“Why can’t they realize that when they dull their senses to the killing of one group of men they dull themselves to the preciousness of all human life? Yes, and why can’t they realize that when they allow one group of men the freedom to kill us as evidence of their own superiority they’re only setting the stage so that these killers will have to widen the game…”
“Juneteenth” is the posthumously published, arguably unfinished, second novel of the great Ralph Ellison. “Juneteenth” is the story of Adam Sunraider, a white, race-baiting Senator who was raised as “Bliss”, an adoptee and acolyte of a black itinerant preacher. Having spent his formative years as part of a close-knit black community, Bliss then disappeared, changed his name, and turned his back on those who knew him best. At the same moment in time when his childhood “family” has found him and appeared at his doorstep once again, Senator Sunraider is shot while delivering a vitriolic speech on the floor of the Senate. From that point on, “Juneteenth” alternates between the deathbed conversations of Bliss and his adoptive father, Reverend Hickman, and flashbacks to Bliss’s past, ending (not beginning) with Bliss’s own origin story, which has haunting parallels to the story of Emmett Till.
Like in “The Invisible Man”, Ellison’s voice is a loud call to talk about race and racial tension in America. I suspect that Ellison would be disappointed but not surprised to learn how poignant and relevant his words are in today’s America. It is some of his particularly political passages that resonated most with me.
“‘We’re from down where we’re among the counted but not among the heard.'”
“Therefore, as we go about confronting our national ambiguities, let us remember the purposes of our built-in checks and balances, those constitutional provisions which serve like subtle hormones to regulate the ingenious metabolism of our body politic.”
“‘You’ve been on the outside, Bliss, so you ought to know better’n me that they respect some things of ours. Or at least they leave them alone. Maybe not our women or our right to good food and education, but they respect our burying grounds.'”
Ralph Ellison was an incredibly gifted writer, possessing a way with words and a wealth of messages he seemingly ached to communicate. His place in the literary canon is secure and unassailable. In keeping with expectations, the writing is “Juneteenth” is beautiful, lyrical, poetic. For me, though, it was also deeply challenging. “Juneteenth” is written with the cadence of evangelical preaching, full of call and response, winding metaphor, and biblical allusions. This cadence is exactly right given that the two primary “voices” in the story worked as evangelical preachers, but it is a cadence that slowed my reading and challenged my focus and engagement again and again. At the end of the day, “Juneteenth” becomes one of those rare examples of a book that is both profoundly well written and profoundly difficult to read. While I am unlikely to return to this work, the hours of struggle I spent with it were a mere token of what is due to it and its creator.