by Robert FlemingJune, 1999
Fans of Ralph Ellison's classic novel Invisible Man have endured a 40-year wait for the master novelist's follow-up work, Juneteenth, which Ellison worked on until his death in 1994. Originally the book was scheduled in 1967, but a fire destroyed the manuscript. When Ellison died, John F. Callahan, his literary executor, was left with the task of constructing enough material to fill three novels.
Because Ellison died without leaving a guide to the structure of the novel, Callahan used his instincts to patch together the fictional lives of two mythic characters, Reverend Alonzo Hickman and his adopted son, who later becomes U.S. Senator Adam Sunraider, rising political star and white supremacist. Raised by blacks, Sunraider runs away from his religious upbringing to reinvent himself as a hustling filmmaker, then as a lawmaker hell-bent on the subjugation of African Americans.
The novel opens with Rev. Hickman arriving at the senator's office to warn of a possible assassination attempt. However, the old black man is turned away by the senator's secretary and security staff. Finally the minister goes to Congress to head off the assailant, but the shooting still occurs on the Senate floor, with Sunraider being seriously wounded. Ellison hits his stride in the hospital scenes where the Senator and the minister come together for a series of startling flashbacks of their lives many years earlier.
Ellison's skill with language, cultural nuances, and pivotal social events emerges in this richly conceived and finely executed excerpt of what was to be a major historical saga examining the topics of God, paternal love, greed, politics, American racial dilemma, sin, and temptation.
Readers of earlier Ellison works will recognize the brilliant prose, surrealistic imagery, and insightful depictions of both major and minor characters. However, an awkwardness enters the work in the transitions between scenes and the pacing of the action. One wonders how much more powerful the work would have been if Ellison had lived to complete it.
Robert Fleming is a journalist in New York City.