Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth and Black Literary History

Juneteenth celebration at Eastwoods Park, 1900. Credit: Grace Murray Stephenson, Austin History Center.

In 1965, Ralph Ellison published a short story called “Juneteenth.” It was a central excerpt of his long-awaited novel-in-progress. Ellison worked on the novel for another three decades, but he never ended up deciding the book was finished. In 1999, five years after his death, a core section of the manuscript was published as a novel titled Juneteenth. Surely in the wake of last summer’s explosion of Juneteenth consciousness, Modern Library and Vintage International have republished that novel in handsome new hardcover and paperback editions. Both feature compelling new introductions by Charles Johnson (who in 1990 became the first Black author to win the National Book Award since Ellison had won it in 1953 for Invisible Man) and editor John F. Callahan. The short story “Juneteenth” is the seventh chapter of the novel Juneteenth.

This story is a text that all Americans should read (aloud, if possible) every Juneteenth, the way the Declaration of Independence might be orated on the Fourth of July or “Letter From Birmingham Jail” on Martin Luther King Day. Written mainly in the form of a two-preacher, call-and-response sermon, this masterpiece of American literature is rooted in Ellison’s own childhood. Growing up in Oklahoma during World War I and the 1920s, Juneteenth may well have been the day he most looked forward to every year. In this sermon-story, Ellison memorializes these celebrations as one the most important—if overlooked—rituals of not only his race and his region, but of the entire country.

The main preacher of “Juneteenth” is a dark-skinned reverend named A.Z. Hickman. The second preacher, Bliss, is his light-skinned adopted son, aged six or seven. The sermon is couched in the delirious memory of the forty-something-year-old Bliss, who by now has changed his name to Adam Sunraider. Sunraider is a United States senator who passes for white and stakes his political persona on making scandalous remarks, especially about Black people. The memory is delirious because he has been badly wounded by a gunshot. His Daddy Hickman, whom he had not seen since soon after the Juneteenth that he is remembering, sits by his hospital bedside.

The deep mystery of the relationship between Hickman and Bliss/Sunraider is what drives the novel Juneteenth. That Ellison chose to write the most joyful expression of that mystery—the “Juneteenth” sermon—in 1965 makes special sense. Not only was it the high-water mark of the civil rights era, a time of great optimism in Lyndon Johnson’s America. It was also the 100th Juneteenth, a most fitting occasion for Ellison’s homegrown rendition of primordial togetherness. If in the finished novel Sunraider was going to stand for the absurd dilemmas of integration in modern America, now was the time to show that Bliss’s most formative memory was his participation and leadership in a communal affirmation of Blackness–as a white man and a tragic fool, he has since abandoned. 

Ellison’s “Juneteenth” text appears to be built on the author’s careful synthesis of two of the most important literary chroniclers of Negro American experience (a term that Ellison may have sensed edging out the door by 1965) to come before him: Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright. This claim may surprise readers who are aware of Ellison’s documented antagonisms with both of these writers. As a young writer, in a 1941 review-essay on “Recent Negro Fiction,” Ellison had dismissed Hurston and her work as having “the blight of calculated burlesque.” But the scholar Paul Devlin has argued convincingly that this opinion may have been more “youthful” than anything, and that in fact Ellison may well have just been parroting his then-mentor Wright, with whom Hurston had an intense disagreement over the proper approach to depicting Black life. (Hurston thought Wright was too concerned with white readers; Wright accused Hurston of writing disparaging minstrelsy.) Noting Ellison’s repeated misspelling of Hurston’s name and the titles of her books in “Recent Negro Fiction,” Devlin casts considerable doubt on the possibility that Ellison had even read Hurston at all in 1941.

And yet Devlin finds an uncanny resonance between the opening pages of Hurston’s classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God—which describe the Negro residents of Eatonville, Florida as “tongueless, eyeless, earless conveniences” when not in their warm and insular community—and what Devlin calls the “central conceit” of the “Juneteenth” story, “that beings having been dispossessed of most physical features (aside from various nerves) are re-endowed/reanimated through the Word of God.” In Ellison’s sermon, this conceit expresses itself through Hickman and Bliss’s use of words that end with “-less” to describe the crushed state of the enslaved before their spiritual rebirth in this new land. For instance, “We were eyeless, tongueless, drumless, danceless, hornless, songless!” Devlin writes that in Hurston, Ellison might have found “a plausible poetic model” for pursuing this conceit.

Ellison’s more mature turn to Hurston appears even more plausible when we notice and consider Wright’s influence on the same sermon. Just two years earlier, in his essay “The World and the Jug,” Ellison staked out one of his most famous positions in Afro-American letters while staunchly affirming his independence from the “clenched militancy” of Wright’s naturalist protest fiction. Speaking of his own art and its genealogy of influence, Ellison declared Wright a mere literary “relative” rather than an “ancestor” in the process.

In Ralph Ellison and the Genius of America, however, Timothy Parrish argues convincingly for a revised view of Wright as Ellison’s literary ancestor. Ellison “never quit reflecting upon Wright’s example and advice,” Parrish writes. In very concrete ways, it was Wright who first modeled for Ellison the possibility of contributing to the cause of Black people as a writer. Without Wright’s initial guidance, there was no guarantee that Ellison would walk this path. In Juneteenth, when Hickman tells his son, “Words are your business,” it is not too far-fetched to imagine Wright as Hickman and Ellison as Bliss. By 1965, Wright had been dead for almost five years. For reasons of both personal and literary history, it would only be natural for Ellison to have looked back at his mentor’s work to compose his great affirmation of Black American oneness for such a special occasion.

The work that appears to have furnished the “Juneteenth” sermon’s foundation is the same one that Parrish identifies as the “most influential” on Ellison himself: 12 Million Black Voices. When it was published in 1941, this unsparing and mythically toned “Folk History of the Negro in the United States” essentially transformed Ellison. “I felt so intensely the fire of our common experience when reading 12 Million Black Voices,” Ellison later remembered, “that I felt the solder of my discipline melt and found myself opened up and crying over the remembered pattern of painful things.” Parrish is prescient to note that what mattered most to Ellison about this work was Wright’s articulation of “an explicitly Negro way of seeing,” which rests upon “Wright’s deft use of the ‘we’ construction,” which “identifies a collective vision…that the book’s heroes, the twelve million, all share.”

The “Juneteenth” sermon manifests the same motive. It begins with Hickman’s declaration that, “The Hebrew children have their Passover so that they can keep their history alive in their memories—so let us take one more page from their book and, on this great day of deliverance, on this day of emancipation, let’s us tell ourselves our story.” Indeed, the topic sentence of the third paragraph of Wright’s book delivers the basic template for Hickman’s story: “We millions of black folk who live in this land were born into Western civilization of a weird and paradoxical birth.” Or, as Hickman puts it, “It was, as I understand it, a cruel calamity laced up with a blessing—or maybe a blessing laced up with a calamity.” Similarities between these two epic narratives abound. Through the voice of Hickman, Ellison extends, elaborates, and refines the folk history first laid down by Wright.

Ellison’s return to 12 Million Black Voices might have also compelled him to take another look at the review-essay he published in the same year as Wright’s book, which in turn may have compelled him to revisit (or perhaps read for the first time) the Hurston novels that he had criticized therein: Moses, Man of the Mountain and Their Eyes Were Watching God. As he had gotten older, Ellison’s sensibility became more like Hurston’s; he developed a similar distaste for Wright’s bitterness. Encountering Hurston’s work later in life, Ellison appears to have recognized in it the potential for allusions and affective attitudes that would significantly sweeten his retelling of 12 Million Black Voices, to make it feel and sound like a real Juneteenth. In the process, Ellison performed one of the finest reconciliations in American literary history.

And that spirit of reconciliation serves the story’s larger objectives. To honor Richard Wright’s we, Ellison expanded and opened its borders. Hickman’s we —“who come out of Africa…out of the ravaged mama of the black man”—is the very same as Wright’s. But, as he explains to his audience by explaining it to Bliss, “some of us got fair skins like you.” Crucial to this sermon is the fact that white people are never mentioned. But there is a ringing indictment against the people “who had turned traitor to the God who had set them free from Europe’s tyrant kings.”  Any audience member with enough sense to listen and move with Hickman and Bliss can partake of their we. Ellison was trying to help speak a renewed American people into existence, descended from Wright’s twelve million heroes and as well as from others, united by the “explicitly Negro way of seeing” that might actually save this country if enough people practiced it.

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Benji de la Piedra

Benji de la Piedra is a working oral historian who writes about American media, history, and literature, with an emphasis on Black intellectual expression. He holds a B.A. in American Studies and M.A. in Oral History from Columbia University, teaches oral history courses at the University of the District of Columbia and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and consults on community-based oral history projects around the United States. He is a contributor to the forthcoming edited collection Ralph Ellison in Context (ed. Paul Devlin, Cambridge UP), and is currently working on a book that is largely about Ellison's critique of objectivity-obsessed journalism, as well as a biography of the Washington Post journalist Herbert Denton Jr.