The Last Sublime Riffs Of a Literary Jazzman

  • Perhaps it is only fitting that Juneteenth (Random House; 368 pages; $25), Ralph Ellison's long-awaited second novel, almost 50 years in the making, would be published in 1999, the centennial year of Duke Ellington's birth. For Ellington and Ellison, along with the painter Romare Bearden, were practitioners of a shared aesthetic, three titans of an African-American modernism, embodying in their work elegance, eloquence and elan.

    They are the great romantics of the black tradition: what Ellington played, Bearden painted; what Bearden painted and Ellington played, Ellison put into words. Together their work expressed the belief that the ultimate source of a sublime African-American art was to be found in the vernacular--the myths and folktales, the language games such as the dozens and signifying, and the sorrow songs and blues out of which each fashioned a sophisticated jazz idiom. And most audaciously of all, each believed the fundamental structuring principle of Negro art--improvisation--was also the essence of American democracy. The ultimate Americans, then, were Negro Americans. And America's self-generated curse was its perversely willed evasion of its full identity, an identity as black as it was white.

    Ellison (who had tried both music and painting as careers) did not introduce modernism to his chosen art form as Ellington did. Rather, he introduced black music to literary modernism, creating in his first novel, Invisible Man, a symphony of magisterial jazz riffs centered on Carl Jung's claims that "the Negro...lives within [the American's] skin, subconsciously," and on the firm belief, shared with Bearden and Ellington, that it is the self--the black self, however buffeted by racism--that is the ultimate repository of one's fate. Destiny and liberation were inextricably tied to the solitary will.

    Dedicated by Ellison "to that Vanished Tribe into Which I Was Born: The American Negroes"--he proudly and defiantly resisted the successive fads to rename that tribe--Juneteenth turns on the complex relationship between an ex-jazzman and trickster turned preacher, Alonzo Hickman, and his white--or nearly white--foster child, Bliss. Hickman reluctantly agrees to midwife and then raise this child of a white woman whose false accusation of rape had caused his brother to be lynched. Bliss, though lovingly nurtured by his stepfather, eventually runs away in search of his lost mother and later transforms himself into Senator Adam Sunraider, a race-baiting politician the equal of Orville Faubus and Bull Connor combined.

    Despite Hickman's attempts to warn his long-departed prodigal son, a black assassin shoots Sunraider on the floor of the Senate. The novel's action takes place on what we assume to be the Senator's deathbed in the form of remembered riffs of sermons, folktales, signifying and the dozens, in an often dazzling extended call-and-response pattern suggestive of two dueling horns in an after-hours gig at a jazz club.

    Ellison's literary executor, John Callahan, a professor of humanities at Lewis and Clark College, laboriously edited the several versions of the manuscript Ellison was still working on when he died in 1994, extracting a segment that, Callahan says, "best stands alone as a single self-contained volume." Perhaps Ellison's greatest achievement in Juneteenth (the title, which refers to the day that slaves in Texas discovered they had been emancipated, was taken from an excerpt that he published in 1965) is his fusion of jazz motifs with the black sermonic form to forge a new mode of narration that brings together black sacred and profane cultural forms. ("What was jazz and what religion back there?" Hickman muses.) Hickman's sermons are masterpieces worthy of great black preachers such as John Jasper, C.L. Franklin or Gardner Taylor, but also evocative of solos by Ellington, Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker:

    "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!"

    At its best, this book is a stunning achievement, allowing us at least a glimpse of Ellison's mature vision as a novelist. Unfortunately, however, even the greatest solos or riffs do not a brilliant composition make.

    If anyone had predicted in 1970 who would become the first African American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, surely it would have been Ellison. Until Toni Morrison, whose decade the 1980s would be, Invisible Man stood unrivaled in the black literary tradition. It was a monument to modernism, a densely allegorical bildungsroman that both challenged the rather mechanistic determinism of Richard Wright's best-selling 1940 novel Native Son and celebrated the seemingly limitless possibilities of the self. Drawing upon Ellison's modernist jazz aesthetic, Morrison--through Faulkner and Marquez--introduced the postmodern lyrical black magical realism into the tradition, and in doing so, forever dashed Ellison's hopes of winning the Nobel Prize.

    1. Previous Page
    2. 1
    3. 2