Read From Ralph Ellison’s Novel, Juneteenth

"Out of all the pain and the suffering, out of the night of storm, we found the Word of God."

The following is from Ralph Ellison’s posthumously published novel, Juneteenth.

*

No, the wounded man thought, Oh no! Get back to that; back to a bunch of old-fashioned Negroes celebrating an illusion of emancipation, and getting it mixed up with the Resurrection, minstrel shows and vaudeville routines? Back to that tent in the clearing surrounded by trees, that bowl-shaped impression in the earth beneath the pines? . . . Lord, it hurts. Lordless and without loyalty, it hurts. Wordless, it hurts. Here and especially here. Still I see it after all the roving years and flickering scenes: Twin lecterns on opposite ends of the rostrum, behind one of which I stood on a wide box, leaning forward to grasp the lectern’s edge. Back. Daddy Hickman at the other. Back to the first day of that week of celebration. Juneteenth. Hot, dusty. Hot with faces shining with sweat and the hair of the young dudes metallic with grease and straightening irons. Back to that? He was not so heavy then, but big with the quick energy of a fighting bull and still kept the battered silver trombone on top of the piano, where at the climax of a sermon he could reach for it and stand blowing tones that sounded like his own voice amplified; persuading, denouncing, rejoicing—moving beyond words back to the undifferentiated cry. In strange towns and cities the jazz musicians were always around him. Jazz. What was jazz and what religion back there? Ah yes, yes, I loved him. Everyone did, deep down. Like a great, kindly daddy bear along the streets, my hand lost in his huge paw. Carrying me on his shoulder so that I could touch the leaves of the trees as we passsed. The true father, but black, black. Was he a charlatan? Am I—or simply as resourceful in my fashion? Did he know himself, or care? Back to the problem of all that. Must I go back to the beginning when only he knows the start? . . .

Juneteenth and him leaning across the lectern, resting there, looking into their faces with a great smile, and then looking over to me to make sure that I had not forgotten my part, winking his big red-rimmed eye at me. And the women looking back and forth from him to me with that bright, birdlike adoration in their faces; their heads cocked to one side. And him beginning:

On this God-given day, brothers and sisters, when we have come together to praise God and celebrate our oneness, our slipping off the chains, let’s us begin this week of worship by taking a look at the ledger. Let us, on this day of deliverance, take a look at the figures writ on our bodies and on the living tablet of our heart. The Hebrew children have their Passover so that they can keep their history alive in their memories—so let us take one more page from their book and, on this great day of deliverance, on this day of emancipation, let’s us tell ourselves our story. . . .

Pausing, grinning down . . . Nobody else is interested in it anyway, so let us enjoy it ourselves, yes, and learn from it.

And thank God for it. Now let’s not be too solemn about it either, because this here’s a happy occasion. Rev. Bliss over there is going to take the part of the younger generation, and I’ll try to tell it as it’s been told to me. Just look at him over there, he’s ready and raring to go—because he knows that a true preacher is a kind of educator, and that we have got to know our story before we can truly understand God’s blessings and how far we have still got to go. Now you’ve heard him, so you know that he can preach.

Amen! they all responded, and I looked preacher-faced into their shining eyes, preparing my piccolo voice to support his baritone sound.

Amen is right, he said. So here we are, five thousand strong, come together on this day of celebration. Why? We just didn’t happen. We’re here and that is an undeniable fact—but how come we’re here? How and why here in these woods that used to be such a long way from town? What about it, Rev. Bliss, is that a suitable question on which to start?

God bless you, Rev. Hickman, I think that’s just the place we have to start. We of the younger generation are still ignorant about these things. So please, sir, tell us just how we came to be here in our present condition and in this land. . . .

Not back to that me, not to that six-seven-year-old ventriloquist’s dummy dressed in a white evening suit. Not to that charlatan born—must I have no charity for me? . . . Not to that puppet with a memory like a piece of flypaper. . . .

Was it an act of God, Rev. Hickman, or an act of man? . . .

We came, amen, Rev. Bliss, sisters and brothers, as an act of God, but through—I said through—an act of cruel, ungodly man.

An act of Almighty God, my treble echo sounded, but through the hands of cruel man.

Amen, Rev. Bliss, that’s how it happened. It was, as I understand it, a cruel calamity laced up with a blessing—or maybe a blessing laced up with a calamity. . . .

Laced up with a blessing, Rev. Hickman? We understand you partially because you have taught us that God’s sword is a two-edged sword. But would you please tell us of the younger generation just why it was a blessing?

It was a blessing, brothers and sisters, because out of all the pain and the suffering, out of the night of storm, we found the Word of God.

So here we found the Word. Amen, so now we are here. But where did we come from, Daddy Hickman?

We come here out of Africa, son; out of Africa.

Africa? Way over across the ocean? The black land? Where the elephants and monkeys and the lions and tigers are?

Yes, Rev. Bliss, the jungle land. Some of us have fair skins like you, but out of Africa too.

Out of Africa truly, sir?
Out of the ravaged mama of the black man, son.
Lord, thou hast taken us out of Africa . . .
Amen, out of our familiar darkness. Africa. They brought us here from all over Africa, Rev. Bliss. And some were the sons and daughters of heathen kings . . .

Some were kings, Daddy Hickman? Have we of the younger generation heard you correctly? Some were kin to kings? Real kings?

Amen! I’m told that some were the sons and the daughters of kings . . .

. . . Of kings! . . .
And some were the sons and daughters of warriors . . .
. . . Of warriors . . .
Of fierce warriors. And some were the sons and daughters of farmers . . .
Of African farmers . . .
. . . And some of musicians . . .

. . . Musicians . . .

And some were the sons and daughters of weapon makers and smelters of brass and iron . . .

But didn’t they have judges, Rev. Hickman? And weren’t there any preachers of the word of God?

Some were judges, but none were preachers of the word of God, Rev. Bliss. For we come out of heathen Africa . . .

Heathen Africa?

Out of heathen Africa. Let’s tell this thing true; because the truth is the light.

And they brought us here in chains. . . .
In chains, son; in iron chains . . .
From half a world away, they brought us . . .
In chains and in boats that the history tells us weren’t fit for pigs—because pigs cost too much money to be allowed to waste and die as we did. But they stole us and brought us in boats which I’m told could move like the swiftest birds of prey, and which filled the great trade winds with the stench of our dying and their crime. . . .

What a crime! Tell us why, Rev. Hickman. . . .

It was a crime, Rev. Bliss, brothers and sisters, like the fall of proud Lucifer from Paradise.

But why, Daddy Hickman? You have taught us of the progressive younger generation to ask why. So we want to know how come it was a crime?

Because, Rev. Bliss, this was a country dedicated to the principles of Almighty God. That Mayflower boat that you hear so much about Thanksgiving Day was a Christian ship—amen! Yes, and those many-named floating coffins we came here in were Christian too. They had turned traitor to the God who set them free from Europe’s tyrant kings. Because, God have mercy on them, no sooner than they got free enough to breathe themselves, they set out to bow us down. . . .

They made our Lord shed tears!

Amen! Rev. Bliss, amen. God must have wept like Jesus. Poor Jonah went down into the belly of the whale, but compared to our journey his was like a trip to paradise on a silvery cloud.

Worse than old Jonah, Rev. Hickman?

Worse than Jonah slicked all over with whale puke and gasping on the shore. We went down into hell on those floating coffins and don’t you youngsters forget it! Mothers and babies, men and women, the living and the dead and the dying—all chained together. And yet, praise God, most of us arrived here in this land. The strongest came through. Thank God, and we arrived and that’s why we’re here today. Does that answer the question, Rev. Bliss?

Amen, Daddy Hickman, amen. But now the younger generation would like to know what they did to us when they got us here. What happened then?

They brought us up onto this land in chains . . .
. . . In chains . . .
. . . And they marched us into the swamps . . .
. . . Into the fever swamps, they marched us . . .
And they set us to work draining the swampland and toiling in the sun . . .
. . . They set us to toiling . . .
They took the white fleece of the cotton and the sweetness of the sugarcane and made them bitter and bloody with our toil. . . . And they treated us like one great unhuman animal without any face . . .

Without a face, Rev. Hickman?

Without personality, without names, Rev. Bliss, we were made into nobody and not even Mister Nobody either, just nobody. They left us without names. Without choice. Without the right to do or not to do, to be or not to be . . .

You mean without faces and without eyes? We were eyeless like Samson in Gaza? Is that the way, Rev. Hickman?

Amen, Rev. Bliss, like baldheaded Samson before that nameless little lad like you came as the Good Book tells us and led him to the pillars whereupon the big house stood—Oh, you little black boys, and oh, you little brown girls, you’re going to shake the building down! And then, oh, how you will build in the name of the Lord!

Yes, Reverend Bliss, we were eyeless like unhappy Samson among the Philistines—and worse . . .

And WORSE?

Worse, Rev. Bliss, because they chopped us up into little bitty pieces like a farmer when he cuts up a potato. And they scattered us around the land. All the way from Kentucky to Florida; from Louisiana to Texas; from Missouri all the way down the great Mississippi to the Gulf. They scattered us around this land.

How now, Daddy Hickman? You speak in parables which we of the younger generation don’t clearly understand. How do you mean, they scattered us?

Like seed, Rev. Bliss; they scattered us just like a dope-fiend farmer planting a field with dragon teeth!

Tell us about it, Daddy Hickman.
They cut out our tongues . . .
. . . They left us speechless . . .
. . . They cut out our tongues . . .
. . . Lord, they left us without words . . .
. . . Amen! They scattered our tongues in this land like seed . . . . . . And left us without language . . .

. . . They took away our talking drums . . .

. . . Drums that talked, Daddy Hickman? Tell us about those talking drums . . .

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 . . .

Those were some drums, Rev. Hickman . . .
. . . Yes, and they took those drums away . . .
Away, amen! Away! And they took away our heathen dances . . . . . . They left us drumless and they left us danceless . . .
Ah yes, they burnt up our talking drums and our dancing

drums . . .
. . . Drums . . .
. . . And they scattered the ashes . . .
. . . Ah, aaaaaah! Eyeless, tongueless, drumless, danceless, ashes . . .
And a worse devastation was yet to come, Lord God!
Tell us, Revern Hickman. Blow on your righteous horn!
Ah, but Rev. Bliss, in those days we didn’t have any horns . . . No horns? Hear him!
And we had no songs . . .
. . . No songs . . .
. . . And we had no . . .
. . . Count it on your fingers, see what cruel man has done . . . Amen, Rev. Bliss, lead them . . .
We were eyeless, tongueless, drumless, danceless, hornless, songless!
All true, Rev. Bliss. No eyes to see. No tongue to speak or taste.

No drums to raise the spirits and wake up our memories. No dance to stir the rhythm that makes life move. No songs to give praise and prayers to God!

We were truly in the dark, my young brothers and sisters. Eyeless, earless, tongueless, drumless, danceless, songless, hornless, soundless . . .

And worse to come!

. . . And worse to come . . .
Tell us, Rev. Hickman. But not too fast so that we of the younger generation can gather up our strength to face it. So that we may listen and not become discouraged!

I said, Rev. Bliss, brothers and sisters, that they snatched us out of the loins of Africa. I said that they took us from our mammies and pappies and from our sisters and brothers. I said that they scattered us around this land . . .

. . . And we, let’s count it again, brothers and sisters; let’s add it up. Eyeless, tongueless, drumless, danceless, songless, hornless, soundless, sightless, dayless, nightless, wrongless, rightless, motherless, fatherless—scattered.

Yes, Rev. Bliss, they scattered us around like seed . . .
. . . Like seed . . .
. . . Like seed, that’s been flung broadcast on unplowed

ground . . .
Ho, chant it with me, my young brothers and sisters! Eyeless, tongueless, drumless, danceless, songless, hornless, soundless, sightless, wrongless, rightless, motherless, fatherless, brotherless, sisterless, powerless . . .

Amen! But though they took us like a great black giant that had been chopped up into little pieces and the pieces buried; though they deprived us of our heritage among strange scenes in strange weather; divided and divided and divided us again like a gambler shuffling and cutting a deck of cards; although we were ground down, smashed into little pieces, spat upon, stamped upon, cursed and buried, and our memory of Africa ground down into powder and blown on the winds of foggy forgetfulness . . .

. . . Amen, Daddy Hickman! Abused and without shoes, pounded down and ground like grains of sand on the shores of the sea . . .

. . . Amen! And God—Count it, Rev.Bliss . . .

. . . Left eyeless, earless, noseless, throatless, teethless, tongueless, handless, feetless, armless, wrongless, rightless, harmless, drumless, danceless, songless, hornless, soundless, sightless, wrongless, rightless, motherless, fatherless, sisterless, brotherless, plowless, muleless, foodless, mindless—and Godless, Rev. Hickman, did you say Godless?

. . . At first, Rev. Bliss, he said, his trombone entering his voice, broad, somber and noble. At first. Ah, but though divided and scattered, ground down and battered into the earth like a spike being pounded by a ten-pound sledge, we were on the ground and in the earth and the earth was red and black like the earth of Africa. And as we moldered underground we were mixed with this land. We liked it. It fitted us fine. It was in us and we were in it. And then—praise God—deep in the ground, deep in the womb of this land, we began to stir!

Praise God!
At last, Lord, at last.
Amen!
Oh the truth, Lord, it tastes so sweet!
What was it like then, Rev. Bliss? You read the scriptures, so tell us. Give us a word.
WE WERE LIKE THE VALLEY OF DRY BONES!
Amen. Like the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel’s dream. Hoooh!

We lay scattered in the ground for a long dry season. And the winds blew and the sun blazed down and the rains came and went and we were dead. Lord, we were dead! Except . . . Except . . .

. . . Except what, Rev. Hickman?
Except for one nerve left from our ear . . . Listen to him!
And one nerve in the soles of our feet . . .

. . . Just watch me point it out, brothers and sisters . . .
Amen, Bliss, you point it out . . . and one nerve left from the throat . . .
. . . From our throat—right here!
. . . Teeth . . .
. . . From our teeth, one from all thirty-two of them . . .
. . . Tongue . . .
. . . Tongueless . . .
. . . And another nerve left from our heart . . .
. . . Yes, from our heart . . .
. . . And another left from our eyes and one from our hands and arms and legs and another from our stones . . .
Amen, hold it right there, Rev. Bliss . . .
. . . All stirring in the ground . . .
. . . Amen, stirring, and right there in the midst of all our death and buriedness, the voice of God spoke down the Word . . .
. . . Crying Do! I said, Do! Crying Doooo—
—these dry bones live?
He said: Son of Man . . . under the ground, ha! Heatless beneath the roots of plants and trees . . . Son of Man, do . . . I said, Do . . .
. . . I said Do, Son of Man, Doooooo!—
—these dry bones live?

Amen! And we heard and rose up. Because in all their blasting they could not blast away one solitary vibration of God’s true word. . . . We heard it down among the roots and among the rocks. We heard it in the sand and in the clay. We heard it in the falling rain and in the rising sun. On the high ground and in the gullies. We heard it lying moldering and corrupted in the earth. We heard it sounding like a bugle call to wake up the dead. Crying, Doooooo! Ay, do these dry bones live!

And did our dry bones live, Daddy Hickman?

Ah, we sprang together and walked around. All clacking together and clicking into place. All moving in time! Do! I said, Dooooo—these dry bones live!

And now strutting in my white tails, across the platform, filled with the power almost to dancing.

Shouting, Amen, Daddy Hickman, is this the way we walked?

Oh we walked through Jerusalem, just like John—That’s it, Rev. Bliss, walk! Show them how we walked!

Was this the way?

That’s the way. Now walk on back. Lift your knees! Swing your arms! Make your coattails fly! Walk! And him strutting me three times around the pulpit across the platform and back. Ah, yes! And then his voice deep and exultant: And if they ask you in the city why we praise the Lord with bass drums and brass trombones tell them we were rebirthed dancing, we were rebirthed crying affirmation of the Word, quickening our transcended flesh.

Amen!

Oh, Rev. Bliss, we stamped our feet at the trumpet’s sound and we clapped our hands, ah, in joy! And we moved, yes, together in a dance, amen! Because we had received a new song in a new land and been resurrected by the Word and Will of God!

Amen! . . .

. . . We were rebirthed from the earth of this land and revivified by the Word. So now we had a new language and a brand-new song to put flesh on our bones . . .

New teeth, new tongue, new word, new song! We had a new name and a new blood, and we had a new task . . . Tell us about it, Reveren Hickman . . .

We had to take the Word for bread and meat. We had to take the Word for food and shelter. We had to use the Word as a rock to build up a whole new nation, ’cause to tell it true, we were born again in chains of steel. Yes, and chains of ignorance. And all we knew was the spirit of the Word. We had no schools. We owned no tools, no cabins, no churches, not even our own bodies.

We were chained, young brothers, in steel. We were chained, young sisters, in ignorance. We were schoolless, toolless, cabinless—owned . . .

Amen, Reveren Bliss. We were owned and faced with the awe-inspiring labor of transforming God’s Word into a lantern so that in the darkness we’d know where we were. Oh, God hasn’t been easy with us because He always plans for the loooong haul. He’s looking far ahead and this time He wants a well-tested people to work his will. He wants some sharp-eyed, quick-minded, generous-hearted people to give names to the things of this world and to its values. He’s tired of untempered tools and half-blind masons! Therefore, He’s going to keep on testing us against the rocks and in the fires. He’s going to plunge us into the ice-cold water. And each time we come out we’ll be blue and as tough as cold-blue steel! Ah yes! He means for us to be a new kind of human. Maybe we won’t be that people but we’ll be a part of that people, we’ll be an element in them, amen! He wants us limber as willow switches and he wants us tough as whip leather, so that when we have to bend, we can bend and snap back into place. He’s going to throw bolts of lightning to blast us so that we’ll have good footwork and lightning-fast minds. He’ll drive us hither and yon around this land and make us run the gauntlet of hard times and tribulations, misunderstanding and abuse. And some will pity you and some will despise you. And some will try to use you and change you. And some will deny you and try to deal you out of the game. And sometimes you’ll feel so bad that you’ll wish you could die. But it’s all the pressure of God. He’s giving you a will and He wants you to use it. He’s giving you brains and he wants you to train them lean and hard so that you can overcome all the obstacles. Educate your minds! Make do with what you have so as to get what you need! Learn to look at what you see and not what somebody tells you is true. Pay lip service to Caesar if you have to, but put your trust in God. Because nobody has a patent on truth or a copyright on the best way to live and serve Almighty God. Learn from what we’ve lived. Remember that when the labor’s back-breaking and the bossman’s mean our singing can lift us up. That it can strengthen us and make his meanness but the flyspeck irritation of an empty man. Roll with the blow like ole Jack Johnson. Dance on out of his way like Williams and Walker. Keep to the rhythm and you’ll keep to life. God’s time is long; and all short-haul horses shall be like horses on a merry-go-round. Keep, keep, keep to the rhythm and you won’t get weary. Keep to the rhythm and you won’t get lost. We’re handicapped, amen! Because the Lord wants us strong! We started out with nothing but the Word—just like the others, but they’ve forgot it. . . . We worked and stood up under hard times and tribulations. We learned patience and to understand Job. Of all the animals, man’s the only one not born knowing almost everything he’ll ever know. It takes him longer than an elephant to grow up because God didn’t mean him to leap to any conclusions, for God Himself is in the very process of things. We learned that all blessings come mixed with sorrow and all hardships have a streak of laughter. Life is a streak-a-lean—a streak-a-fat. Ha, yes! We learned to bounce back and to disregard the prizes of fools. And we must keep on learning. Let them have their fun. Even let them eat hummingbirds’ wings and tell you it’s too good for you.—Grits and greens don’t turn to ashes in anybody’s mouth— how about it, Rev. Eatmore? Amen? Amen! Let everybody say amen. Grits and greens are humble but they make you strong and when the right folks get together to share them they can taste like ambrosia. So draw, so let us draw on our own wells of strength.

Ah yes, so we were reborn, Rev. Bliss. They still had us harnessed, we were still laboring in the fields, but we had a secret and we had a new rhythm . . .

So tell us about this rhythm, Reveren Hickman.

They had us bound but we had our kind of time, Rev. Bliss. They were on a merry-go-round that they couldn’t control but we learned to beat time from the seasons. We learned to make this land and this light and darkness and this weather and their labor fit us like a suit of new underwear. With our new rhythm, amen, but we weren’t free and they still kept dividing us. There’s many a thousand gone down the river. Mamma sold from papa and chillun sold from both. Beaten and abused and without shoes. But we had the Word, now, Rev. Bliss, along with the rhythm. They couldn’t divide us now. Because anywhere they dragged us we throbbed in time together. If we got a chance to sing, we sang the same song. If we got a chance to dance, we beat back hard times and tribulations with the clap of our hands and the beat of our feet, and it was the same dance. Oh, they come out here sometimes to laugh at our way of praising God. They can laugh but they can’t deny us. They can curse and kill us but they can’t destroy us all. This land is ours because we come out of it, we bled in it, our tears watered it, we fertilized it with our dead. So the more of us they destroy the more it becomes filled with the spirit of our redemption. They laugh but we know who we are and where we are, but they keep on coming in their millions and they don’t know and can’t get together.

But tell us, how do we know who we are, Daddy Hickman?

We know where we are by the way we walk. We know where we are by the way we talk. We know where we are by the way we sing. We know where we are by the way we dance. We know where we are by the way we praise the Lord on high. We know where we are because we hear a different tune in our minds and in our hearts. We know who we are because when we make the beat of our rhythm to shape our day the whole land says, Amen! It smiles, Rev. Bliss, and it moves to our time! Don’t be ashamed, my brothers! Don’t be cowed. Don’t throw what you have away! Continue! Remember! Believe! Trust the inner beat that tells us who we are. Trust God and trust life and trust this land that is you! Never mind the laughers, the scoffers—they come around because they can’t help themselves. They can deny you but not your sense of life. They hate you because whenever they look into a mirror they fill up with bitter gall. So forget them, and most of all don’t deny yourselves. They’re tied by the short hairs to a runaway merry-go-round. They make life a business of struggle and fret, fret and struggle. See who you can hate; see what you can get. 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. Let those who will despise you, but remember deep down inside yourself that the life we have to lead is but a preparation for other things, it’s a discipline, Reveren Bliss, sisters and brothers; a discipline through which we may see that which the others are too self-blinded to see. Time will come round when we’ll have to be their eyes; time will swing and turn back around. I tell you, time shall swing and spiral back around. . . .

No, the Senator thought, no more of it! NO!

____________________________________

From the book JUNETEENTH by Ralph Ellison. Copyright © 1999 by Fanny Ellison. Reprinted by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison (1914–1994) was born in Oklahoma and trained as a musician at Tuskegee Institute from 1933 to 1936, at which time a visit to New York and a meeting with Richard Wright led to his first attempts at fiction. Invisible Man won the National Book Award. Appointed to the Academy of American Arts and Letters in 1964, Ellison taught at several institutions, including Bard College, the University of Chicago, and New York University, where he was Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities.





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