The nation will pause for a national holiday on Monday to mark Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day when enslaved people in Texas finally heard the news of emancipation at the end of the Civil War. The Library preserves the history of that day in many ways, including Ralph Ellison’s delirium-dream of a second novel, “Juneteenth,” in which he took a deep dive into the complexities of race and violence and the costs of transformation in America.
The novel, like the struggle for equality and justice itself, was a long time in the making — a wrestling with the self and a perpetual work in progress. Ellison began to formulate the book in thoughts and notes in the 1950s, during the era of Brown v. Board of Education and the 1952 publication of his masterpiece, “Invisible Man.” But its genesis was longer, stemming from Ellison’s difficult childhood and the world he witnessed around him in his youth and as a student at Tuskegee Institute.
Ellison died in 1994, leaving behind over 2,000 pages of drafts and notes and revised episodes and passages for what he thought might be one book, or maybe three. All are now in the Ralph Ellison Papers at the Library.
With the blessings of his widow, Fanny Ellison, the Manuscript Division preserved and organized the papers and Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, crafted his words into the posthumous version of the novel as it is known by readers today. Callahan and Adam Bradley produced a revised version under the title “Three Days Before the Shooting …” in 2010.
“Juneteenth” is deeply rooted in historic struggle across time. It is titled for a day of revelation, also known as Freedom Day, June 19, 1865.
While the jubilation of Juneteenth was real and the day remains a holiday of celebration and independence, it also signifies — like Ellison’s unfinished, morphing, questioning novel — that the full work of freedom is longstanding and intergenerational and that the forces of chaos and human failures are strong.
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