As a holiday, Juneteenth doesn’t necessarily fit expectations.
It is born from a tradition — the oldest known commemoration of the true end of enslavement of African Americans. Yet despite its roots, many are still just learning about Juneteenth.
The name was formed from merging the date “June 19” into one word. On that day in 1865, Union soldiers entered Galveston, Texas, announcing the end of the Civil War. They also carried General Orders No. 3, which stated that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
More than two years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The executive order freed more than 3 million of the nation’s enslaved people. The action caused widespread outrage, and not just the slaveholders who lost their captive workforce. Objections ranged from political and economic to moral and social.
In Texas, talk of emancipation was forbidden, in an effort to keep enslaved workers at their tasks. The state’s archives mark Texas’ first Juneteenth celebration in 1866. Today, more than 40 states celebrate Juneteenth, including Iowa.
Juneteenth can be a time to reflect or make plans. An unfinished novel by Ralph Ellison embodies many of the themes of Juneteenth — identity, faith, perseverance, uncertainty, family and hope.
For the 40 years that followed publication of his debut novel, “Invisible Man,” Ellison worked on his second book. It focused on a father and son: the Rev. Alonzo Hickman, a jazz musician and con man, and Adam Bliss, an orphan of “indeterminate race who looks white.” Bliss left Hickman to become a “flim-flam man,” then later, a “race-baiting senator.”
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The book is called “Juneteenth,” because the holiday serves as backdrop in a pivotal scene. The manuscript flourished, according to updates Ellison provided friends and colleagues. Saul Bellow was among the editors who published sections of “Juneteenth” in their magazines.
Still, Ellison missed publication deadlines. The form of the book — the beginning, middle and end — seemed to elude him. In late 1967, he lost a significant section of the work to a house fire — as much as 360 pages.
It went on like this, rendering the book one of literature’s famous works in progress. Ellison was devoted to completing it; we can only speculate as to why he didn’t. Even he may not have known.
By 1994, Ellison was 80, and “Juneteenth” had ballooned to 2,000 pages. It was unfinished when he died that year.
John F. Callahan was tasked with pulling something from the manuscript. In 1999, he published “Juneteenth,” a 400-page volume. A decade later, Callahan offered a longer version of the original, “Three Days Before the Shooting.”
When he died, why didn’t Ellison leave instructions for “Juneteenth”? How would Ellison have shaped his edit?
I wonder each time I make my way through one of Callahan’s admirable efforts. Maybe Ellison feared the job of organizing his many moving pieces. Perhaps he didn’t know how. It could be he did know and just didn’t want to relinquish care of his characters to others. Or is Ellison’s message that America’s story of identity, consciousness and morality was not ready to be “finished?”