Tyrone Williams - Literary Criticism

Sentimental Educations: Gil Scott-Heron’s The Last Holiday and Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth.

Gil Scott-Heron’s The Last Holiday is part autobiography, part memoir and, as with Ralph Ellison’s posthumously published Juneteenth, the circumstances of its publication render its author impregnable to criticism for its lapses, gaps, occasional awkwardness, etc. since Heron never completed it.[1] Moreover, as Ben Ratliff points out in his New York Times review, the book is a combination of at least two different manuscripts. Book I, as Ratliff dubs it, was originally a third-person account of Scott-Heron’s 1980-81 tour with Stevie Wonder who was campaigning for making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday.[2] Book 2 was a rewrite of Book 1 in the first-person. Moreover, it is clear that Heron conceived of Book 2 as, in part, his autobiography. However incoherent the final product, what we might call Book 3, the resulting mélange may constitute an accurate reflection of the paradoxical parts that constituted the man. Thus, as befits a work from the “the godfather of rap,” as the New York Times review subtitle dubs Scott-Heron, the lapses, gaps, and occasional awkwardness are perhaps most glaring in the distance between the paeans to his grandmother and mother that frame the memoir—think liner notes on some early rap albums—and the paeans to the self-actualizing male artist—think almost all male rap artists, past and present—throughout the bulk of The Last Holiday.

This paean to the male individual, the male artist, is echoed in Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth in the two protagonists, Reverend Alonzo Hickman, whose “creation,” Bliss, has refashioned himself into Senator Adam Sunraider, an “invisible” black man who has “passed” for a white racist in order to provoke, he claims, a black revolution:

And I told myself years ago, Let Hickman wear black, I, Bliss, will wear a suit of sable. Being born under a circus tent in the womb of wild women’s arms I reject circumstance, live illusion. Then I told myself, speed up the process, make them dance. Extend their vision until they disgust themselves until they gag. Stretch out their nerves, amplify their voices, extend their grasp until history is rolled into a pall. The past is in your skins, I cried, face fortune and be filled. No, there’s never a gesture I’ve made since I’ve been here that hasn’t tried to say, Look, this is me, me. Can’t you hear? Change the rules! Strike back in angry collaboration and you’re free…[3]


Sunraider’s outburst is a rhetorical and political combination of  both the grandfather’s deathbed tirade in Invisible Man,  advising his grandson, the novel’s narrator, to “overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, let ‘em swoller you till they … bust wide open” and the narrator’s “fierce sense of exaltation” and brief admiration for Dupre and Scofield as they set fire to a tenement building during the riot near the end of the novel: “They’ve done it, I thought. They organized it and carried it through alone, the decision their own and their own action.”[4] Of course, the insurrectionary fire in the narrator is quickly doused when Scofield is shot and Dupre disappears into the chaos of the riot, underscoring Ellison’s rejection of black militancy in general, that is, throughout his fiction and essays.

Despite superficial differences between Ellison’s rhetoric and his own, Scott-Heron, as he had years before, also rejects the label of “radical” or “militant” in The Last Holiday because, he claims, the Civil Rights Movement was the only important movement—indeed the only movement—in the Sixties before “the feds” employed a divide-and-conquer strategy, rending the Movement into various sub-movements (women rights, gay rights, black revolution, etc). In short, his most famous song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” aside, Scott-Heron saw himself as a propagator of liberal—not militant—values.[5] Indeed, he complains that the success of specific singles from his albums warped the public’s perception of his “true” values, rendering the “real” Gil Scott-Heron, and his band, “invisible” to the public: “When people picked ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ to decide what kind of artists we were, they overlooked what the hell the whole album said. We didn’t just do one tune and let it stand, we did albums and ideas, and all of those ideas were significant to us at the time we were working on them.”[6] (159-60)

However, Scott-Heron is all too visible in the narratives that comprise The Last Holiday; save for their function as framing devices for his various exploits, women are largely rendered invisible in the memoir. The same dynamic obtains in Juneteenth. Comprised of Reverend Alonzo Hickman’s and Senator Adam Sunraider’s alternating flashbacks of their lives together and separate from one another, the novel is propelled in part by Sunraider’s obsession with a woman—who may or may not be his mother—and at least one other woman who plays a key role in his adult life. For all the significance of women in Sunraider’s life, their gradual erasure throughout the plot of failed heroism in The Last Holiday mimics the movement from agency to support cast experienced by the women in the narrative of errant-knighthood underwriting Juneteenth. In both Scott-Heron’s memoir and Ellison’s novel, the trope of relative “invisibility” is a sign of the end of history, that is, the collapse of patriarchy, and so women are celebrated and condemned for their role in the fiasco that is Western civilization. Moreover, the invocation of violence in both Invisible Man and Juneteenth is inseparable from the subordinate roles Ellison assigns his female characters, a strategy not unlike that deployed by Scott-Heron throughout The Last Holiday. In short, Ellison and Scott-Heron both invoke what we might call the Eve-Mary Christian paradigm, apotheosizing and damning women in general, mothers in particular, for their complicity with, and failure to, disrupt the narrative of patriarchal impotence.[7]

Finally, in invoking two prominent 18th and 19th century essayists and novelists—Lawrence Sterne and Gustave Flaubert—in my title I am also suggesting that both Scott-Heron’s memoir and Ellison’s novel, putative works of nonfiction and fiction, construct sentimentality (along with cognate values like sympathy, pleasure, affection and morality) as a faculty different but inextricable from rationality.  More important, education, formal or informal, cognitive or affective, sedentary or nomadic, is inadequate vis-a-vis the crises of modernity. That both the memoir and novel deploy the trope of travel in relationship to mothers and women (that is, running into, running away from, the arms of women) suggests that, for these authors, narrative is travel from and to domesticity and domestication, a journey which facilitates sentimental educations counterpoised to the rational—as in rationalized—lessons of patriarchy.[8] A late 19th c. novel like The Heart of Darkness is, in this regard, paradigmatic: the archetypal expulsion from the Womb and/return to it construed as the Grave initiates and concludes the narrative. Kurtz’s horror is not only the unexplored continent of Africa; it is also a darkness overseen by darkness: the head priestess to whom Kurtz is inexorably drawn even as he constructs her as horror per se.  Later, back in Europe, Marlow confronts the high priestess’ equally horrifying double: the ashen Intended, a woman as empty of color as Ahab’s great whale, the very lie of sentimentality at the heart, so to speak, of Western history. These two women—one too black, one too white, one too African, one too European—are spliced together as African American women in a cultural laboratory, that other “great experiment,” these American works of nonfiction and fiction, prototypes of a future unforeseen by, say, Conrad or Melville, much less Sterne or Flaubert. That both Ellison and Scott-Heron evoke, and then appear to ignore, this prototype, this future, is not without significance.[9]

This narrative of the divide between destiny and intention, between reason and sentiment, men and women, is at the heart of both The Last Holiday and Juneteenth. As in his last music recording, I’m New  Here, Scott-Heron begins and ends his narrative reminding his readers that he was raised by women, that women have shaped and framed his life.[10] On the album’s prologue and epilogue, entitled, respectively, “On Coming from a Broken Home, Part I” and “On Coming from a Broken Home, Part 2,” Scott-Heron says he was “raised by womenfolk,” that his “life has been guided by women,” emphasizing the importance, as he does in The Last Holiday, of his grandmother and mother in nurturing him through childhood and adolescence. Between and within these tracks, Scott-Heron takes his listener on a trip through the world of men, a world suffused with broken families and homes, jobs and careers, a world where men leave, either by death or to pursue their own dreams. In the epilogue, Scott-Heron notes that though men as soldiers, as foremen, as construction workers, as policemen, die, their lives are, in fact, not broken because their “spirits” are transmitted to the next generation by the women they left behind. This structure, whereby Scott-Heron is guided by women through the world of men only to return to the world of women (the return to the womb via the coffin), is replicated in The Last Holiday.

In the “Preface” to the memoir proper, Scott-Heron notes that the trajectory of his life took him from, and returned him to, Jackson, Tennessee, where his “grandmother and her husband had settled.” The erasure of the grandfather as “her husband” is not an oversight; the next sentence reads, “It was where my mother and her brothers and sisters were all born.” (1)  Since the nouns of the aunt and uncle are, like the grandfather, absent here, these erasures are not determined according to gender; rather, Scott-Heron’s word choices valorize his grandmother and mother as proper nouns irreducible to substitutions (e.g., my grandfather’s or father’s wife): “I was raised by two women—my mother and grandmother—who were both dedicated to my well-being and did everything they could to insure that I had every opportunity to succeed in life.” (4)

While Chapter 1 of the memoir finds Scott-Heron at a loss amid the invisible ruins of his lost childhood, discussing the changes wrought by redevelopment in Jackson, Tennessee, mourning the landmarks razed to make way for new, industrialized, franchised businesses, Chapter 3 focuses on his mother’s marriage to his father, a man from the West Indies who loved soccer so much that he abandoned the family when he got a chance to be, in Scott-Heron’s words, the Jackie Robinson of the Celtic soccer team in Glasgow, Scotland.[11] These two chapters have in common the theme of rupture and change as loss. The world of industrialization and redevelopment is his father’s abandonment of the family writ large. The chapter between, Chapter 2, is, interestingly enough, about Heron’s admiration for Stevie Wonder.  He begins that chapter by stating that “Stevie Wonder could not see. He was blind.” (12) An odd start since he won’t return to Wonder until about two-thirds of the way through the book. Of course, in terms of narrative structure, the focus on Wonder’s handicap foreshadows the stroke and temporary blindness Scott-Heron suffers near the end of the memoir; the motif of blindness is another framing motif. But blindness also links Chapter 1 and 3; blindness is the “natural” state of the child blissfully ignorant of the mutability at the heart of all existence, for example, a nuclear family or the infrastructure of a town. And the temporary blindness Scott-Heron suffers as an adult acquires a significance that is almost religious. It forces Scott-Heron to exchange a life of drug abuse for the enabling powers of what he calls “the spirits.” However, just as the valorization of certain women—his grandmother and mother—will be qualified at the end of the memoir, so too the redeeming instruction of blindness will turn out to be a temporary fix. “After” this abbreviated memoir, we know that Scott-Heron returned to substance abuse. One might easily conclude—as Heron does in “On Being Blessed,” the shortest track on I’m New Here—the problem is not the inability of women or physical impairments to have a sobering effect on a man but the obstinate resistance of a man to the humbling lessons “life” has imposed on him.

After almost three hundred pages documenting recordings, tours, drug abuse, and artistic successes and failures as a recording artist, Scott-Heron closes the memoir questioning his moral development as a man. At first, he tries to blame his family in general, and his grandmother in particular, for the kind of person he has become: “When I chose ‘could not’ [love], I admitted that I didn’t know how and told myself I was raised by Lily Scott. But so was my mother.” (316) In other words, his mother, raised by her mother, his grandmother, did not turn out selfish or arrogant the way he turned out. This quandary—what determines a person’s character, nature or nurture—had already beset Scott-Heron in regard to the daughter he had with Brenda, one of his wives. While conceding that his daughter’s “intelligence” had nothing to do with her parents’ intelligence quotient, he does say that parents do “have a lot to do with what kind of person their young people became.” (298) Parents can not affect the intelligence of their offspring, but they are responsible for their moral and ethical development. In an album cut entitled “I’ve Been Me,” Scott-Heron notes, somewhat ironically, that if he hadn’t been selfish, arrogant, obnoxious, etc., he would not have been himself. This ethical tautology finds its resolution not on the cd tracks but on the last two pages of the memoir. Conceding that he did have warmth, consideration, empathy and respect from his family—including his mother and grandmother—Scott-Heron nonetheless charges that he rarely, if ever, felt genuine affection, much less love, from them: “Love was not an active verb in my family or in my life.” (318) This all-inclusive condemnation of the men and women in his family near the end of the memoir winds up elevating a certain kind of “sentimental education” by omission. In divesting the women who raised him of sentiment stereotypically associated with women, Scott-Heron essentially converts them into replicas of the men in—and not in—his life. A positive spin on this rhetorical maneuver is that Scott-Heron refuses to place the responsibility for his moral and ethical development solely in the laps of his mother or grandmother. In fact, throughout The Last Holiday, Scott-Heron portrays his grandmother and mother as strong, independent, socially progressive, college-educated women. Still, they were not enough to nurture him into a better man. Thus, as his comments at the end of the memoir imply, two women cannot do the job of a woman and a man, the nucleus of the traditional American family. And if we think of his mother and grandmother, separately, as “men,” as surrogate paternal figures, they are failures, either because they were too “mannish” from the beginning—in which case the presence of his father would have merely duplicated the paternal authority within the household without, presumably, providing the missing ingredient of maternal sentiment—or the absence of the father necessitated these women suppressing their maternal instincts in order to assert paternal authority. On the I’m New Here cd, Scott-Heron is at pains to preclude the abstraction of either his mother or grandmother into the “strong black mother” caricature the opening and closing tracks evoke. Nonetheless, the cumulative rhetoric of The Last Holiday is to do just that. And since another tenet of this cliché is that not even the strongest black woman can teach a boy how to become a man,[12] the last sentence of the memoir is as predictable as it is self-serving. Summing up his own paternal failures, his own absentee status as a father to his children, Heron writes, “I hope it [their nurturing] was supplemented by their mothers, who were all better off without me.” (319)

In Juneteenth, the novel assembled posthumously by Ralph Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan, the author expands upon a theme only implicit in Invisible Man: the dialectic of sentimental and rational educations. As in Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education or even Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, travel serves to supplement, and eventually supplant, formal education, figured in Ellison’s novel as Dr. Bledsoe’s educational fiefdom in the Deep South. Ellison prefigures Scott-Heron’s dismissal and valorization of the importance of parents in general, mothers in particular, since, in Juneteenth, all parents and parental figures are failures of one sort or another. The damage they leave in their wake—that is, in their children—is catastrophic. Signifying on the mammy stereotype so endemic throughout early 20th c. popular culture, Ellison asks us to imagine a black man, Reverend “Daddy” Hickman, raising a putative white infant boy he has adopted and christened Bliss. Bliss grows up under Hickman’s tutelage, runs away to film his story as a documentary of America, changes his name to Adam Sunraider, and eventually becomes a U.S. Senator. Narrated in alternating flashbacks by Sunraider and Hickman, Juneteenth begins shortly after Sunraider has been shot by a black member of Hickman’s congregation. However, it isn’t clear if the young man has shot a black race traitor or a virulent white racist since Sunraider’s race is uncertain. That uncertainty is one of the driving forces behind the novel, and it is linked to the two women Sunraider’s delirious flashbacks (he is semi-comatose, dying in a hospital) keep circling back to: the unknown, unnamed woman who tried to claim him as her child, her “Cudworth,” at one of Hickman’s black Baptist revivals, and Laly, a young black woman he has an affair with in Kansas City during the filming of his documentary. The novel’s penultimate chapter centers on the dark secret Hickman has carried concerning the night the same unnamed woman “gave” her newborn son to him.

However improbable its plot, Juneteenth raises questions about the relationship between the different modes and functions of sentimental educations. Bliss runs away from the revivalist circus “Daddy” Hickman has created in order to “experience” life on the road as a filmmaker. Here, religious evangelism and cinema are merely two modes of sentiment dependent on illusions through which to manipulate the masses, which is why Hickman hates movies; unlike the theatricality of the circus and minstrel shows that Hickman prefers, films seduce the naïve by mimicking or copying “reality.” Hickman’s own staged dramatics—having Bliss reenact the resurrection of Jesus by rising up out of a coffin at crucial moments during his sermons—cannot compete. Worse, Bliss, a normal boy with normal fears and desires, is afraid of the darkness of the closed coffin and so has to be cajoled and bribed with ice cream, stuffed animals (including Brer Rabbit and Jack the Bear) and, eventually, a trip to the nickelodeon to remain in the casket. It is during one of Hickman’s Baptist revivals that Bliss is grabbed by a “crazy” red-haired white woman who claims that the boy is the son she gave up years before. Although Bliss is rescued by the black “sisters” in the congregation, Bliss, from that moment on, is obsessed with the face and hair of this woman who claimed to be his mother. When Hickman takes him to the nickelodeon, Bliss, who has never been in a movie theatre, gets caught up in the motion of the camera and feels as if he is soaring and plummeting through the scenes on the screen. He believes he is actually “chasing” the beautiful actress, alternately closer and farther from her as the camera moves in and out. He becomes obsessed with this actress because her red hair reminds him of the “crazy woman” who tried to kidnap at one of the revival meetings.  In fact, Bliss becomes convinced that the red-haired actress and the crazy red-haired woman are one and the same. Thus, years later, Sunraider (ne Bliss) recalls his youth when he once saw a picture of the actress on the side of a streetcar: “…I saw her picture moving past, all serene and soulful in the sunlight, and I was swept along beside the moving car and she got away. Soon I was out of breath, but then I followed the gleaming rails, hurrying through crowded streets, past ice cream and melon vendors crying their wares above the backs of ambling horses and past kids on lawns selling lemonade two cents a glass from frosted pitchers…” (257) He follows the streetcar to a movie theater and sees billboard photos of the red-haired woman. Although he buys a ticket for the film in which she is presumably appearing, he “was not ready” to face her image projected on a screen and walks away. (258)

Years later, during the junket across America with his film crew, Bliss is seduced by Laly, a young black Kansas City native. However, Bliss, who has never found his mother, has become jaded. He will, he knows, think and dream of Laly, but he is a man of the road. He will make love to her, and then, as he says, leave her: “I can tell you as though it were inly an hour past, of her feel within my arms, a girl-woman soft and yielding. Innocent, unashamed, yet possessing the necessary knowledge. How I was at rest then, enclosed in peace, obsessionless and accepting a definition for once and for once happy…Spoke words into her ear of which only then I was capable—how the likes of me could say, I love, I love…And having loved moved on.” (94) For he is, in effect, still chasing that red-haired illusion he saw at a Baptist revival, on the side of a streetcar, in a movie theatre, and no substitute will do.

It is a crucial element of the novel that no one knows if Bliss/Sunraider is really white or black. He is racially invisible, indecipherable, and thus, for Hickman, the most formidable rock on which to build his church and social movement for civil rights.[13] Hickman had hoped that by raising Bliss as a “black” boy with white skin or vice versa he could kill two birds with one stone: for those who thought Bliss was a white boy who had “mastered” the vernacular of black culture, white and black resistance to integration would be two sides of the same devalued coin. For those who thought he was a black boy with white skin, Christianity would be crystallized in the performance of resurrection as tantamount to transcending the worldly categories of race and ethnicity. However, long before the adult Senator Sunraider has decided that Hickman’s symbolic performances of racial reconciliation do not work and only a black revolution will radically alter the social, cultural and political fabric of America, Bliss the boy has instinctively come to the same, if inchoate, conclusion. Hickman takes Bliss to the circus where vaudeville comedy routines are featured events. A part of the show involves several clowns running around the stage, hitting one another with plastic clubs, but when a clown in blackface appears on stage, trying to keep his “britches” up, he is assaulted by all the clowns. Bliss is too young to distinguish slapstick comedy from real-life assault and thus wonders, “Why does he just run, Daddy Hickman?” After Hickman explains that the blackface clown’s passive resistance is “his part of the act,” an unplacated Bliss persists: “Why can’t he hit and see what he can knock out of them?...I don’t like him to be hit all the time.” (249-50) A few minutes later, two white men approach Bliss, pinch him and call him “Rastus.” Bless, having been fingered (“They knew me,” he thinks) or misrecognized as (partially) black, wanders away backstage and stumbles onto the blackface clown:

He was sitting on a little barrel looking down at a black and orange felt beanie with a little flower pot and a paper flower attached to the top and I didn’t know what I was going to do but when I went up to him I could see that we were the same height, then he looked up and said, Hi, kid, and I hit him. I hit real quick and it glanced off his cheek and I could see the blackness smear away and the white coming through and then I hit him again, hard and solid this time, and he yelled…and I hit and hit, trying to make all the blackness go away. (253)


The chimera of color, of the visible, haunts Bliss’s entire childhood and adolescence. Because he becomes literally disillusioned with the world in which Hickman has raised him, he runs away to out-illusion the illusionists, first as a film-maker documenting “America,” then later as a race-baiting politician. And because Bliss has lived his adult life as the white Sunraider, he believes he can simply pose as a vitriolic racist in order to provoke black revolution. Hence, the attempted assassination on his life is read, in his delirium, as the first shot heard around the world. Yet, while Sunraider’s public persona is that of a racist, his memories, his deepest impulses and drives, turn on the question of his “mother” and his relationship with Laly. For Sunraider, at least, the rhetoric of race is driven and, eventually, trumped by the problem of patrilineal origins: in order to know his father— “Daddy” Hickman or someone else? —he must first know his mother—the crazy red-haired woman, the red-haired actress or someone else: “Who, who, who, boo, are we? Daddy, I say where in the dead place between the shadow where does mothermatermammy—mover so moving on?” (259)

From at least Homer to Shakespeare, from William Faulkner to Albert Murray, this is the essential question: does one ever really know one’s mother? This question is, as Telemachus discovers, inseparable from the question of paternity. Penelope, Lady Macbeth, Addie Bundren and so many other mothers line up (as in a police lineup) across the poems and novels of the Western canon, culprits for the failures of Western civilization. And even those presumably “outside” the canon, like Gil Scott-Heron, can always point to their mothers and grandmothers for commendation or censure in relation to the present. The question of what gets passed down, and not passed down, is, as it happens, the point of Gil-Scott Heron wondering about his own flawed character in relationship to his mother and grandmother: he was “raised by Lily Scott. But so was [his] mother.” In short, another way to interpret these sentences is that while blame for the way Heron turned out might be assigned to his father who left the family when Heron was a little boy, he was, by all accounts, a “good man” who simply dared to pursue his dream.[14] If this is true, then perhaps Scott-Heron is the son of a second, unknown “bad” man, an interloper outside the official family history. In which case, but as before, the finger of blame rests upon his mother’s temple, desecrated by her wantonness.

[1] One tangent I will not pursue here is the question of African American holidays as such, their function within these works of fiction and nonfiction which both pose the question of interminable and terminable analyses of America’s obsession with race, racism, racialism and identity.

[2] See Ben Ratliff, “Gil Scott-Heron: The Godfather of Rap,” in The New York Times.

[3] Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth, 264-65. All subsequent references in the text.

[4] Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 16, 548.

[5] Even in his high school music class, Scott Heron writes that rather than confront his teacher about using the Steinway (there was, for all students, a hands-off policy), he “opted for a melodic form of guerilla warfare,” (100) playing the piano when no teacher was around.

[6] For example, the album cut “Brother” excoriates black militants who attack black capitalists trying to do something “positive” while pretending they never had “white girlfriends.”

[7] The role of women in Invisible Man is perhaps even more problematic than the roles played by women in Scot-Heron’s memoir. Sibyl, the drunk wife of a member of the Brotherhood, seduces the unnamed narrator. She plays the buffoon, the cliché of the white woman fascinated by black male heterosexuality (including her fantasy of being raped—see pp. 517-518), while Mary, the black woman who takes in and cares for the narrator while he recovers from his ordeal at the factory and hospital, is a “race woman,” the incarnation of racial uplift. The narrative suggests that her view of American possibility is just as narrow as, however different from, that of Sibyl’s. Sibyl reappears in Juneteenth as the “crazy” red-haired woman who tries to reclaim Bliss as her abandoned son.

[8] This catch-22—the inadequacies of sentiment and rationality as foundations for the construction of a sympathy robust enough to ward off the lure of unadulterated, centralized force or solipsistic materialism in the midst of political and cultural crises—is the theme of Flaubert’s unremittingly critical Sentimental Education. Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey takes a more light, satirical tone but the point is similar: if the failures of cognition have been exposed in a post-Enlightenment world, affection, however construed, does not provide adequate compensation.

[9] Of course, I am not suggesting that Ellison and Heron, much less Conrad, are unique in the roles they assign women in their writings.

[10] Scott-Heron, Gil. I’m New Here. XL Recordings. 2010. CD.

[11] The Last Holiday, p. 22. The theme of exceptionalism, the pioneer spirit, animates the memoir even as Scott-Heron grounds himself as just another talented but ordinary African American.

[12] In many popular black hip hop films from the 1980s and after, for example, Do the Right Thing and Boyz In The Hood, the inadequacy of black mothers to raise black boys without a man around is almost a given.

[13] Hickman’s decision to use Bliss as a symbol of the “resurrection” of the United States from its premature “death,” a country whose founding principles were “betrayed” by slavery and racism, depends upon the boy’s racial ambiguity since race is, for Hickman, for Ellison, for Du Bois, etc., the “problem” of the 20th century. Bliss thus embodies Martin Luther King, Jr.’s belief that black civil rights legislation could precede social racial reconciliation only if blacks and whites participated in the movement.

[14] Toni Morrison makes the same point near the end of Song of Solomon when Macon Dead, Jr. (Milkman) discovers that a children’s nursery rhyme refers to the day that his paternal ancestor, the eponymous Solomon, flew back to Africa, leaving his wife and children behind.

                              Works Cited 

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1952.
_____. Juneteenth. New York: Random House, 2000.
Ratliff, Ben. “Gil Scott-Heron: The Godfather of Rap.”  Review of The Last Holiday, by Gil
            Scott-Heron. New York Times, 13 January 2012.
Scott-Heron, Gil. The Last Holiday. New York: Grove Press, 2012.
_____. And Brian Jackson. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Flying Dutchman Records,
            1974. LP.