Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Today in History (Just North of the Border)

"Two days before the shooting a chartered planeload of Southern Negroes swooped down upon the District of Columbia and attempted to see the Senator."

So begins the posthumously published Juneteenth, written by Ralph Ellison over a forty-year period and spanning at one point some 2000 manuscript pages. There's a hubbub over the border today about Juneteenth--not the book, alas, though the good folks at WDET did quote a few lines for us--but about the holiday, celebrated in 41 states, commemorating the moment that Union General Gordon Granger (along with 2000 federal troops) arrived in Galveston, Texas, to force the emancipation of its slaves. Standing on the balcony of Ashton Villa at a date 2.5 years after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Granger read aloud from General Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

A stirring piece of oratory if ever there was.

The book published as Juneteenth was to be the second volume of a trilogy. Ellison never saw it. It was compiled by John Callahan, his editor, and published five years after Ellison's death in 1994. Here's what the Boston Review had to say about it at the time:
The book is more than Ellison fans could expect, yet less than Ellison probably hoped--an ambivalent masterpiece. It celebrates the promise of interracial love even as it cannot square its black and white points-of-view. It flares with stylistic pyrotechnics--passages that matchInvisible Man for energy--even as its plot feels unfinished and its monologues too windy. Perhaps most strikingly, Juneteenth aims to speak to our current racial dilemmas even as it harkens to an age before "the inner city," "black power," and the "underclass." It is easy to see why Ellison could not wrap up his epic: the novel revolves in an intelligence too complex and too quick, ironically, to come to completion. As his Invisible Man might say, Ellison was trapped in a groove of history.
An ambivalent man for an ambivalent holiday, which of course is called Independence Day for African Americans, but also serves as a pointed reminder that emancipation is a process that spans generations. 

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas will soon be introducing a bill to declare Juneteenth a federally recognized day of observance in the United States.

On another note, it seems that the City of Detroit can't afford sufficient security to manage crowd control at upcoming fireworks displays, and has called upon nearby municipal districts to help staff the upcoming celebrations.

Oh, America! And here's another review of Juneteenth, dug waaayy out of the archives, from CNQ's own Alex Good. Happy nineteenth, everybody. 

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