society of universal justice--as
well as the challenges that block this pattern yet are seen as
inescapable parts of it. Less obviously "vernacular" than
blues-derived irony, Christian and prophetic speech are
still very deeply based in African American life and tradi-
tion. As the critic Frances Smith Foster argues,
"Christianity was not manufactured in Europe and does in
fact contain beliefs and practices common to many African
religions" (xiv).8

Prophetic speech in these senses is found all through
Juneteenth. Hickman himself chooses Bliss's name in an
ironic mood--"I'll call him Bliss, because they say that's
what ignorance is" (311)--but we realize that the novel's
use of the name is not ironic; the lost possibilities of
brotherhood are its very marrow. Hickman's sermons--
there are two, plus a short homily and meditation at the
Lincoln Memorial--communicate the novel's most signifi-
cant ideas. The stories of Hickman's mission and Bliss's
betrayal and destruction contain portions of the fall and
redemption pattern; Bliss's story, taken alone, is a tragedy,
but one tempered with hope and faith ("Hickman's con-
soling voice..."), and Hickman's story is one of redemp-
tion and steadfastness, with, at the close, gathering clouds
of apocalyptic war. Most fundamentally, Juneteenth's use of
prophecy is embodied in the idea Ellison builds his story
on--the need for Bliss. In the plot, he is raised to be a
prophet, someone born from racial separation and hate
but educated to give leadership to the nation, in the man-
ner of a Lincoln. As a narrative creation, Bliss embodies
symbolically the need for such a figure. Though he is a
failed prophet, the novel's final sequences urgently pro-
claim the need he has not been able to fulfill. The closing
dream-vision both makes clear the need for a prophet able
to bridge the racial gap while remaining true to his African
American origins--and is itself an act of prophetic speech
forecasting the costs of failure.

Students of U.S. culture can learn a lot from Juneteenth.
We can learn something about the complexity of African
American thought on U.S. life, culture, and identity:
Ellison is an integrationist in both politics and culture, but
his integrationism does not mean assimilation or suppres-
sion of differences, but recognition of diversity. More than
this, Ellison believes African Americans have forged a his-
torically new identity, not purely African, Black, or U.S.,
but drawing on each of these; he believes U.S. culture itself
is partly based on African American culture; and he
believes this African American identity has been present all
along in the communal culture of ordinary, not elite,
African Americans, his "hick man." To outsiders, the com-
plex sense many African Americans have of their relation-
ship to the United States often appears as an either-or
matter: if African Americans emphasize their
Americanness, they are assumed to be asssimilating to
white culture, and if they stress Black culture and identity
they are assumed to be sympathetic to nationalism or sep-
aratism. Hickman's powerful words quoted earlier, "This
land is ours because we came out of it, we bled in it, our
tears watered it, we fertilized it with our dead," give the lie
to such oversimplifications and help make clear why--
from my observation anyway--most African Americans
 have insisted on their Americanness and their African
African or Black identity and valued and defended both.

Hickman's words also make clear the complex relation of
many (most) African Americans to U.S. democracy, as fer-
vent believers in a political ideal they know well has never
fully existed. Ellison's idea that U.S. life contains a demo-
cratic kernel that African Americans can struggle to fructi-
fy--an idea expressed in organizing the novel around a
Juneteenth celebration--not only goes back as far as
Frederick Douglass, but probably represents the majority
view among serious African American thinkers. These are
points that radicals studying African American culture
would do well to ponder seriously and respectfully.

Besides learning Ellison's ideas on these points, we can learn
that his view is only one among many, since he worked it out
in polemical opposition to assimilationists and cultural
nationalists. If we are going to talk about anarchist politics
in the U.S., we will have to understand the range of different
African American ideas on this and other points, and think
and write concretely and meaningfully about why our social
perspective might represent an improvement.
I don't pretend to be able to answer
that question fully, though I believe
the answer must include a full and
free flowering of African American
and other so-called "minority" cul-
tures. But in any case, besides these
specific points, to study African
American culture through the medi-
um of literature increases our under-
standing of African American histo-
ry and social existence, as well as
overall U.S. history, social life, and
literature. And it helps correct the
one-sidedness of much radical social
thought, its overemphasis on materi-
al categories and underestimation of ethical, spiritual, and
artistic components of human society.

Further Reading

Below I list some books by and about the writers men-
tioned in my article, and then a somewhat broader list of
African American literary works that I think important or
valuable. I emphasize that it is a personal list; others might
include some quite different authors and works, though no
doubt many would appear on most people's lists.

Since Juneteenth, published in 1999, is still a quite new
book, not much serious analysis has been written about it.
A partial exception is Robert J. Butler, "Juneteenth: Ralph
Ellison's National Narrative," in The Critical Response to
Ralph Ellison, ed. by  Butler (Westport: Greenwood, 2000):
217-25. But this is a fairly superficial article and also
makes some factual mistakes.

Two excellent essay collections deal with Invisible Man and
with Ellison's work as a whole prior to Juneteenth. One,
New Essays on Invisible Man (1988), is cited in notes
below. The other is Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph
Ellison, ed. by  Kimberly W. Benston (Washington: Howard
UP, 1987). It contains a wonderful essay, "Ellison's Zoot
Suit," by Larry Neal, a cultural nationalist who once reject-
ed Ellison's work and later admired it, and several other
excellent pieces. Both are still in print according to ama-
zon.com. Robert G. O'Meally's The Craft of Ralph Ellison
(1980) is out of print but in libraries.

Ellison's two essay collections, Shadow and Act (1964) and
Going to the Territory (1986) are in print in 1995 editions
from Vintage and are also included in full--with some
other essays and interviews--in Ellison's Collected Essays,
cited in notes below. Conversations with Ralph Ellison, ed.
Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh (Jackson: UP of
Mississippi, 1995) is a fairly full selection of interviews.
Major works by African American writers mentioned in
my article include Martin R. Delany's Blake, or The Huts of
America (1859-62), usually considered the first insurrec-
tionary novel by an African American (Beacon Press,
paperback). Frances E. W. Harper, a major poet represent-
ed in anthologies of U.S. and African American writing,
wrote Iola Leroy (1892) as well as three serialized novels
recently rediscovered and cited in notes below. Iola Leroy
and numerous other novels by nineteenth century African
American women have been reprinted by Oxford UP.

Among Richard Wright's many books one should read
Native Son (1940); Black Boy (American Hunger) (1945,
1993), his autobiography, now reincorporating a major
section cut by Wright before publication; and The Outsider
(1953), a philosophical-ideological novel on totalitarian-
ism. Among James Baldwin's six novels, read at least Go
Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni's Room, Another Country,
and Just Above My Head, his last novel; of his essays and
essay collections, Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My
Name, and The Fire Next Time are available as single titles,
in his Collected Essays in the Library of America series, and
in his own collected essay volume, The Price of the Ticket.
Thanks to a publishing book in the last twenty years, many
of the earliest African American literatary works are now
in print, including The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An
American Slave (1845; Penguin), Incidents in the Life of a
Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs (several editions), the collect-
ed works of poet Phillis Wheatley (Penguin), and such
early novels as Clotel, or the President's Daughter, by
William Wells Brown (1853, loosely based on Jefferson and
Hemings; St. Martin's), The Garies and Their Friends, by
Frank J. Webb (1857; Johns Hopkins), and Our Nig, by
Harriet Wilson (1859; Vintage). Besides the series of
women's writings mentioned above many other late nine-
teenth- early twentieth-century works are in print, includ-
ing the stories, novels, and poetry of Charles W. Chesnutt
(The Marrow of Tradition, 1901, is a wonderful novel I read
only recently) and James Weldon Johnson. For the Harlem
Renaissance, there is an excellent anthology edited by
David Levering Lewis, The Portable Harlem Renaissance
Reader (New York: Penguin, 1994). In addition, most HR
writers, including but not limited to Langston Hughes
(Collected Poems, ed. by Arnold Rampersad and David
Roessel; Vintage), Nella Larsen, Jessie Fauset, Claude
McKay, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale
Hurston, are in print; most of W. E. B. Du Bois's works are
in print, including The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and
Darkwater (1920) in Dover Thrift editions and his magnif-
icent Black Reconstruction in America (1930) in a Simon
and Schuster paperback. Of Toni Morrison's seven novels,
Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Beloved (1987)
are essential; I had a hard time with her two more recent
novels, Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1998). I dislike the novels
of Alice Walker, but a lot of people think highly of them; I
haven't read Charles Johnson, who is very highly regarded.
Among less-known works, John Oliver Killens's
Youngblood (1954), about a Georgia family early in the
twentieth century, is in print; his And Then We Heard the
Thunder (1962), based on an uprising by U.S. Negro
troops during World War II, is out of print but available
from used book sources; Ann Petry's The Street (1945), a
Wright-inspired novel told from a woman's viewpoint
(largely absent in Wright) is in print. Among many, many
poets, Robert Hayden (1913-1980) and Michael Harper
and Yusef Komunyakaa, both active today, are recommend-
ed. The late Melvin Dixon, a mentor and friend, wrote
Vanishing Rooms, a beautiful, disturbing African American
gay novel, and Love's Instruments, poetry, and translated
the Collected Poems of Léopold Senghor, president of
Senegal. Many others could be mentioned; and one should
read at least Light in August (1932), The Sound and the
Fury (1928), and Go Down, Moses (1942) by William
Faulkner, the only major white writer of the earlier twenti-
eth century to deal consistently and seriously with race,
and highly regarded by Ellison.


1 Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives
to the Folklore of White Supremacy. 1970. Reprint, New
York: Da Capo, 1990. Murray's title contains its own
unstated polemic: by "the folklore of white supremacy," he
means most liberal and even radical theories about African
American consciousness.

2 Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. 1952. New York: Vintage,
1989. Juneteenth. Ed. John F. Callahan. New York: Random
House, 1999; Vintage, 2000.

3 The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Ed. John F.
Callahan. New York: Modern Library, 1995.

4  Ellison uses italics to distinguish thought from speech,
memory from present time, etc. My quotations follow his

5 The title was chosen by the editor, John F. Callahan
(Ellison had not indicated one); Callahan also selected the
order of some episodes, working from Ellison's notes and
his own hunches.

6    "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke," in the essay collec-
tion Shadow and Act (1964), New York: Vintage, 1972. 56.
7 John G. Wright, "The Conscious Hero and the Rites of
Man: Ellison's War." New Essays on Invisible Man. Ed.
Robert O'Meally. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. 157-86.
8 Frances Smith Foster, Introduction. Minnie's Sacrifice,
Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph. By Frances E. W.
Harper, ed. Foster. Boston: Beacon, 1994. xi-xxxvii.

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