Synopses & Reviews
Juneteenth, the Senator said, closing his eyes, his bandaged head resting beneath his hands. Words of Emancipation didn't arrive until the middle of June, so they called it Juneteenth. . . .
In Washington, D.C., in the 1950s, Adam Sunraider, a race-baiting senator from a New England state, is mortally wounded by an assassin's bullet while making a speech on the Senate floor. To the shock of all who think they know him, Sunraider calls out from his deathbed for Hickman, an old black minister, to be brought to his side. The Reverend is summoned; the two are left alone. Out of their conversation, and the inner rhythms of memories whose weight has been borne in silence for many long years, a story emerges. For this United States senator, once known as Bliss, was raised by Reverend Hickman in a religion- and music-steeped black community not unlike Ralph Ellison's own childhood home. He was brought up to be a preaching prodigy in a joyful black Baptist ministry that traveled throughout the South and the Southwest. Together one last time, the two men retrace the course of their shared life in "an anguished attempt," Ellison once put it, "to arrive at the true shape and substance of a sundered past and its meaning." In the end the two men arrive at their most painful memories, memories that hold the key to understanding the mysteries of kinship and race that bind them, and to the senator's confronting how deeply estranged he has become from his true identity.
Juneteenth draws on the full richness of America's black cultural heritage, from the dazzling range of vernacular sources in its language to the way its structure echoes the call-and-response pattern of the black church and the riffs and bass lines of jazz. It offers jubilant proof that whatever else it means to be a true American, it means to be "somehow black," as Ellison once wrote. For even as Senator Sunraider was bathed from birth in the deep and nourishing waters of African-American folkways, so too are all Americans.
That idea is the cause for which Ralph Ellison gave the last full measure of his devotion. At the time of his death, he was still expanding his novel in other directions, envisioning a grand, perhaps multivolume, story cycle. Always, in Ellison's mind, the character Hickman and the story of Sunraider's life from birth to death were the dramatic heart of the narrative. And so, with the aid of Ellison's widow, Fanny, his literary executor, John Callahan, has edited this magnificent novel at the center of Ralph Ellison's forty-year work-in-progress--Juneteenth, its author's abiding testament to the country he so loved and to its many unfinished tasks.
About the Author
Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City in 1914. He is the author of the novel Invisible Man (1952), winner of the National Book Award and one of the most important and influential American novels of the twentieth century, as well as numerous essays and short stories. He died in New York City in 1994.
John F. Callahan is Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He is the editor of the Modern Library edition of The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison and is literary executor of Ralph Ellison's estate.
Reading Group Guide
This discussion guide will assist readers in exploring Juneteenth. We hope that it will help create bonds not only between the book and the reader, but also among the members of the group. In your support of this book, please feel free to copy and distribute this guide to best facilitate your program. Thank you.
1. Why the title, Juneteenth? What does the word as well as the occasion Juneteenth come to mean in the novel?
2. Ellison once said that the true American, whatever the particulars of his or her genetic or cultural heritage, is also "somehow black." Why do you think Ellison never reveals Bliss/Sunraider's father's race? If Sunraider lives in the world as a white man, what would it mean to say that he was black, and why would it matter?
3. Do the actions and meditations of the novel answer the "three fatal questions" posed (p. 19) by the race-baiting Senator Sunraider in his pre-assasination speech: "How can the many be as one? How can the future deny the past? And how can the light deny the dark?"
4. Why, after he is mortally wounded, does the Senator call Hickman, and only Hickman, to his hospital bedside? Why do you think Ellison named Hickman Hickman? And why are his initials A.Z.? Do you feel it is significant that Hickman is a jazz musician before he becomes a minister?
5. Hickman names the baby he midwifes into this world Bliss "because they say that's what ignorance is." Does the name come back to haunt Bliss/Sunraider, and also Hickman? Why do you think Bliss later chooses Adam Sunraider for his new name?
6. Why does the sister call Lincoln "Father Abraham" and what is the connection between Lincoln, Bliss, and Hickman? Why is Lincoln so important to Hickman?
7. What connection, if any, is there between the images and performances of religious services, the movies, and political rituals? What is the result of Ellison's using the African-American culture and vernacular for the sermons, church scenes, and jazz in the novel?
8. When Ellison accepted the National Book Award for Invisible Man, he wrote that "I was to dream of a prose which was flexible, and swift as American change is swift, confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly, yet thrusting forth its image of hope, human fraternity, and individual self-realization." Does his prose in Juneteenth realize this dream?