"Tell me what happened while there's still time," demands the dying Senator Adam Sunraider to the itinerate preacher whom he calls Daddy Hickman. As a young man, Sunraider was Bliss, an orphan taken in by Hickman and raised to be a preacher like himself. Bliss's history encompasses the joys of young southern boyhood; bucolic days as a filmmaker, lovemaking in a field in the Oklahoma sun. And behind it all lies a mystery: how did this chosen child become the man who would deny everything to achieve his goals?
Here is the master of American vernacular at the height of his powers, evoking the rhythms of jazz and gospel and ordinary speech.
"An extraordinary book, a work of staggering virtuosity. With its publication, a giant world of literature has just grown twice as tall." —Newsday
About the Author
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.
Date of Birth:March 1, 1914
Date of Death:March 16, 1994
Place of Birth:Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Place of Death:New York City
Education:Tuskegee Institute, 1933-36
Read an Excerpt
Two days before the shooting a chartered planeload of Southern Negroes swooped down upon the District of Columbia and attempted to see the Senator. They were all quite elderly: old ladies dressed in little white caps and white uniforms made of surplus nylon parachute material, and men dressed in neat but old-fashioned black suits, wearing wide-brimmed, deep-crowned panama hats which, in the Senator's walnut-paneled reception room now, they held with a grave ceremonial air. Solemn, uncommunicative and quietly insistent, they were led by a huge, distinguished-looking old fellow who on the day of the chaotic event was to prove himself, his age notwithstanding, an extraordinarily powerful man. Tall and broad and of an easy dignity, this was the Reverend A. Z. Hickmanbetter known, as one of the old ladies proudly informed the Senator's secretary, as "God's Trombone."
This, however, was about all they were willing to explain. Forty-four in number, the women with their fans and satchels and picnic baskets, and the men carrying new blue airline take-on bags, they listened intently while Reverend Hickman did their talking.
"Ma'am," Hickman said, his voice deep and resonant as he nodded toward the door of the Senator's private office, "you just tell the Senator that Hickman has arrived. When he hears who's out here he'll know that it's important and want to see us."
"But I've told you that the Senator isn't available," the secretary said. "Just what is your business? Who are you, anyway? Are you his constituents?"
"Constituents?" Suddenly the old man smiled. "No, miss," he said, "the Senator doesn't even have anybody like us in his state. We're from down where we're among the counted but not among the heard."
"Then why are you coming here?" she said. "What is your business?"
"He'll tell you, ma'am," Hickman said. "He'll know who we are; all you have to do is tell him that we have arrived. . . ."
The secretary, a young Mississippian, sighed. Obviously these were Southern Negroes of a type she had known all her lifeand old ones; yet instead of being already in herdlike movement toward the door they were calmly waiting, as though she hadn't said a word. And now she had a suspicion that, for all their staring eyes, she actually didn't exist for them. They just stood there, now looking oddly like a delegation of Asians who had lost their interpreter along the way, and were trying to tell her something which she had no interest in hearing, through this old man who himself did not know the language. Suddenly they no longer seemed familiar, and a feeling of dreamlike incongruity came over her. They were so many that she could no longer see the large abstract paintings hung along the paneled wall, nor the framed facsimiles of State Documents which hung above a bust of Vice-President Calhoun. Some of the old women were calmly plying their palm-leaf fans, as though in serene defiance of the droning air conditioner. Yet she could see no trace of impertinence in their eyes, nor any of the anger which the Senator usually aroused in members of their group. Instead, they seemed resigned, like people embarked upon a difficult journey who were already far beyond the point of no return. Her uneasiness grew; then she blotted out the others by focusing her eyes narrowly upon their leader. And when she spoke again her voice took on a nervous edge.
"I've told you that the Senator isn't here," she said, "and you must realize that he is a busy man who can only see people by appointment. . . ."
"We know, ma'am," Hickman said, "but . . ."
"You don't just walk in here and expect to see him on a minute's notice."
"We understand that, ma'am," Hickman said, looking mildly into her eyes, his close-cut white head tilted to one side, "but this is something that developed of a sudden. Couldn't you reach him by long distance? We'd pay the charges. And I don't even have to talk, miss; you can do the talking. All you have to say is that we have arrived."
"I'm afraid this is impossible," she said.
The very evenness of the old man's voice made her feel uncomfortably young, and now, deciding that she had exhausted all the tried-and-true techniques her region had worked out (short of violence) for getting quickly rid of Negroes, the secretary lost her patience and telephoned for a guard.
They left as quietly as they had appeared, the old minister waiting behind until the last had stepped into the hall, then he turned, and she saw his full height, framed by the doorway, as the others arranged themselves beyond him in the hall. "You're really making a mistake, miss," he said. "The Senator knows us and"
"Knows you," she said indignantly. "I've heard Senator Sunraider state that the only colored he knows is the boy who shines shoes at his golf club."
"Oh?" Hickman shook his head as the others exchanged knowing glances. "Very well, ma'am. We're sorry to have caused you this trouble. It's just that it's very important that the Senator know we're on the scene. So I hope you won't forget to tell him that we have arrived, because soon it might be too late."
There was no threat in it; indeed, his voice echoed the odd sadness which she thought she detected in the faces of the others just before the door blotted them from view.
In the hall they exchanged no words, moving silently behind the guard who accompanied them down to the lobby. They were about to move into the street when the security-minded chief guard observed their number, stepped up, and ordered them searched.
They submitted patiently, amused that anyone should consider them capable of harm, and for the first time an emotion broke the immobility of their faces. They chuckled and winked and smiled, fully aware of the comic aspect of the situation. Here they were, quiet, old, and obviously religious black folk who, because they had attempted to see the man who was considered the most vehement enemy of their people in either house of Congress, were being energetically searched by uniformed security police, and they knew what the absurd outcome would be. They were found to be armed with nothing more dangerous than pieces of fried chicken and ham sandwiches, chocolate cake and sweet-potato fried pies. Some obeyed the guards' commands with exaggerated sprightliness, the old ladies giving their skirts a whirl as they turned in their flat-heeled shoes. When ordered to remove his wide-brimmed hat, one old man held it for the guard to look inside; then, flipping out the sweatband, he gave the crown a tap, causing something to fall to the floor, then waited with a callused palm extended as the guard bent to retrieve it. Straightening and unfolding the object, the guard saw a worn but neatly creased fifty-dollar bill, which he dropped upon the outstretched palm as though it were hot. They watched silently as he looked at the old man and gave a dry, harsh laugh; then as he continued laughing the humor slowly receded behind their eyes. Not until they were allowed to file into the street did they give further voice to their amusement.
"These here folks don't understand nothing," one of the old ladies said. "If we had been the kind to depend on the sword instead of on the Lord, we'd been in our graves long agoain't that right, Sis' Arter?"
"You said it," Sister Arter said. "In the grave and done long finished mold'ing!"
"Let them worry, our conscience is clear on that. . . ."
On the sidewalk now, they stood around Reverend Hickman, holding a hushed conference; then in a few minutes they disappeared in a string of taxis and the incident was thought closed.
Shortly afterwards, however, they appeared mysteriously at a hotel where the Senator leased a private suite, and tried to see him. How they knew of this secret suite they would not explain.
Next they appeared at the editorial offices of the newspaper which was most critical of the Senator's methods, but here too they were turned away. They were taken for a protest group, just one more lot of disgruntled Negroes crying for justice as though theirs were the only grievances in the world. Indeed, they received less of a hearing here than elsewhere. They weren't even questioned as to why they wished to see the Senatorwhich was poor newspaper work, to say the least; a failure of technical alertness, and, as events were soon to prove, a gross violation of press responsibility.
So once more they moved away.
Although the Senator returned to Washington the following day, his secretary failed to report his strange visitors. There were important interviews scheduled and she had understandably classified the old people as just another annoyance. Once the reception room was cleared of their disquieting presence they seemed no more significant than the heavy mail received from white liberals and Negroes, liberal and reactionary alike, whenever the Senator made one of his taunting remarks. She forgot them. Then at about eleven a.m. Reverend Hickman reappeared without the others and started into the building. This time, however, he was not to reach the secretary. One of the guards, the same who had picked up the fifty-dollar bill, recognized him and pushed him bodily from the building.
Indeed, the old man was handled quite roughly, his sheer weight and bulk and the slow rhythm of his normal movements infuriating the guard to that quick, heated fury which springs up in one when dealing with the unexpected recalcitrance of some inanimate objectthe huge stone that resists the bulldozer's power, or the chest of drawers that refuses to budge from its spot on the floor. Nor did the old man's composure help matters. Nor did his passive resistance hide his distaste at having strange hands placed upon his person. As he was being pushed about, old Hickman looked at the guard with a kind of tolerance, an understanding which seemed to remove his personal emotions to some far, cool place where the guard's strength could never reach them. He even managed to pick up his hat from the sidewalk where it had been thrown after him with no great show of breath or hurry, and arose to regard the guard with a serene dignity.
"Son," he said, flicking a spot of dirt from the soft old panama with a white handkerchief, "I'm sorry that this had to happen to you. Here you've worked up a sweat on this hot morning and not a thing has been changedexcept that you've interfered with something that doesn't concern you. After all, you're only a guard, you're not a mind-reader. Because if you were, you'd be trying to get me in there as fast as you could instead of trying to keep me out. You're probably not even a good guard, and I wonder what on earth you'd do if I came here prepared to make some trouble."
Fortunately, there were too many spectators present for the guard to risk giving the old fellow a demonstration. He was compelled to stand silent, his thumbs hooked over his cartridge belt, while old Hickman strolledor more accurately, floatedup the walk and disappeared around the corner.
Except for two attempts by telephone, once to the Senator's office and later to his home, the group made no further effort until that afternoon, when Hickman sent a telegram asking Senator Sunraider to phone him at a T Street hotel. A message which, thanks again to the secretary, the Senator did not see. Following this attempt there was silence.
During the late afternoon the group of closed-mouthed old folk were seen praying quietly within the Lincoln Memorial. An amateur photographer, a high-school boy from the Bronx, was there at the time and it was his chance photograph of the group, standing facing the great sculpture with bowed heads beneath old Hickman's outspread arms, that was flashed over the wires following the shooting. Asked why he had photographed that particular group, the boy replied that he had seen them as a "good composition. . . . I thought their faces would make a good scale of grays between the whiteness of the marble and the blackness of the shadows." And for the rest of the day the group appears to have faded into those same peaceful shadows, to remain there until the next morningwhen they materialized shortly before chaos erupted.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth, the narrative core of the work-in-progress that Ellison planned to follow Invisible Man, the book which propelled him to fame and prestige when it was published in 1952.
1. The first chapter, in which Hickman and his followers come to Washington, employs a fairly clear and traditional narrative style. Chapter Two, on the other hand, is experimental, even surreal, in its stream-of-consciousness presentation of events. It places the reader in the midst of things and causes a certain sense of bewilderment which is only laid to rest upon reading through the novel. What is the effect, as you read, of Ellison's presentation of his characters' shifting thoughts, and the movements from past to present in the consciousness of his characters?
2. During his speech in the Senate, we learn that the significance of Adam Sunraider's name is in the beliefs he holds about identity and its fluidity. He says, "Ours is the freedom and obligation to be ever the fearless creators of ourselves, the reconstructors of the world. We were created to be Adamic definers, namers and shapers of yet undiscovered secrets of the universe" [p. 23]! How is this idea particularly American? How are Sunraider's ideas about identity different from those held by Reverend Hickman?
3. What does Sunraider mean by saying that the main substance of American consumption consists of ideals [p. 16]? Can ideals be consumed, or are they supposed to be stable, unshifting? How does the seeming idealism of the senator's speech resound with his abrupt shift to joking about Cadillacs in Harlem [p. 23]? Are the ironies of this speech easier to grasp once the reader knows more about Sunraider's history?
4. What is the significance of Juneteenth, the day in 1865 on which Texas slaves found out—very belatedly—that they were free? Why does what happens on the commemoration of Juneteenth have such a shattering effect upon Bliss's life? Why does Ellison want to draw a parallel between that date in the history of American slavery, and this fateful day for Hickman and Bliss?
5. Why are the movie industry and Bliss's fascination with movie-making so central to the story? Is there a meaning in the sequence of Bliss's progression from itinerant revival preacher to movie-maker to politician? What is Ellison saying about the role of illusion in American culture and belief? Hickman says, as he prepares to take Bliss to the picture show for the first time, "The preacher's job, his main job, Bliss, is to help folks find themselves and to keep reminding them to remember who they are" [p. 223]. What is the role of illusion, or trickery, in Daddy Hickman's ministry? Is there a contradiction here?
6. Why does Ellison deliberately contrast the hard-won integrity and deep self-knowledge of Hickman with the bewilderment, the desperate grasping at various identities, of Bliss/Sunraider? Is black identity necessarily more clear-cut than white identity?
7. Ellison has written, "Despite his racial difference and social status, something indisputably American about Negroes not only raised doubts about the white man's value system but aroused the troubling suspicion that whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black." How does this statement apply to Juneteenth? What, for Ellison, is the role that black culture plays in the lives of white Americans? What is its role in American culture as a whole?
8. What do you think of Bliss's role in Hickman's show as the son who rises from the dead? Is this exploitative on Hickman's part, given that Bliss is so clearly afraid of being imprisoned in the coffin for this theatrical resurrection? Do you feel sympathetic toward Bliss in his need to break free of Daddy Hickman's control over his life?
9. What is the relationship between Sunraider's public references to black Americans as "those alien-minded groups who refuse the sacred obligations of becoming true Americans...these internal enemies" and one of his private thoughts that appears on the same page—"How here I reject them and out of my rejection rule them. They create their own darkness and in their embarrassment left all to chance my changed opportunity" [pp. 60-61]. How important is self-hatred in his transformation? We don't know, finally, whether Sunraider is white or of mixed race. Does it matter? Why should he desire so strongly to reject the people who raised him?
10. What is the relationship between preaching and music (gospel, jazz, and blues) in Juneteenth, particularly in Hickman's description of the Juneteenth celebration in Chapter Seven? How do these musical rhythms affect Ellison's prose style?
11. One of the book's most important scenes takes place when Hickman and his followers go to pray at the Lincoln Memorial and feel a profound identification with "father Abraham" [p. 281]. Why does this sequence have such a strong emotional impact? Are Hickman and his followers the true inheritors of Lincoln's moral integrity?
12. With his adoption by Hickman, Bliss effectively becomes the child of an entire community, and Hickman speaks of the adoption in communal terms. "We took the child and tried to seek the end of the old brutal dispensation in the hope that a little gifted child would speak for our condition from inside the only acceptable mask. That he would embody our spirit in the councils of our enemies—but oh! what a foolish miscalculation" [p. 271]! What is the moral principle that Hickman and his followers have attempted to live by? Why are they faithful to Sunraider to the end?
13. What does Hickman mean when he says, "Little Bliss was father to the man and the man was also me" [p. 320]? How is Hickman, a gambler-musician turned preacher, changed by the presence of Bliss in his life? What happens during their long conversation in the hospital? Is there forgiveness and reconciliation between them?
14. The final chapter is a hallucinatory stream of memories and visions in the senator's mind. Filled with danger and escape, it seems to recapitulate in dreamlike form many of the scenes of Bliss's childhood—among them, the figure of his red-haired mother and the wealthy world of riding habits, ball gowns, and shooting jackets [see Chapter Ten], and a little boy in red pantaloons who might be an image of himself and who also seems to merge with the little clown in blackface on page 249. How does the final chapter change your perspective on Sunraider and his betrayal of Hickman? Is there a sense of justice here, since Sunraider is threatened with violence from blacks and whites alike?
15. How is your response to Juneteenth affected by the afterword, in which Ellison's literary executor, John Callahan, explains that he extracted the narrative he says "best stands alone as a single, self-contained volume" from over 2,000 pages of typescript that Ellison had worked on for over 40 years?
16. For discussion of Juneteenth and Invisible Man
1. Ellison's novels are part of an ongoing and necessary dialogue in American literature that, like the work of such writers as Mark Twain and William Faulkner, examines the issue of race—and more importantly, the mixing of races—as a haunting and potentially liberating aspect of American history. If you've read works of Faulkner and Twain, how do the works of Ellison take up and modify their themes and concerns? How is Adam Sunraider related thematically to the protagonist of Invisible Man?
17. 2. Both Invisible Man and Juneteenth are centered upon a restless and driven protagonist; one is a black man, and one is, or at least passes for, white. In Invisible Man, many forces conspire to "keep this nigger-boy running." What, in Juneteenth, provokes Bliss/Sunraider's flight? Can Juneteenth be seen as a continuation of the earlier novel? How do the two works differ?
18. 3. The "battle royal" scene and Tod Clifton's Sambo dolls are among many details in Invisible Man that emphasize the degradation of black people at the hands of whites. Does the dignity of Hickman in Juneteenth, even in the face of humiliation, seem to make Juneteenth a more hopeful, less satirical book than its predecessor?