June 23, 2021

Thoughts On Ralph Ellison, “Juneteenth,” and “Invisible Man”

By Stuart Mitchner

There’s been a heap of Juneteenths before this one and I tell you there’ll be a heap more before we’re truly free!

—from Juneteenth

Unable to find a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth (Modern Library 1999) on short notice, I’ve been reading an excerpt reprinted in Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings (Modern Library 2001), edited by Robert O’Meally. According to O’Meally’s note, the piece in question (“Keep to the Rhythm”) was first published in 1969 as “Juneteenth,” a section from “Ellison’s forthcoming novel.” Given the fact that the novel didn’t actually “come forth” until 1999, five years after the author’s death and 47 years after the publication of Invisible Man, one of the great 20th century American novels, this has to be among the most famously delayed follow-ups in American literature, along with the still-unpublished Glass family saga J.D. Salinger was working on for the last 40 years of his life.

Promised and Delayed

Last week Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday, a long-time-coming recognition of the occasion already celebrated as Jubilee Day or Black Independence Day two and a half years before the Texas liberation of June 19, 1865. As poet Kevin Young points out in a guest essay (“Our Freedom Is America’s Freedom”) in Sunday’s New York Times, Juneteenth and other emancipation holidays commemorate “both the promise of freedom and its delay.” In Young’s words, “The lesson of Juneteenth is both of celebration and expectation, of freedom deferred but still sought and of the freedoms to come.”

Young’s piece begins by citing the music of Frankie Beverly and Maze as “one of the things Black people have enjoyed that white folks don’t know about.” Follow the Times’ YouTube link and you find that the group’s song “Before I Let Go” has had 36,926,680 views, compared to 44,104 views of 52-year-old Ralph Ellison (1913-1994) in a 1966 documentary reading the Juneteenth sermon from his work in progress.

The Well of Black Culture

Being among those who, as Young puts it, “are used to having Black culture to draw from like a renewable well,” I feel closer to Ellison’s reading than to the soft, laid-back music of a “soul / quiet storm band,” as Maze has been described. There’s a kind of retro Zoom aura about a YouTube visit with Ellison (“USA: The Novel — Ralph Ellison … 1966”). We see him in his book-lined study reading a passage from his manuscript into a tape recorder, playing it back, listening, and making notes. Although his spoken delivery of the Juneteenth sermon by the trombone-playing preacher “Daddy” Hickman is unemotional, no theatrics, more parsed than performed, the writing evokes the hypnotic “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue” prologue to Invisible Man, particularly when he reads of drums “that talked like a telegraph. Drums that could reach across the country like a church-bell sound. Drums that told the news almost before it happened! Drums that spoke with big voices like big men! Drums like a conscience and a deep heartbeat that knew right from wrong. Drums that told glad tidings! Drums that sent the news of trouble speeding home! Drums that told us our time and told us where we were.”

Ellison’s “Solo Song”

Also included in Living with Music is a section titled “This Music Demanded Action,” an excerpt from “the celebrated opening movement of Invisible Man,” which O’Meally calls “Ellison’s solo song of a novel.” It’s hard to apply Kevin Young’s “renewable well” analogy to reading Invisible Man at the age of 15, which was like staring into a fire so bright it makes your eyes water and your head spin. Ellison’s “solo song” also blows through terminology like “Black culture,” especially considering how often Ellison made it clear in numerous interviews and letters that the culture he wrote for was American culture.

For a 15-year-old, the language and imagery of the underground opening also proved to be the prologue to a new world of literature. By the time you graduate from college, you begin to realize how much Ellison had drawn from the well of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, and Melville’s Moby-Dick. And once you discover Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, you realize you were already listening with Ellison when he describes feeling music’s “vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body” as Louis Armstrong “bends that military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound.”

And years before you got high for the first time, Ellison was describing what happened after “some jokers” gave him a “reefer”: “It was a strange evening. Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around…. So under the spell of the reefer I discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well. I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths.”

Litany of Loss

It’s a shock to jump from Ellison’s invisible underground to the man in the shirt and tie in his comfortable study reading the Juneteenth sermon for a project he would labor on and anguish over for four decades and never finish. In my retro Zoom visit, I see shelves and shelves of books looming behind him and a stack of books piled on the desk alongside the tape recorder. The veneer of a seasoned literary insider in his manner and way of speaking and reading is hard to equate with the passionate, depth-diving author of Invisible Man. The strangest moment comes when Ellison plays back the recording and sits listening, pencil in hand, ready to make notes. He’s pondering; then, at one point, he chuckles. The passage that sparks this spontaneous response is not the one about the talking drums, however, it’s Rev. Hickman’s “eyeless, tongueless, danceless, hornless” litany of loss, of what slavery had taken from them.

That chuckle is hard to fathom. He seems surprised, even pleased; it may be the only moment during his half hour on camera where he appears to be truly relaxed.

Ellison’s biographer Arnold Rampersad thinks that his subject’s “inability to create an art that held a clean mirror up to ‘Negro’ life as blacks actually led it, especially at or near his own social level, was disabling him as a writer. As a novelist, he had lost his way. And he had done so in proportion to his distancing himself from his fellow blacks.”

The Juneteenth Spirit

In the spirit of “Keep to the Rhythm,” the excerpt from Juneteenth I have at hand, here’s a portion of Rev. Hickman’s answer when he’s asked “How do we know who we are?” After beginning, “We know who we are by the way we walk … the way we talk … the way we sing … the way we dance [ellipses added],” Ellison writes, “We know who we are because we hear a different tune in our minds and our hearts.” Toward the end of the passage, in a voice that is surely as much Ellison’s as that of the old preacher he’s speaking through: “But you just keep on inching along like an old inchworm. If you put one and one and one together soon they’ll make a million too. There’s been a heap of Juneteenths before this one and I tell you there’ll be a heap more before we’re truly free! Yes! But keep to the rhythm, just keep to the rhythm and keep to the way. Man’s plans are but a joke to God.”

In the last exchange of the last interview in Living With Music, when Robert O’Meally carefully approaches the big question (“I hesitate to ask about the new novel”), Ellison says, “No, I won’t talk about it, I’m still working on it.” That was in 1976.

For a more informative account of what the second novel was about, and a sense of the scope of the undertaking, I recommend Troy Patterson’s June 21, 2020 New Yorker Culture Desk essay. There’s an extensive online preview of Thirty Days Before the Shooting: The Unfinished Second Novel (Modern Library 2011), a 1,136-page collection of drafts, monologues, speeches, letters, and other source material for the 368-page Juneteenth that was put together 12 years earlier by Ellison’s executor John F. Callahan.