History in Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth

By Johnson, Loretta | Studies in American Fiction, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

History in Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth


Johnson, Loretta, Studies in American Fiction


Ralph Ellison's second novel, Juneteenth, echoes one of the crucial themes of his first--how stories get told, whose stories should be told, and what history is to be believed. The title, selected by John F. Callahan, Ellison's literary executor, refers to the central section in which the characters remember their "Juneteenth rambles." "There's been a heap of Juneteenths before this one," Reverend Hickman says to Bliss, "and there'll be a heap more before we're truly free!" (1) "Juneteenth" stands for June 19, 1865, the day a Union garrison announced to slaves in Texas that they were free. A novel about liberation, Juneteenth explores much more than a day in history. It argues for the necessity to keep the past in the present, through celebration, art, and remembrance. As Ellison says about his characters in this novel, "the past is with them and in them" (352). By celebrating it, narrating it, and remembering it, the past becomes living history.

"History" is generally defined as an account of what happened or might have happened, especially in the form of a narrative, play, story, or a tale. Oftentimes, history is assumed to tell what has happened in the life or development of a people, country, or institution--in a systematic account, usually in chronological order with analysis and explanation. The Greek root, historia, learning by inquiry or narrative, reinforces the current usage of "history" as all recorded events of the past. The "past" is to be distinguished from "history," in that it is not recorded or in some wise narrated. Derived from the Latin passus, which means "step," the "past" is what has happened, what has occurred in the pace of time. The past, therefore, becomes the source of history, and history its art. This essay examines Ellison's art in Juneteenth, his personal and public past, grounded in African American culture and history in general. Not only Charles W. Chesnutt, Frederick Douglass, and jazz and popular folklore, but also Greek historians, Thomas Hobbes, T. S. Eliot, and Walter Benjamin have an impact upon his work. Ellison's theme of history throughout emphasizes the necessity of telling one's story, in remembering the past, so that history, the history of injustice, will never repeat itself.

Because it is fiction Juneteenth is not technically "history," but it extols the goals of history. Herodotus's goals, for example, in his "inquiries into history" are "to preserve the memory of the past" and "to show how the two races came into conflict." (2) Likewise, Thucydides sets out to describe past conflict and the upset of war. History illustrates, he says, that "in peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury sons." (3) Juneteenth too is a story about race in which a father buries his son. About his work in progress, Ellison stated in 1974, "I guess that in all my work there is an undergrounding of American history as it comes to focus in the racial situation." (4) His method of history is narrative and remembrance; his subject, among others, is racial conflict and the reversals of nature.

Juneteenth, set in the frame of a deathbed vigil, tells the life story of 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." (5) That "series of circumstances" includes a false accusation of rape, a lynching, and a birth. Alonzo Hickman, an erstwhile trombonist, delivers the baby from the woman who caused the lynching of his brother and the death of his mother. "Take him and keep him and bring him up as your own," the mother says. "Let him share your Negro life ... Let him learn to share the forgiveness your life has taught you to squeeze from it" (308). Bliss is her gift to him for causing so much loss, but the ignorance of Bliss, his pursuit of his identity, and subsequent repudiation of his past destroy Sunraider.

Hickman, who grapples with this gift, finally chooses to put down his trombone, pick up the baby, and take him on the road. …

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