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Emancipation Proclamation | The Nation

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Emancipation Proclamation

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Once there was a series consisting of a man and a boy and a boar hog, a cat and a great hairy spider--all shot in flight as they sought to escape, to run away from some unseen pursuer. And as I sat in the darkened hotel room watching the rushes, the day's takes, on a portable screen, the man seemed to change into the boy and the boy, changing his form as he ran, becoming swiftly boar and cat and tarantula, moving ever desperately away, until at the end he seemed, this boar-boy-spider-cat, to change into an old man riding serenely on a white mule as he puffed a corncob pipe. I watched it several times and each time I broke into a sweat, shaking as with a fever. Why these images and what was their power?

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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Imagine Bliss--a little white boy under a circus tent in a pine grove at a revival meeting of black Baptists, "a miniature man of God" inside a narrow box breathing through a tube. He's called Bliss "because they say that's what ignorance is." He's dressed to kill because he's presumed dead. The box he's in, with angels blowing long-belled trumpets and carved clouds floating in an egg-shaped space, is a coffin. When the singing stops, Bliss, his Bible and his teddy bear will pop out "like God's own toast, to ask the Lord how come He has forsaken him":

Hurry! They're moving slow, like an old boat drifting down the big river in the night and me inside looking up into the black sky, no moon nor stars and all the folks gone far beyond the levees. And I could feel the shivering creep up my legs now and squeezed Teddy's paw to force it down. Then the rising rhythm of the clapping hands was coming to me like storming waves heard from a distance; like waves that struck the boat and flew off into the black sky like silver sparks from the shaking of the shimmering tambourines, showering at the zenith like the tails of skyrockets. If I could only open my eyes. It hangs heavy-heavy over my lids. Please hurry! Restore my sight. The night is black and I am far...far...I thought of Easter Bunny, he came from the dark inside of a red-and-white striped egg.

Like rabbits popping out of magic top hats, Bliss come back from the dead is a regularly scheduled trick in Daddy Hickman's circuit show. Never mind how this little white boy ended up with the black evangelicals on the nomadic road during the Great Depression from Oklahoma to Alabama to Georgia, among so many surrogate parents who raised him to talk and to walk as if he were Yoruban. (A captivity narrative!) Never mind how Hickman got himself transformed from a juke-joint jazz man into Bliss's designated father and "God's own trombone," blowing his horn in the devil's outback. ("No mercy in my heart.... Only the choking strangulation of some cord of kinship stronger and deeper than blood, hate or heartbreak.") Never mind even the mock Resurrection. Christ already rose for these Baptists. What they really seek is a Second Coming of Father Abraham--the emancipating Lincoln who, in freeing the slaves, freed himself and so truly became "one of us." According to Hickman, "We just couldn't get around the hard fact that for a hope or an idea to become real it has to be embodied in a man, and men change and have wills and wear masks." And so: "We made a plan, or at least we dreamed a dream and worked for it but the world was simply too big for us and the dream got out of hand."

But look at it from Bliss's point of view, a "chicken in a casket." Being dead is hard work for which he wants to be paid, if not in sex, about which he's begun to wonder, then at least some ice cream. And what does he get instead? On Juneteenth--the anniversary of the summer's day in 1865 when Union troops landed in Galveston, Texas, and their commanding officer told the slaves only two and a half years late that they were free, for which 5,000 colored folks have gathered in an Alabama swamp to eat 500 pounds of catfish and snapper, 900 pounds of ribs, eighty-five hams, a cabbage patch of coleslaw and who knows how many frying chickens and butter beans, while listening as seven different preachers "shift to a higher gear," beyond the singing and shouting into a territory of "pure unblemished Word," the "Word that was both song and scream and whisper," beyond sense "but leaping like a tree of flittering birds with its own dictionary of light and meaning"--Bliss gets a white woman, a complete stranger, who says that she's his mother, who claims: "He's mine, mine!... You gypsy niggers stole him, my baby."

So she isn't his mother. White people lie a lot. His real mother, as a matter of fact, caused the death and mutilation of Hickman's brother, after which baby Bliss was handed over as a sort of hostage to the jazz man, who accepted him "as I'd already accepted the blues, the clap, the loss of love, the fate of man." Why not? "Here was a chance to prove that there was something in this world stronger than all their ignorant superstition about blood and ghosts." Still, even to imagine such a mother, to conceive of an ice-creamy white birthright, will lead Bliss to run away from Daddy Hickman; to deny and rage; to hide in "surprise, speed and camouflage"; to cut the string, scud high places, bruise himself and snag at times on treetops but keep on sailing into shadows--first to make movies and illusions, then to make a vengeful son and finally, as Sunraider, to make a hateful politics. Ellison asks us to remember Greek legend, folk literature and the entire Amerindian structuralist mythology of the stolen child.

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