e n d n o t e s

                                  This is the use of memory:

For liberation—not less of love but expanding

Of love beyond desire, and so liberation

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, 
                                        loved them,

To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.


T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

epigraph of JUNETEENTH


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 Ellison’s 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 it.

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.” I’ve not lived here long, a few years, and am not used to this strain of separation. It’s 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.

“What’s wrong with those folks, Bliss, is they can’t 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 I’m a preacher. It’s a mystery but it’s based on fact, it happened body to body, belly to belly over the long years. But then? They’re all born yesterday at twelve years of age. They can’t stand continuity because if they could everything would have to be changed; there’d 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 life’s turned plumb upside down.

“’Cause what can be right if the first, the baby love, was wrong, Bliss? Tell me then where’s the foundation of the world?”

Some of Ellison’s notes are appended to the text, among them this (wily) one:

Hickman, are you a minister-man or a minstrel man?

I’m both, I’m afraid — But remember, the Word is tricky!

I saw that some of the most prominent early reviewers of JUNETEENTH sounded put out that Ellison’s 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 Ellison’s 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 rhythm…

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 couldn’t 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 weren’t free and they still kept dividing us. There’s 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 couldn’t 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 can’t deny us. They can curse and kill us but they can’t 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 don’t know and can’t get together.

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)

See also:

Endnotes, Archipelago, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2, 3, 4
Endnotes, Archipelago, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2, 4
Endnotes, Archipelago, Vol. 3, No. 1 “Passion” -Note: Joel Agee has won this year’s Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize for his translation of Heinrich von Kleist’s PENTHESILEA,“for an outstanding translation from German into English.” This astonishing poem was the subject of  “Passion.”


Emergency Money for Writers


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