June 18, 2004



Commentary by
Roger Martin



Juneteenth calls for celebration of all kinds of freedoms

by Roger Martin

Maybe you've heard June 19 is a holiday but don't know why.

It's called Juneteenth because on June 19, 1865, a U.S. Army general stood on a balcony in Texas and proclaimed the slaves of that state free, ending slavery once and for all.

There's another Juneteenth that may be even more unfamiliar. African-American novelist Ralph Ellison wrote a book titled "Juneteenth" that wasn't published until after his death in 1994.

Oddly enough, writing it was a kind of life sentence for him.

Ellison is better known for "Invisible Man," which won a National Book Award. "Juneteenth," his second novel, was almost 40 years in the making, ran to 2,000 pages and had to be finished by a friend, John Callahan, after Ellison died.

After all that, "it's not really Ellison's book," says Maryemma Graham, University of Kansas professor of English.

Graham is author, with Jeffrey Mack, of a chapter on Ellison in a forthcoming collection of essays titled "A Historical Guide to Ralph Ellison." She also directs the Langston Hughes National Poetry Project at KU.

Fire destroyed a large portion of the "Juneteenth" manuscript in 1967, Graham says. The cultural fires of the late 1960s scorched Ellison personally and may have helped delay the book's completion.

The seismic attitude shifts of that decade affected how both "Invisible Man" and its author were viewed.

Politically radical African-American writers questioned why Ellison wasn't in the Black Power movement, Graham says.

Ellison answered that he was "unashamedly an American integrationist," Graham writes, not a black separatist.

A month before his manuscript burned, an uninvited guest at a reception for Ellison at Grinnell College argued that the ending of "Invisible Man" was not revolutionary enough.

Ellison quietly defended it.

The student called Ellison an Uncle Tom.

Ellison wept.

He turned to a friend, Henry Wingate, put his head on Wingate's shoulder and said, "I am not an Uncle Tom. Wingate, you tell him. I am not an Uncle Tom."

Graham says, "Ellison was appalled that people could read his words and see him in a way he did not see himself. He struggled with this question for the rest of his life: 'If I say what I mean, how will it be read?'"

It had to have affected him. Yet it was self-censure more than the criticism that slowed Ellison's novel-writing, Graham says.

Despite that, according to Graham, he wrote some "superb" essays. And he kept telling the truth as he saw it.

At Harvard in 1973 he said that blacks were not an African people but an American people. The auditorium was momentarily silent. Then the applause thundered.

My connection to Ellison began in the 1970s, when I taught "Invisible Man." Some of its scenes have never left me.

In one, the book's hero comes upon an elderly black man with a cart full of discarded blueprints.

Youthful and optimistic, the hero says that a person should make plans in this life and stick to them.

The old man says, "You kinda young, daddy-o."

Ellison was kinda young -- only 38 -- when he finished "Invisible Man," but much wiser than his hero. One aspect of his wisdom was the refusal to serve a narrow political or racial cause in his book.

That choice evidences a freedom from orthodox thinking that is worth proclaiming from the balconies this Juneteenth.

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