Emancipation Proclamation | The Nation


Emancipation Proclamation

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But the swamp scene alone is enough to remind us of his remarkable powers of sorcery. Though never a stranger to interior monologue, lyrical afflatus or angry agitprop, Ellison may be the greatest of jazz sermonizers and homiletic blues guitarists ever to write fiction. He probably picked up tips on how to do it from Melville in Moby Dick and Joyce in Portrait of the Artist, and passed them on for Toni Morrison to improve on when Beloved's Baby Suggs took to her sacred grove. As in the swamp, where on "this day of deliverance" they look at "the figures writ on our bodies and on the living tablet of our heart," so, too, at the Lincoln Memorial, with "the great image slumped in the huge stone chair" and then again on the floor of Congress when Sunraider in mid-demagoggleis attacked by the Great Seal of the United States--by e pluribus unum itself, with the olive branch, the sheaf of arrows, the sphinxlike eyes, a taloned clutch and a curved beak like a scimitar--he dazzles us into a surreal sentience.

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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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For Ellison, that Great Seal is a hybrid, a mongrel, an alloy, a scramble of stew meats and a weave of sinews, cultures, language, genius and love. This is his bass line. Admixed America is a Tintoretto:

you can cut that cord and zoom off like a balloon and rise high--I mean that cord woven of love, of touching, ministering love, that's tied to a baby with its first swaddling clothes--but the cord don't shrivel and die like a navel cord beneath the first party dress or the first long suit of clothes. Oh no, it parts with a cry like a rabbit torn by a hawk in the winter snows and it numbs quick and glazes like the eyes of a sledge-hammered ox and the blood don't show, it's like a wound that's cauterized. It snaps with the heart's denial back into the skull like a worm chased by a razor-beaked bird, and once inside it snarls, Bliss; it snarls up the mind. It won't die and there's no sun inside to set so it can stop its snakish wiggling. It bores reckless excursions between the brain and the heart and kills and kills again unkillable continuity. Bliss, when Eve deviled and Adam spawned we were all in the dark, and that's a fact.

The trouble with Juneteenth is that it's almost all sermons and jazzy dreaming. How did Bliss ever get into politics--in New England!--and become Sunraider? Surely there are pages, chapters, a whole other novel to explain his assassin, missing like the mothers. From Invisible Man, we knew what Tuskegee was like, and Harlem, the paint factory, the cell meetings and the sidewalk where Tod Clifton bled to death. Juneteenth asks us to intuit, from two men talking to each other and to ghosts, from nightmare passages and beseeching light, 400 years of complicitous history that keeps Daddy Hickman from getting to the nation's capital in time to stop a fatal bullet. Charged by language alone to imagine the holy dove and the winged bull, the Lion, the Lamb and the Rock, what we see instead is "the devastation of the green wood! Ha! And in the blackened streets the entrails of men, women and baby grand pianos, their songs sunk to an empty twang struck by the aimless whirling of violent winds. Behold! Behold the charred foundations of the House of God."

Maybe he couldn't finish because America, lacking in comfort and radiance, fresh out of Lincolns, wouldn't let him. We amounted to less than he needed and believed. Or maybe, more dreadfully, baby Bliss is Jesus after all. And Sunraider is the Christianity he grew up to be.

Nothing ever stops; it divides and multiplies, and I guess sometimes it gets ground down to superfine, but it doesn't just blow away.

It used to bother me that Ellison, in Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory, so seldom reviewed and never encouraged any of the other black American writers of his time, which was a long one. Ambivalence about Wright, who gave him his start, was one thing. Silence on the rest, so many of whom grew up nourished by his breakthrough novel, seemed downright hostile. And this is not to get into what isn't any of my business--the continuing argument about the responsibility of black artists to themselves versus their obligation to an aggrieved community; about primitivism, stereotypes, street cred, protest novels, the black aesthetic and art for art's sake. I see no reason why Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, George C. Wolfe, Alvin Ailey, Bill T. Jones, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Alice Walker, Spike Lee and Julie Dash shouldn't disagree as much about fundamentals as any other miscellaneous bunch of extravagant talents, any other pantheon. Baldwin, speaking to white America, was certainly right when he said, "If I am not who you say I am, then you are not who you think you are." And so was Toni Morrison, speaking to everybody: "The best art is unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time." And maybe, anyway, the best model for any modern literature is the letter of transit, the message in a bottle from exile, displacement and dispossession. Aren't all of us, even Ellison, homesick? I'm talking less cosmically, about teachers, mentors and friends. He seems almost to have felt that encouraging the children who cherished his example and struggled with his shadow would cost him some body heat. So he hibernated for the long winter and sucked like Ahab on the paws of his gloom.

But Juneteenth, so unlike and yet in surreal keeping with so much that's happened in the last half-century of African-American writing, suggests that those children got what they needed anyway. That Toni Morrison got sermons, jazz, the Civil War, Reconstruction, magnanimity and diaspora. That John Edgar Wideman got kinship, ancestry, basketball, deracination, Homewood, epiphany, Africa and Caliban. That if Ellison neglected Martin Luther King Jr., Charles Johnson would have to dream about him. And that a phantasmal version of Ellison himself shows up on the last page of Wesley Brown's wonderful Darktown Strutters, in the person of the nineteenth-century minstrel Jim Crow, slyly ruining a photograph they're trying to take at P.T. Barnum's Southland theme park--a museum of the American distemper that includes a nigra wench, a heathen chinee, a dumb swede, a drunken mick, a shylocking jew, a murderous paisan and a dead indian. Jim Crow's supposed to be the conniving uncle tom. But just as the powder goes flash-poof, Jim executes a brand-new fancy step: not there; long gone; you might even say invisible, but dancing somewhere on a coffin.

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