The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division.
“Juneteenth . . . Is it still celebrated? . . .
Do we still? Why I should say we do.”
—Excerpt from Juneteenth draft manuscript by Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison labored long on his unfinished second novel, Juneteenth (1999), which was not published until after his 1994 death. The posthumous work was lovingly compiled from Ellison’s thousands of manuscript drafts and notes that are now preserved for researchers in the Ralph Ellison Papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress by Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, with the active support of Ellison’s widow, Fanny McConnell Ellison.
Juneteenth as a novel was a long time coming. Its roots for Ellison lay in his work as a writer and folklore fieldworker with the U.S. Works Progress Administration Federal Writers Project in the 1930s, and the encouragement towards a literary life he received from Langston Hughes. It comes out of his many essays, his love of jazz and blues, his observations of the Black family and the Black church, the civil rights consciousness of the 1950s and 1960s, and his correspondence with close colleagues like Albert Murray. It was born in his mind as a new project following the great success of his first novel, Invisible Man (1952). Ellison worked on it for decades, typing and revising drafts. He lost some of his manuscript in a disastrous 1967 fire at his and wife Fanny’s summer home in Plainfield, Massachusetts, and had to reconstitute passages from memory. He published excerpts of the work in progress in literary journals, teasing at the longer work still to come.
The resulting novel, Juneteenth, reflects Ellison’s deep thinking about the rifts in American society—the dissonance, melodies and harmonies, the strife of racial prejudice and discrimination, the ongoing struggle to assert that Black lives matter, in civil status and before God. As his friend and fellow African American writer James Alan McPherson observed upon hearing Ellison read from early passages of the unfinished novel, Juneteenth was about the deep pervasiveness and strength of African American culture and experience and the idea that it was dynamically American and national in its character.
One of the novel’s main characters, Bliss—a boy of indeterminate race who looks white and later in life becomes a member of Congress—is raised and schooled in revivalism by the other major protagonist of the novel, Reverend “Daddy” Alonzo Hickman. Ellison uses the two characters as a dialectic, playing their experiences and dialogue off one another in point and counterpoint, like notes of a saxophone and a clarinet. In doing so, he examines the pain and the identity crises and failures of the promise of emancipation, but also freedom’s restorative and transformative powers.
Like Ellison’s novel, the idea of Juneteenth as a national holiday has been a long time coming. It marks the moment that the news of the end of slavery was proclaimed in Texas, on June 19, 1865. That day in Galveston was born long after Lincoln’s wartime Emancipation Proclamation had declared enslaved people free in states under rebellion against the United States. It came weeks after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, and it would be followed in a matter of months when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, endorsed by Lincoln before his death, was ratified by the states in December 1865. The day has long been celebrated in Texas—where it has been an official state holiday since 1980—and increasingly observed across the nation as a day for African American rejoicing, family reunions, picnics, and storytelling. Ushered by the Congressional Black Caucus and many allies in Congress, and with the support of the White House, Juneteenth was declared an official federal holiday with enthusiastic bipartisan Congressional support on June 17, 2021. The recognition of the day as an official holiday for the whole nation is a milestone in the long history of emancipation.
In a key passage called “Juneteenth” in Ellison’s drafts, and as published by him in the Quarterly Review of Literature in 1965 (marking a century after the first Juneteenth day in Texas), and also incorporated as a core part of the Juneteenth novel, Ellison has his characters consider whether emancipation was an illusion. His character Bliss recalls Reverend Hickman, leaning across the lectern at a Juneteenth camp meeting celebration, smiling into the faces of a crowd thousands strong, and declaring Juneteenth a God-given day. In his sermon, Reverend Hickman dates the start of the long journey to Juneteenth liberation back to the Atlantic slave trade, when Africans of many different heritages were wrenched by force from their home continent, dislocated from family, stripped of their status as sons and daughters of leaders, as skilled iron smiths, as farmers. He and young Bliss, who acts as his assistant pastor, play off each other in a call-and-response pattern, teaching an African American history lesson to their rapt audience. “They had us bound but we had our kind of time,” declares Hickman. They had African American families divided, but they still came together. Culture was preserved in togetherness, in gathering together to dance and eat and sing. “This land is ours,” proclaims the reverend, building to a crescendo: “we come out of it, we bled in it, our tears watered it, we fertilized it with our dead.” Now at long last, the day Juneteenth fills the whole land “with the spirit of our redemption.” It has been a long day coming. Happy Juneteenth.
- Ralph Ellison, “Juneteenth.” Quarterly Review of Literature 4 (1965): 262-76.
- After publishing Juneteenth in 1999, John F. Callahan and his colleague Adam Bradley revisited the primary materials Ellison left behind and produced a larger edited version of the novel under the title Three Days before the Shooting (2010). They reprinted Ellison’s “Juneteenth” essay as published in 1965 and quoted above in their appendix, pp. 1055-1065.
- As part of her husband’s legacy, Fanny McConnell Ellison made it possible for Ellison’s papers and books and ephemera, as well as visual materials, to come to the Library.
- Historian Annette Gordon-Reed explores the legacy of emancipation from the perspective of her Texas youth and the history of her home state in her autobiographical On Juneteenth (New York: Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2021).
- Juneteenth traditionally includes food, parades, and gatherings. See A. Doyle’s Juneteenth food festival : a story ryhme with recipes (1998) and for children, Muriel Miller Branch, Juneteeth: Freedom Day (1998), and other titles available at the Library of Congress.