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Edited by Ellison's literary executor, John Callahan--aided by Ellison's widow, Fanny--Juneteenth is the most complete section of his much larger forty year "work-in-progress." It is the story of the relationship between the larger work's two central characters Bliss (a.k.a. the self-named "Sunraider"), a race baiting New England senator, and his one-time adoptive father, Hickman, a black southern preacher, known to his congregation as "God's Trumpet" and to himself as "God's straight man."
After years of separation, Hickman and Sunraider's relationship is resumed when Sunraider is mortally wounded and calls out for Hickman. During the course of the conversation that follows they journey through the past and across the gulf that separates them from both each other and their earlier selves. They move back to a time of hope, when Sunraider was Bliss, "a little boy of indefinite race who looks white and, who...comes to be reared by a Negro minister," but they also revisit a particular Juneteenth night when something happens that causes Bliss to run away, precipitating a fall from grace that culminates in his evolution into Sunraider. As both men's stories unfold the need and possibility of redemption become evident.
In Juneteenth Ellison draws on and employs a number of threads from America's black cultural heritage--from the antiphonal call-and-response patterns of the black churches to the riffs and bass lines of jazz. Years after hearing him read from it, James Allan McPherson concluded: "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 more diverse world for those who take their provisional identities from groups." Through the interplay of the two men Ellison explores the mysteries of race, memory, identity, the need for redemption, and how, at a "deeper frequency," as Ellison would say, to be American one must also be "somehow black," as Ellison once wrote. This crucial central part of a larger work is complete within itself and its theme, rhythms, and language are its author's abiding testament to America and its many unfinished tasks.
Praise for Juneteenth:
"Ralph Ellison's generosity, humor, and nimble language are, of course, on display in Juneteenth, but it is his vigorous intellect that rules the novel. A majestic narrative concept."