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Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth, And African American Prophecy
In Juneteenth, the freestanding fragment of his final manuscript edited by John F. Callahan and published in 1999, 1 Ralph Ellison makes central use of an expressive mode with a long history in African American thought, the language of prophecy. By probing the registers of this language (with those of comic-vernacular speech and political oratory), Ellison explores the importance of transcendent ideals in African American life. To this end Juneteenth
not only dramatizes prophetic consciousness and commitments but also, in form and content, utilizes key elements of prophecy as a genre. These include a sense of national crisis and corruption, a focus on the spiritual mission of an elected people, and a concern with inspired speech itself as a means to sustain and teach the faithful while calling on the nation to change its course or risk destruction in retributive fire.
Though perhaps less obviously vernacular than some other speech modes, prophetic and church-inflected speech are deeply based in African American tradition. Albert J. Raboteau speaks of the "long process, spanning almost two hundred and fifty years, by which slaves came to accept the Gospel of Christianity and at the same time made it their own," a process of course continuing after slavery. As Raboteau emphasizes, "slaves did not merely become Christians; they creatively fashioned a Christian tradition to fit their peculiar experience of enslavement in America" (Slave Religion 209. ). Prophecy is not the only strand in this tradition, nor even the strongest; [End Page 617] many giants of African American Christianity, such as Daniel Alexander Payne (1811–93), devoted their whole lives to the institutional church. But it is a major strand nonetheless. Uses of prophetic language form a continuing "line of vision" 2 in African American expression over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from Nat Turner's invocation of "the Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days" (qtd. in Greenberg 46) through James Baldwin's use of God's promise to Jerusalem—"I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury"—in the closing sentence of "Sonny's Blues" (122; Isa. 51.22). 3
This "line of vision" is not merely a literary tradition. The latter draws on a language of faith and prophecy that encouraged African Americans to bear up and bear forward through slavery, the brief glory of Jubilee, and the long trials of the postreconstruction years. Then might one find Henry Highland Garnet, in 1848, using biblical exegesis and the prophet's sweep of history to survey The Past and the Present Condition, and the Destiny, of the Colored Race and to find that "[t]here are blessings in store for our patient, suffering race,—there is light and glory" (28). At the zenith in 1865, one might hear Garnet speak in the House of Representatives—the first colored person ever to do so—and, assuming the prophet's right to transmit God's will, pronounce the judgment of "Anathema-maranatha" on the institution of slavery (Memorial Discourse 73. ). In the long afterglow of that golden day, one might hear Alexander Crummell, in his Thanksgiving sermon for 1877 on "The Destined Superiority of the Negro" testify to the " covenant relation which God has established between Himself and them [the Negro people]; dim and partial, at first, in its manifestations; but which is sure to come to the sight of men and angels, clear, distinct, and luminous" (351). In the decades of violence and nullified rights that followed, one might—if fortunate enough to attend the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington—hear the gentle, insistent voice of Francis J. Grimké, exemplar of the prophet's pastoral function, in a 1909 memorial sermon on John Brown:
If John Brown were permitted to speak to us today from heaven, where he has been now for fifty years, he would say to us, I believe, Never despair! Never give up! The forces...