Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison (Originally pub. Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, 2000)
To match the expanded and expanding Penguin Classics list, the Penguin Modern Classics series was given a facelift in May 1989. It was renamed ‘Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics’, Penguin’s back catalogue was scoured and many more titles were added to the series during the 1990s. “The Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics list offers a wonderfully rich and varied mixture, of tragedy and comedy, of poetry and prose, with some fact and more fiction,” wrote Margaret Drabble in 1992.
At the turn of a new century, however, the Twentieth-Century Classics needed a new name. Editor Simon Winder was brought in to overhaul the series’ he wanted to reposition the list as “a series to be enjoyed, rather than something that is good for you.” In February and March 2000, Winder introduced 80 fresh titles, including Money by Martin Amis, Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr and Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison.
Ellison was born in Oklahoma and worked as a busboy, shoeshine boy, hotel waiter and dentist’s assistant. In 1936, he settled in Harlem, New York City; he met Langston Hughes and Richard Wright and began writing stories and articles, including his masterpiece, Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award and inspired Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father. Ellison went on to teach at a number of universities and lived for a time in Rome. He also spent years writing a second novel that he never completed: when he died in 1994, he left behind 2,000 manuscript pages, which his friend and biographer, John F. Callahan, condensed to 300 and published posthumously.
‘Juneteenth’, its title, is America’s ‘second Independence Day’, a national holiday that commemorates the emancipation from slavery in Texas on 19 June 1865. The novel takes the form of a conversation between the racist Senator Adam Sunraider and a black Baptist minister, Daddy Hickman, a former jazz trombonist, who raised the orphaned Sunraider. These two men confront their shared past and the events surrounding one particular Juneteenth celebration.