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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Forty years in the making, second novel published
"To That Vanished Tribe into Which I Was Born: The American Negroes." So reads the author's dedication in Ralph Ellison's long-awaited, unfinished, and posthumously published second novel, Juneteenth. Within this puzzling, nearly paradoxical dedication lies the heart of Ralph Ellison's life work: an almost quixotic search for an American identity. Not his own American identity, but much more a naming, a labeling of that personality that makes America, its hatreds and possibilities, its glories and opportunities missed. Into this racial, paranoiac cauldron Ellison placed the American Negro, validating his presence, insisting on his visibility.
The author's first novel, Invisible Man , one of the most important American novels of the 20th century and Ellison's most seminal work, chronicles the existential journey of an unnamed black man attempting to discover his identity and role in a hostile and confusing world that refuses to acknowledge his existence. The issues of alienation and rejection, exclusion and isolation suffuse Invisible Man . Similar themes carry the recently released Juneteenth, forty years in the making but never fully brought to completion by the author. Ellison began writing what was to be titled Juneteenth in 1951, just prior to the publication of Invisible Man . The fame garnered from his first novel, a later loss by fire of a manuscript in progress, and ultimately death by cancer in 1994 all prevented Ellison from completion of the elusivesecondnovel. And in life, it weighed on him. In the novel's introduction, editor John F. Callahan points to Ellison's tongue-in-cheek reference to his "novel-in-progress (very long in progress)." In The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison , Saul Bellow tells of a "dinner attended by foreign celebrities at which editor Georges Simenon (a prolific and popular Belgian-French novelist) asked Ellison how many novels he had written, and when he learned that there was only one he said, "To be a novelist one must produce many novels. Ergo, you are not a novelist." That indurate remark was a wounded albatross carried by Ellison to his grave.
Juneteenth positions two protagonists. The Reverend Alonzo Hickman, called "God's Trombone," is a "jazzman turned Baptist minister." Senator Adam Sunraider is "a self-named, race-baiting politician, formerly Bliss...a little boy of indefinite race who looks white and who, through a series of circumstances, comes to be reared by the Negro minister."
Reverend Hickman has found God yet wisely understands that souls are best saved with strong doses of pulpit-pounding religiosity and even larger doses of theatric flair. Hickman grooms Bliss into a boy preacher, teaching him the finer points of the salvation game. The crowning moment of their traveling ministry is the raising of the child Bliss from a center-placed coffin, Bible and cross in hand, proclaiming to be "the resurrection and the life." The crowd loves it.
Bliss grows and rebels, discovering the options afforded him by his light complexion along the way. He, too, learns the fine art of theater, but in a more clinically demonic manner. He abandons Hickman and all things black, suppresses Bliss, renames himself Sunraider, and ultimately wins a state senatorial position, rejecting then persecuting the community that raised him. Now an avowed racist, he is assassinated by a black man while race baiting on the Senate floor.
This story of two men, one deeply ensconced within the culture of black community, the other opportunistic and self-loathing, is told from Sunraider's hospital deathbed. While offering an interesting story line, it is in the dialogue that the book suffers. Limited by circumstance (Sunraider is dying), much of the dialogue is conveyed by some sort of understood osmosis between the two — not conversation as much as a collaborative and mutual retelling of their stories. Introspection, sermons, and speeches are woven throughout the text. Possibly confusing? Possibly frustrating? The reader may find it so. Juneteenth's underlying themes prove much more interesting. Author and critic Albert Murray, in comparing Ellison to Richard Wright, states in Encarta Africana that "Ellison, no less than Wright, rejects the black church as a vehicle for expression, which means both rejected the central communal institution in black life. Oddly, one finds more about black religion in the work of Wright the Marxist than in Ellison the folklorist. Both Ellison and Wright, staunch individualists, are wary of the harshness of conformity and anti-intellectualism in black life."
Ellison's treatment of the black church and its ministry in Juneteenth was, then, true to form. Verging on stereotype and caricature, Ellison's cynically humorous contempt for both clergy and their flock lays thinly veiled.
Still, Ellison remains the quintessential interpreter of the African-American scene. Juneteenth is a novel for the Ellison reader interested in issues of American identity and racial equality. And while not written of the same timber as invisible Man , Ellison, through race, culture, conflict, and schism, may have done even more in offering reason for the extinction of "that vanished tribe." The second novel has been published, the albatross removed. Ralph Waldo Ellison rests in peace.
— Max Rodriguez