Book Review: Ralph Ellison’s ‘Juneteenth’ More Relevant than Ever

Ralph Ellison in 1961. (Public domain/via Wikimedia)

Ralph Ellison’s legendary second novel is more relevant than ever.

They never made a movie out of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a key American novel of the 20th century. They — the media and political-industrial complex that rules popular culture — repeatedly adapt Richard Wright’s lesser Native Son. They have been intimidated by Ellison’s genius ever since his 1952 debut, so despite his literary stature, Ellison’s follow-up novel, Juneteeth, has been ignored by modern cultural arbiters.

Juneteenth itself — June 19, 1865, when Union troops brought that news of the Emancipation Proclamation to the state of Texas, two and half years after President Lincoln decreed it — has, instead, become a media holiday. Pre-planned marches and celebrations were broadcast almost instantaneously after Biden officially signed its redundancy five days ago. This holiday belongs to politicians and the media industry more than it does to black Americans who already celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday and the Emancipation Proclamation.

But Ellison saw Juneteenth as “the celebration of a gaudy illusion,” more complex than the current administration looking to maneuver the black electorate. The novel Juneteenth, published by Random House on June 19, 1999, questioned celebrants pursuing “an illusion of emancipation, and getting it mixed up with the Resurrection, minstrel shows and vaudeville routines.”

Ellison’s skepticism is missing from the media’s glut of gaudy race fantasies, fiction and nonfiction. Government edicts do not negate the distortions we’ve witnessed in media and contemporary political rhetoric but may well be part of those falsehoods. Ellison knew better. Juneteenth’s plot combines politics, religion, folklore, and Hollywood, satirizing our racial misperceptions and misrepresentations. Ellison presciently described our difficulty achieving democracy as a temperamental and moral failure “to become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.” Juneteenth investigates the patterns of art that contemporary filmmakers have botched. They, instead, have aged, warped, and defamed America’s racial history into a pattern of loveless grumbling and narcissism.

Juneteenth, planned as a three-section epic, was collated from voluminous drafts by Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan. (A second edition, Three Days Before the Shooting, was published in 2010.) Still, it is a colossal example of black American creativity, self-assertion, and self-definition, which is especially important today when black identity is largely manipulated by others. (Ellison’s Juneteenth has been ignored the same way the Black Lives Matter organization neglects the black American condition for its own seditious political objectives.)

Reading Juneteenth makes one realize that the only people fooled by the recent Juneteenth ploy are those who are led by the media or who have not read Ellison. It’s a visionary work, conceived back in 1956, about a race-baiting politician, “a little boy of indefinite race who looks white and who, through a series of circumstances, come to be reared by the Negro minister.” Between the two central figures, Senator Adam Sunraider and Baptist preacher Alonzo Hickman, Ellison examines the personality cults, racial deception, and violence that politicians inspire. So the unfinished novel remains a prodigious work-in-progress. (Given Ellison’s prophetic insight regarding misinterpreted messaging, Hickman’s nickname — God’s Trombone — might be a better title than Three Days Before the Shooting.)

The storytelling flows into dead ends and cul-de-sacs. Pages of italics recall the different tenses of thought in Absalom, Absalom because Ellison’s sense of history’s impact and literature’s ability to grapple with it owes much to those fabulist historians William Faulkner and Mark Twain. But Ellison’s conscious alarm about cinema is surprisingly modern, detailed in Sunraider’s fascination with moviemaking as myth-making. An astounding narration from the inside of a coffin evokes the legendary “impossible” shot in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr. He defines a surrealist silent-movie montage “as though the rambling impressions of an idiot’s day had been photographed . . . all images ran to chaos, as though Sherman’s army had traumatized his sense of order forever.”

This unexpected sophistication about electronic media puts Juneteenth in direct opposition to today’s media fabrications. Ellison was born in Oklahoma City and a reference to Tulsa, Okla., surpasses the terrible Tulsa legacy exploited so shamelessly in several recent, trivial TV shows merely to further the partisan mission to incite black unrest — trauma porn. Juneteenth celebrations clearly expose the unprincipled political con games being perpetrated upon American thought and language. Ellison lays out the missing principles in a great passage:

And later whenever instead of taking in a scene the camera seemed to focus forth my own point of view I felt murderous, felt that justifiable murder was being committed and my images a blasting of the world. I felt sometimes that a duplicity was being commissioned, an ambuscade trained upon those who thought they knew themselves and me. And yet I felt that I was myself a dupe because there was always the question aroused by my ability to see into events and the awareness of the joke implicit in my being me. . . . What is this desire to identify with others, this need to extend myself and test my most far-fetched possibilities with only the agency of shadows? Merely shadows.

By that alone, Juneteenth should inspire a day when we smarten up and reject media mendacity.

Ellison didn’t live to pull Juneteenth together; nevertheless, it is a necessary read to counter the Washington, Hollywood, and media treachery that has perverted a moment of liberation and instituted a national holiday of perpetual grievance. Callahan notes Ellison’s concern with “false as well as true liberation and of the courage to tell the difference . . . [using the] vernacular creed of experiment and experience.” He relates it to Ellison’s canny definition: “To be an American is truly to accept the hero’s task as a condition of our everyday living and to bring it off with conscious ease!” The unfinished Juneteenth relates to the unfinished work of democracy.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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