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Ellison’s Promised Land

Juneteenth

by Ralph Ellison
Random House, 368 pp., $25.00

I’m walking down Elm Street, in the gathering dusk of a Sunday spring evening in New Haven. The streets are still. As I approach the corner of College, a two-tone Camaro pulls up at the red light beside me. The car’s a few years older than most others on the road and the driver is a young black man with very close-cut hair and wrap-around shades. But the sound is the thing.

Out of the Chevy’s overheated amps, engineered by its creators to exploit the tinny resonance of automotive acoustics, the drawling, sibilant insolence of rap blasts at top volume, hostile and profane. The rapper lays out the text like a card trick, explosively articulating some lines, swallowing and slurring others, appearing and disappearing phrases, slow moves following fast shuffles to the shifty boom of the bass line. It’s wild. But I don’t like it much.

Which I can’t help feeling has briefly become the point to the young man at the wheel. Maybe it’s paranoia but I think he’s aware of me a few feet away. Indeed, he glances over at me and he’s not in the least apologetic. Professor Beard, that’s me, and I don’t get it. I so obviously don’t get it that he thinks it’s amusing; and as for me, who dates from the days when cool was all, who cherished the hip and arrogantly scorned the square, where am I now? What’s his is his because it’s not mine.

The driver of the Camaro has made me see him. He’s also made me not see him. He has presented himself, intruded on my consciousness and my pittance of the public space, not as another man but as an urban phenomenon. Flying the patch, wrapping himself in the colors to the point of invisibility. I’m put out. A memory comes to me of sitting in a club on San Francisco’s Broadway and listening to John Coltrane, me dizzy with synesthesia as the brass appears in spurts of scarlet and the rhythm expands and contracts in waves of jagged hallucinatory frost. As though I belonged there, as though being there made me something, got me something. I was just another white habitué but I was paying attention. Now such illusions of social definition are old, they’re over. On Elm Street the light changes and we go our separate ways forever.

How preposterous of me to assume the right of access to the cultural artifacts of a new generation of black Americans. As though the man in the Camaro should somehow be my pal, when plainly for him I am part of something he’s trying to outwit and survive. But I regret the whole sad history of our racial failure, the great crossover that never made it over or across. It seems to me I remember an era in which more than a few Americans—however deluded, terrorized, or fatuous—felt they had to examine the country’s plural identity.

The attempted engagement of those times is often evoked today by recalling its embarrassing disasters. Foolish drunken Jack Kerouac declaring his unbounded love for everything and everyone black and getting a sock in the mouth for his gushings from a black man in a Florida saloon. And there was the night that a group of Black Panthers appeared at the apartment of the Leonard Bernsteins. Whatever actually happened there, the Tom Wolfe story that followed in New York magazine helped to break the confidence of the sentimental left in America the way Voltaire’s writings broke that of Europe’s ancien régime.

But there were some good times too, were there not? A few connections, a little camaraderie. Or did we deceive ourselves? Now, it seems, even television commercials have stopped showing adults in racially mixed social situations. Have we despaired of the possibility of community? Or have we achieved a mature and realistic appreciation of an unhappy situation? If we knew the future, we might be able to tell which is the case.

Long ago, in a different world, two years before the United States Supreme Court delivered its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Ralph Ellison published one of the great works of American late modernism. Who having read Invisible Man decades ago can forget the experience? With the custodians of segregation still armed, confident and enjoying the collusion of society at large, Ralph Ellison spotted a weak, pretending devil behind the edifice of official racism and lured it into the light of day. His first novel presumed to treat the circumstances of American racial arrogance as the subject of satire. Its subversive nature was compounded not only by its sly, uncowed observation of complacent oppression but by its evocations of black myth, of trickster and outlaw figures, counterparts of the symbolic personages in the work of Eliot and Faulkner. Invisible Man had a distinctly American—and distinctly African-American—joie de vivre and humor that may never before have been employed so vigorously in the service of high art. In its incidents and Harlem setting it had a grim realism and reflected the social conditions of the time. And unfortunately its story is far from dated. It describes, among other things, the intrigues of organizing a protest against the wanton shooting of a black street vendor by a white cop. But Ellison’s prose was foreign to the aesthetic of “social realism.” In its rich details it had the vividness of nightmare.

A violent encounter on the opening page of Invisible Man echoes an incident in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. In Dostoevsky’s original, an obscure clerk, jostled on the Nevsky Prospekt by an overbearing young officer, extracts obsessive revenge as if he is caught in a dream. Ellison’s nameless narrator, driven to refuge in a secret warren under the city, describes another urban moment which is both startling in its queerness and wholly convincing. He has accidentally brushed against another man, a “tall blond man,” who “looked insolently out of his blue eyes and cursed me.” The narrator viciously attacks the man, beating him to the ground, kicking him half-senseless. He is at the point of drawing his knife when “it occurred to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the middle of a waking nightmare…almost killed by a phantom…mugged by an invisible man!” Only by degrees do we discover that the Invisible Man is, to use the word Ellison always insisted on, a Negro.

The self that the narrator of Invisible Man asserts is not a category of being. To insist on anything that might somehow be called “black identity” would be, in Ellison’s terms, to opt for just another mode of invisibility. Even what our society sees as the ultimate act of autonomy and empowerment, murder, would not free the eponymous figure of the novel from his invisibility. Rather it would cause him to disappear altogether into the abyss of commonplace expectations. This insight is his awakening.

Ellison’s character is a man of acute sensibilities, trapped in the darkness of America’s racist perception. To be rendered invisible, Ellison knew, is to be mortally threatened. To appear in a form no one chooses to see is to be utterly at the mercy of things. Woe to the invisible man. With everyone looking the other way, he may be sure that something terrible is about to happen, something that, out of self-protection, no one cares to see. God help you when the world defensively hardens its heart and blinds itself to your condition. Whom men would destroy, they first put out of sight.

The Harlem of Invisible Man appears as if reflected in a dark, distorted mirror and it calls to mind the countryside of Vladimir and Estragon. The assertion of identity in such a situation is the vocation of the madman-hero, the absurdist résistant who speaks for sanity and light against insuperable odds. In satirizing the specific, the cruel buffoonery of Jim Crowism and the opportunism of the Communists, the novel reveals something universal. “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies,” the Invisible Man suggests, addressing all of us, “I speak for you?”

Ellison’s reduction of American racism to a metaphor for the absurdity of the country’s blindness was an act of supreme defiance and self-confidence. In refusing to be literally “discriminated against” the narrator implicitly asserts the interior life of black America, its soul if you will, the iron resilience beneath its postures. What most of the country was still insisting was a secondary debate about quaint regional customs and incurable cussedness was set forth by Ellison as raising fundamental questions of the human condition. In doing this, Ellison evoked what Conrad referred to in his preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”: “that feeling of unavoidable solidarity; of the solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world.”

It’s hard to overestimate the persuasive intensity of good prose. Appearing when fiction counted for considerably more than it does today, Invisible Man, so far as race was concerned, changed the literary and intellectual landscape. It also placed on the shoulders of its thirty-eight-year-old author a double responsibility, both to art and to history. Add the measure of Ralph Ellison’s talent and ambition to the gravity and complexity of his ideas, and we can sense the situation in which he had placed himself.

According to his letters, Ellison began his second novel before he had altogether finished his first. This is an excellent strategy, easier stated than carried out. In retrospect, how much better it would have been for him and for us if he had gone ahead and risked a second work perhaps less impressive than Invisible Man. Given his talent and vision he could not have gone too far wrong.

Years ago Norman Mailer expressed the hope of hitting what he called “the longest ball” in American fiction. In the age of Hemingway, who once pictured himself as having been in the boxing ring with “Mr. Turgenev” and “Mr. Tolstoy,” the competitive sports metaphor, not to say its ethos, prevailed. Ellison seems to have been waiting for the perfect pitch, testing the breeze, his eyes fixed on the dark space beyond the bright lights. “C’est un art trop difficile,” as the Frenchman said.

In his first novel, Ellison revealed a gift for prophecy that distinguishes a handful of American writers. Prophets foretell the future as he did and, like him, they do more. They remind us of our condition, they chastise folly and speak truth to power. Ralph Ellison’s vision might have done much to shape the nature of the struggles that Invisible Man foreshadowed. Two years ago in these pages, Darryl Pinckney thoughtfully examined Ellison’s published work since the Fifties, the two volumes of his collected essays and stories.* Drawing on biographical detail, Pinckney’s review reminded us of the author’s intimate knowledge both of American literature and African-American culture. Ellison incessantly pondered the ways that race pervaded America and he wrote about them with originality and eloquence.

But above all he was an artist. The intense pleasure he took in the uses of literature as well as in jazz and in the sumptuousness of black language demonstrate the aesthetic perceptions behind his impulse to speak out. In his acceptance speech on receiving the National Book Award in 1953, he referred to “the rich babel of idiomatic expression around me, a language full of imagery and rhetorical canniness.” The tragedy for him and for us is that the vision of a poet and prophet can only be truly validated through his creations. Had he been armed with the works of fiction expected of him, he could never have been dismissed so unfairly, during an age when much of academia was posing for its revolutionary portrait by Delacroix, as insufficiently concerned with rights. His accomplishment remains unique and irreplaceable, but there is not enough of it. His near silence lost him the attention of millions for whom he intended an urgent message.

All his life, Ellison looked back to the post-frontier Oklahoma of his boyhood, an amalgam of three peoples—white, black, American Indian—as representing a glorious possibility that American white racism tragically denied. Oklahoma had been “the territory” where long ago Huckleberry Finn imagined new beginnings. In Ellison, “the territory” contained a secret promise that transcended its mutilated, segregated history. Indeed, it was a Promised Land, an alternative America whose potential could be construed from the country’s founding principles, a land from which a post-racist America might spring forth.

Ellison seems to have taken too much pleasure in négritude to desire a post-racial society, but he plainly argued for the recognition of a truly multiracial one. The “territory” of his dreams would provide a background against which the genius of a multiplicitous America could thrive in freedom. Ironically, the anti-ideological Ellison shared a utopian tendency with his Marxist-influenced contemporaries. His vision of America as “the territory” fulfilling its possibilities may have been too optimistic, too confident in human nature. But it was a noble belief. How many American writers, so talented, have been visionaries on such a scale?

The balance of Ellison’s legacy is now before us in the work produced by John F. Callahan, his literary executor, in the form of Juneteenth. The title was chosen by Mr. Callahan and the structure follows his sense of Ralph Ellison’s intentions. The epigraph was selected by the novelist himself, from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”:

   This is the use of memory:
For liberation—not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
Begins as attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

Eliot’s lines evoke the subsuming of passion and identity in an endless swirl of historical extremes, with a glimpsed vision of hope beyond hope. Sibylline and elegiac, they are an appropriate frame for Juneteenth. In his editor’s introduction, Callahan tells us that after Ellison’s death in 1994, the novelist’s widow asked him whether a “beginning, middle, and end” could be extracted from the two thousand pages of typescript and printout Ellison had left, along with “scraps of notes, jottings on old newspapers and magazine subscription cards, and several neat boxes of computer disks.” Callahan says he kept Fanny Ellison’s question constantly in mind, and his version of Ellison’s novel adheres to a central story line.

A group of Southern black church people arrive in Washington to deliver a warning to a notorious race-baiting senator who represents a New England state. They are put off and prevented from seeing the senator by officious and racist functionaries. Later, the church folk, led by their pastor, the Reverend Alonzo Hickman, hear the senator, called Sunraider, deliver a rambling, offensive speech on the Senate floor. As they watch from the gallery, a young black man gets to his feet and shoots the senator down. The point of view shifts back and forth between that of Hickman and that of the wounded Sunraider.

Dying, Senator Sunraider surprises everyone by calling Alonzo Hickman to his hospital bedside. A Joycean stream-of-consciousness narrative begins, composed of past and present dialogues between Hickman and Sunraider and of Sunraider’s delirious recollections.

The reader learns that “Senator Sunraider” is a self-invented ex-drifter and confidence man who was once a child called Bliss. Bliss, who appeared to be white, was raised by Hickman and his congregation in the South during what seems like a period before World War II. He thought of himself as black, like the churchfolk, who were all the family he had.

Hickman, a former minister, jazz musician, and loose-living backdoor man, has become, in his mature years, a consecrated man of God and a wise leader who travels the South with his revival show. Like many old-time, star-turn Southern revivalists, Hickman uses props. His main prop used to be young Bliss, who at a critical moment in the service would arise from a child-size white coffin to preach and testify to the salvific power of the Lord. In the tradition of the Southern black church, Hickman’s theology incorporates a measure of messianic racial liberation along with the Christian image of redemption.

During a huge revival meeting on the anniversary of “Juneteenth”—June 19, 1865, the day Union troops in Texas declared the state’s slaves free—a deranged-appearing white woman fights her way to the platform and attempts to make off with Bliss.

He’s mine, MINE!… You gypsy niggers stole him, my baby. You robbed him of his birthright!…”

The congregation fends off the mad white woman but Bliss never forgets the incident. At the movies, sitting in the segregated section, watching the silky, powdered white actresses on screen, Bliss fantasizes about his “birthright,” the frightening, intriguing world beyond the warm and affectionate community Hickman and the churchfolk have made for him. He is their darling boy and “Daddy” Hickman has raised him for some transcendent destiny that will redeem and liberate black people and all America. Yet he flees, becomes a carny, a fast-talking womanizer on the grift; he slides into the white world, makes the big time, and finally surfaces as the appalling racist politician Sunraider. Dying, with Daddy Hickman at his bedside, he relives it all again. Hickman, like the hound of heaven, has pursued him down the years, tracking him through a network of musicians, bellhops, Pullman porters. The old preacher is by his side, gently consoling, as the dying senator, reliving his past, is assailed at the last by vengeful phantoms. In his fevered hallucinations, projections of black violence, mocking, Cadillac-cruising, switchblade-wielding outlaws threaten to bear him off to hell.

To use an architectural metaphor,” Callahan writes of the central plot he has isolated, “this was the true center of Ellison’s great, unfinished house of fiction. And although he did not complete the wings of the edifice, their absence does not significantly mar the organic unity of the book we do have, Juneteenth.”

Architectural metaphors seem apt. Juneteenth, in some ways, is like an old and stately house. As often with great mansions, to approach it is to enter into the spirit of another time. The fact that it remained unfinished gives it an air of dereliction. The tools and components of its construction lie about the floor. Its rooms seem long closed off, the formal furnishings are dusty and partly covered. Some walls are incomplete, others peeling. Entering we find ourselves in the atmosphere of a bygone age. There are rich but familiar fragrances and ghostly music.

This is a half-built petit palais in the great castle of Modernism. How confusing to the perception it is to enter rooms that are at once new and unfinished and old. Names and phrases come to the mind of the reader, half heard. A stone, a leaf, an unfound door. James Weldon Johnson, God’s Trombones. Richard Wright, Max and Bigger talking in the deathhouse in Native Son, Bigger saying: “I got to believe in myself.” Willie Stark, Burdens Landing. Man conceived in corruption. Sartoris. The Compsons. The McCaslins. The land ours before we were the land’s. The dark fields of the republic rolling on under the night. All of these seem present.

Music. Is it Louis Jordan? Lester Young? Fletcher Henderson? Ellington?

In this shadowy house, a writer from the recent past prophesies a future which is itself partly over and he does so in language that is sometimes delicious, sometimes tedious, sometimes frustrating, sometimes full of astonishing confusion. We get the impression of a brilliant, disconnected series of mirrors, some broken, some glittering, some rusted, some still in their brown paper. Juneteenth has all the difficulties of a text assembled from an uncompleted book, though it was plainly put together with great diligence and respect. It has many of the satisfactions of Ralph Ellison’s fiction, including passages of his best work. It has to be recalled (unfortunately) that this is very good indeed.

How long a ball was Mr. Ellison aiming to hit? John Callahan gives us some idea in the introduction:

In conception and execution, Juneteenth is multifarious, multifaceted, multifocused, multivoiced, multitoned. After hearing Ellison read from the novel in the summer of 1969, James Allan McPherson brooded for many years about what he had heard and slowly came to the conclusion that “in his novel Ellison was trying to solve the central problem of American literature. He was trying to find forms invested with enough familiarity to reinvent a much broader and much more diverse world for those who take their provisional identities from groups.” Finally, McPherson added what might serve as a benediction for Juneteenth: “I think he was trying to Negro-Americanize the novel form, at the same time he was attempting to move beyond it.”

From the book itself we sense he was attempting something close to that description. It was not for lack of time or lack of talent that he did not live to complete it.

What did he accomplish? The beginning is not promising. The patience and benignity of the elderly church-going “Southern Negroes” make the reader in 1999 feel uneasy. Their leader Reverend Hickman seems a stereotype, the broad-shouldered, fatherly, bass-voiced black preacher, all dignity and kindness, who leads his flock to the Lincoln Memorial when they are turned away from Senator Sunraider’s office. Then Sunraider himself, or rather Bliss in his incarnation as Sunraider, seems unsteadily conceived. The speech we hear him delivering on the Senate floor is too long and gaseous to be sustained as working prose, even intended as parody or hyperbole. In some places it seems to echo insights we know Ellison himself subscribed to, in others it is too crudely racist to be credible even in the Senate of the Fifties. The paradox of his association with New England falls flat; indeed Bliss as a senator doesn’t really work. The novel fails to pay off on its suggested tragical-ironical connections between Bliss/Sunraider and his assassin.

With Sunraider on his deathbed and Hickman by his side, things begin to radically improve. Bliss’s recollections of his strange Southern childhood and the selfless, obsessive fidelity of the old man at his side cast a spell. Once the spell takes hold, the pattern begins to unfold. The reader yields to a vastly ambitious informing allegory, an allegory made rich, as in Invisible Man, with the sensory details of which Ellison was such a master.

With the allegory engaged, characters suddenly come to life within it. Bliss, frightened, wounded, haunted, and self-invented, can be taken to represent the country itself. Conceived in liberty, dedicated to equality, he has fled and rejected his origins, traded his true parentage for a false, foolishly idealized one, betrayed himself through lies, subterfuges, stalls, betrayals. And Hickman, strong, enduring, patient, humorous, stands for Ellison’s view of rejected black America, still largely invisible, wiser through suffering, forever trying to win to reason the unstable, greedy child-personage with whom it shares identity. Bliss pretends to be white; so does America. But he is not, and it is not, and there will never be peace until this is firmly recognized.

So the vast scheme of what is now known to us as Juneteenth was sacramental in nature; it was to be literature as incantation, a work on the order of Melville’s, with a musical prose accompaniment that was soaring and profound. Without question, Ellison had thoroughly conceived the argument. And at least in some measure, he carried out his design. Much of the music is there.

Despite the scale of its intention, the reconstructed Juneteenth is not particularly long. The heart of the sacrament, the Sanctus of Ellison’s novel as Missa Solemnis, is a passage in the first half, on the Juneteenth revival celebration itself, which is terminated by the intrusion of the white woman who claims to be Bliss’s mother. This passage reproduces the antiphonal rhythms of Pentecostal preaching, with young Bliss and Reverend Hickman using the form of interrogatory and response. Much has been said by writers from Kerouac to Amiri Baraka about the rendering of jazz and gospel music on the page; all the same, it had always seemed, at least to this reviewer, an elusive aesthetic possibility given the nature of the music, language, and the mind’s ear. In the sections designated as chapters seven and eight of Juneteenth, Ellison does it as it’s never before been done; the revival sequences contain passages to haul the reader right up out of his chair. In sensory impact, they are unique in fiction, and it seems a certainty that they will be pounced on and excerpted for performance.

In fact I think it would be surprising if we did not see the story Callahan has salvaged, adorned as it is with Ellison’s virtuoso gospel “riffs,” adapted to some kind of theatrical presentation. These gospel sections, along with some of the lyrical, associative neo-Joycean passages in which Bliss reflects and recollects his scams, his love life, his movie fantasies, confirm the esteem in which Ralph Ellison has been held since his debut. Juneteenth is, by default, not the world-historical masterpiece Ellison undertook and it cannot be judged fairly until we see the pages that have been excluded in order to cobble it together; but it is far from being the ersatz publishing promotion some have suggested. All in all, the work will sustain and enlarge Ellison’s artistic reputation.

Ralph Waldo Ellison of Oklahoma was not ashamed to seek the laurel wreath. The masterpiece through which he sought it finally eluded him. But for the sum of his work and the grandeur and generosity of his vision, I believe his country and the literary community of which he was so important a part owe him more than has been acknowledged. And reading his unfinished work, we are left with the thought that the “territory” of his heart still lies beyond a wall, one so high we can’t get over it, and so wide we can’t get around it.

  1. *

    The Drama of Ralph Ellison,” The New York Review, May 15, 1997.

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