This is the use of memory:
For liberationnot less of
love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so
From the future as well as the
past. Thus, love of a
Begins as attachment to our own
field of action
And comes to find that action
of little importance
Though never indifferent.
History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See,
now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the
self which, as it could,
To become renewed,
transfigured, in another pattern.
T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
What woke me was jays screeching. Normally, the orchestra of birds plays in
concert, and the effect is both grand and sweetly domestic, punctuated by the
occasional barking of some dog. I am drinking coffee on the porch, looking
into a wall of trees across the yard as I type. Brilliant blue sky; sunlight
slanting across the boards, thick as syrup. I fell asleep, late, reading JUNETEENTH,
this part of Ellisons unfinished novel gathered for readers. When you read
a true writer you find there is no barrier between yourself, reader, and the
work, as there almost always is in well-crafted pieces such as essays
and book reviews, of which I read too many. The true author makes himself
I was going to say, invisible, but transparent is what I mean. Immediate sense
of a large mind, this jazzed sensibility making a story, at the same time
defenseless against whatever forces in life (so many!) want to demolish him as
he opens himself to the work. You love the teller for putting himself through
the anguish of unfolding his story, and you lose yourself in his telling of
Oh these American sounds. Jazz spelled out in words and rhythms of unending
speech. Daddy Hickman (the Rev. Alonzo Hickman) and his boy, the
child-preacher Bliss, whom he raises up as a hope and beacon to the race and
who betrays all. Here are two minds, two human consciousnesses, forming up
around and opposite each other, whom Ellison has made from inside out: now
they have entered American literature. He wrote to himself about the work
(which perhaps? he never meant to finish): A novel about the
rootless American type products of our loneliness. Those who reject the
self in favor of some illusion, who while proclaiming themselves democrats
thirst and hunger for aristocracy. Who become actors and confidence men,
demagogues, swindlers, and spiteful destroyers of the nation.
I live in a genteel university town in the South where, socially, white
people and black people seldom mix. Ive not lived here long, a
few years, and am not used to this strain of separation. Its always there,
so subtle, yet constant; I am aware of it, all over again, by its absence.
When I go to the city, it dissolves in the surge of striving people. Reading
Ellison here is good, in part as a reminder of something that must lie deep
within this nation in danger.
Whats wrong with those folks, Bliss, is they cant stand
continuity, not the true kind that binds man to man and to Jesus and to
God. My great-great-granddaddy was probably a savage eating human flesh,
and bastardy, denied joy and shame, and humanity had to be mixed with my
name a thousand times in the turmoil of slavery, and out if all that Im a
preacher. Its a mystery but its based on fact, it happened body to body,
belly to belly over the long years. But then? Theyre all born yesterday
at twelve years of age. They cant stand continuity because if they
could everything would have to be changed; thered be more love among
us, boy. But the first step in their growing up is to learn how to spurn
love. They have to deny it by law, boy. Then begins the season of hate AND
SHAMEFACEDNESS. Confusion leaps like fire in the bowels and false faces
bloom like jimsonweed. They put on a mask, boy, and lifes turned plumb
Cause what can be right if the first, the baby love, was
wrong, Bliss? Tell me then wheres the foundation of the world?
Some of Ellisons notes are appended to the text, among them this (wily)
Hickman, are you a minister-man or a minstrel man?
Im both, Im afraid But remember, the Word is tricky!
I saw that some of the most prominent early reviewers of JUNETEENTH
sounded put out that Ellisons editor and literary executor, John F.
Callahan, had re-constructed the novel as he had, when Ellison had laid out no
master-plan. (Why had he gotten to do it? was the subtext.) They seemed
disconcerted that matters of race loomed so large in these excerpts, drawn
from the uncompleted mass of manuscripts. The parentage of the boy Bliss, who
grows up to become the race-baiting Senator over whose dying self Rev. Hickman
watches, was meant by Ellison, they had thought, to remain unclear, more a
trope than a biological placement. That the boy had a white mother (at least),
but was reared into too-early manhood by a black man meant what does it
mean? But what does it mean? (One reviewer decided that the Joycean riffs were
interesting, while the talk of the
ordinary people the language of folklore and Christian
mythology was often less compelling. The discrimination,
I could only judge, of a tin ear.) Nothing about Ellisons writing is
simple; and it is glorious. There has not been its like recently.
Ellison also wrote: This society is not likely to become free of
racism, thus it is necessary for Negroes to free themselves by becoming their
idea of what a free people should be.
Ah yes, so we were reborn, Rev. Bliss. They still had us harassed, we
were still laboring in the fields, but we had a secret and we had a new
So tell us about this rhythm, Reveren Hickman.
They had us bound but we had our kind of time, Rev. Bliss. They were on
a merry-go-round that they couldnt control but we learned to beat time
from the seasons. We learned to make this land and this light and darkness
and this weather and their labor fit us like a suit of new underwear. With
our new rhythm, amen, but we werent free and they still kept dividing
us. Theres many a thousand gone down the river. Mamma sold from papa
and chillun sold from both. Beaten and abused and without shoes. But we
had the Word, now, Rev. Bliss, along with the rhythm. They couldnt
divide us now. Because anywhere they dragged us we throbbed in time
together. If we got a chance to sing, we sang the same song. If we got a
chance to dance, we beat back hard times and tribulations with the clap of
our hands and the beat of our feet, and it was the same dance. Oh, they
come out here sometimes to laugh at our way of praising God. They can
laugh but they cant deny us. They can curse and kill us but they cant
destroy us all. This land is ours because we come out of it, we bled in
it, our tears watered it, we fertilized it with our dead. So the more of
us they destroy the more it becomes filled with the spirit of our
redemption. They laugh but we know who we are and where we are, but they
keep on coming in their millions and they dont know and cant get
But tell us, how do we know who we are, Daddy Hickman?
We know where we are by the way we walk. We know where we are by the
way we talk. We know where we are by the way we sing. We know where we are
by the way we dance. We know where we are by the way we praise the Lord on
high. We know where we are because we hear a different tune in our minds
and in our hearts. We know who we are because when we make the beat of our
rhythm to shape our day the whole land says, Amen! It smiles. Rev. Bliss,
and it moves to our time!
(to be continued)
Ralph Ellison, JUNETEENTH, ed.
John F. Callahan (New York: Random House, 1999)
Endnotes, Archipelago, Vol. 1, No. 1,
Endnotes, Archipelago, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2,
Endnotes, Archipelago, Vol. 3, No. 1 Passion -Note: Joel
Agee has won this years Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize for his translation of
Heinrich von Kleists PENTHESILEA,for
an outstanding translation from German into English. This astonishing
poem was the subject of Passion.
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