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At his death in 1994, Ralph Ellison left behind several thousand pages of his unfinished second novel, which he had spent nearly four decades writing. Five years later, Random House published Juneteenth, drawn from the central narrative of Ellison’s epic work in progress. Three Days Before the Shooting . . . gathers in one volume all the parts of that planned opus, including three major sequences never before published. Set in the frame of a deathbed vigil, the story is a gripping multigenerational saga centered on the assassination of a controversial, race-baiting U.S. senator who’s being tended to by an elderly black jazz musician turned preacher. Presented in their unexpurgated, provisional state, the narrative sequences brim with humor and tension, composed in Ellison’s magical jazz-inspired prose style. Beyond its compelling narratives, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . is perhaps most notable for its extraordinary insight into the creative process of one of this country’s greatest writers, and an essential, fascinating piece of Ralph Ellison’s legacy.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Three Days Before the Shooting . . .
CHAPTER 1 Two days before the shooting a chartered planeload of Southern Negroes swooped down upon the District of Columbia and attempted to see the Senator. They were all quite elderly: old ladies dressed in little white caps and white uniforms made of surplus nylon parachute material, and men dressed in neat but old-fashioned black suits, wearing wide-brimmed, deep-crowned panama hats which, in the Senator's walnut-paneled reception room now, they held with a grave ceremonial air. Solemn, uncommunicative and quietly insistent, they were led by a huge, distinguished-looking old fellow who on the day of the chaotic event was to prove himself, his age notwithstanding, an extraordinarily powerful man. Tall and broad and of an easy dignity, this was the Reverend A. Z. Hickman--better known, as one of the old ladies proudly informed the Senator's secretary, as "God's Trombone." This, however, was about all they were willing to explain. Forty-four in number, the women with their fans and satchels and picnic baskets, and the men carrying new blue airline take-on bags, they listened intently while Reverend Hickman did their talking. "Ma'am," Hickman said, his voice deep and resonant as he nodded toward the door of the Senator's private office, "you just tell the Senator that Hickman has arrived. When he hears who's out here he'll know that it's important and want to see us." "But I've told you that the Senator isn't available," the secretary said. "Just what is your business? Who are you, anyway? Are you his constituents?" "Constituents?" Suddenly the old man smiled. "No, miss," he said, "the Senator doesn't even have anybody like us in his state. We're from down where we're among the counted but not among the heard." "Then why are you coming here?" she said. "What is your business?" "He'll tell you, ma'am," Hickman said. "He'll know who we are; all you have to do is tell him that we have arrived. . . ." The secretary, a young Mississippian, sighed. Obviously these were Southern Negroes of a type she had known all her life--and old ones; yet instead of being already in herdlike movement toward the door they were calmly waiting, as though she hadn't said a word. And now she had a suspicion that, for all their staring eyes, she actually didn't exist for them. They just stood there, now looking oddly like a delegation of Asians who had lost their interpreter along the way, and were trying to tell her something which she had no interest in hearing, through this old man who himself did not know the language. Suddenly they no longer seemed familiar, and a feeling of dreamlike incongruity came over her. They were so many that she could no longer see the large abstract paintings hung along the paneled wall, nor the framed facsimiles of State Documents which hung above a bust of Vice-President Calhoun. Some of the old women were calmly plying their palm-leaf fans, as though in serene defiance of the droning air conditioner. Yet she could see no trace of impertinence in their eyes, nor any of the anger which the Senator usually aroused in members of their group. Instead, they seemed resigned, like people embarked upon a difficult journey who were already far beyond the point of no return. Her uneasiness grew; then she blotted out the others by focusing her eyes narrowly upon their leader. And when she spoke again her voice took on a nervous edge.
"I've told you that the Senator isn't here," she said, "and you must realize that he is a busy man who can only see people by appointment. . . ." "We know, ma'am," Hickman said, "but . . ." "You don't just walk in here and expect to see him on a minute's notice." "We understand that, ma'am," Hickman said, looking mildly into her eyes, his close-cut white head tilted to one side, "but this is something that developed of a sudden. Couldn't you reach him by long distance? We'd pay the charges. And I don't even have to talk, miss; you can do the talking. All you have to say is that we have arrived." "I'm afraid this is impossible," she said. The very evenness of the old man's voice made her feel uncomfortably young, and now, deciding that she had exhausted all the tried-and-true techniques her region had worked out (short of violence) for getting quickly rid of Negroes, the secretary lost her patience and telephoned for a guard. They left as quietly as they had appeared, the old minister waiting behind until the last had stepped into the hall, then he turned, and she saw his full height, framed by the doorway, as the others arranged themselves beyond him in the hall. "You're really making a mistake, miss," he said. "The Senator knows us and--" "Knows you," she said indignantly. "I've heard Senator Sunraider state that the only colored he knows is the boy who shines shoes at his golf club." "Oh?" Hickman shook his head as the others exchanged knowing glances. "Very well, ma'am. We're sorry to have caused you this trouble. It's just that it's very important that the Senator know we're on the scene. So I hope you won't forget to tell him that we have arrived, because soon it might be too late." There was no threat in it; indeed, his voice echoed the odd sadness which she thought she detected in the faces of the others just before the door blotted them from view. In the hall they exchanged no words, moving silently behind the guard who accompanied them down to the lobby. They were about to move into the street when the security-minded chief guard observed their number, stepped up, and ordered them searched.
They submitted patiently, amused that anyone should consider them capable of harm, and for the first time an emotion broke the immobility of their faces. They chuckled and winked and smiled, fully aware of the comic aspect of the situation. Here they were, quiet, old, and obviously religious black folk who, because they had attempted to see the man who was considered the most vehement enemy of their people in either house of Congress, were being energetically searched by uniformed security police, and they knew what the absurd outcome would be. They were found to be armed with nothing more dangerous than pieces of fried chicken and ham sandwiches, chocolate cake and sweet-potato fried pies. Some obeyed the guards' commands with exaggerated sprightliness, the old ladies giving their skirts a whirl as they turned in their flat-heeled shoes. When ordered to remove his wide-brimmed hat, one old man held it for the guard to look inside; then, flipping out the sweatband, he gave the crown a tap, causing something to fall to the floor, then waited with a callused palm extended as the guard bent to retrieve it. Straightening and unfolding the object, the guard saw a worn but neatly creased fifty-dollar bill, which he dropped upon the outstretched palm as though it were hot. They watched silently as he looked at the old man and gave a dry, harsh laugh; then as he continued laughing the humor slowly receded behind their eyes. Not until they were allowed to file into the street did they give further voice to their amusement.
"These here folks don't understand nothing," one of the old ladies said. "If we had been the kind to depend on the sword instead of on the Lord, we'd been in our graves long ago--ain't that right, Sis' Arter?" "You said it," Sister Arter said. "In the grave and done long finished mold'ing!" "Let them worry, our conscience is clear on that. . . ." "Amen!" On the sidewalk now, they stood around Reverend Hickman, holding a hushed conference; then in a few minutes they disappeared in a string of taxis and the incident was thought closed. Shortly afterwards, however, they appeared mysteriously at a hotel where the Senator leased a private suite, and tried to see him. How they knew of this secret suite they would not explain.
Next they appeared at the editorial offices of the newspaper which was most critical of the Senator's methods, but here too they were turned away. They were taken for a protest group, just one more lot of disgruntled Negroes crying for justice as though theirs were the only grievances in the world. Indeed, they received less of a hearing here than elsewhere. They weren't even questioned as to why they wished to see the Senator--which was poor newspaper work, to say the least; a failure of technical alertness, and, as events were soon to prove, a gross violation of press responsibility. So once more they moved away.
Although the Senator returned to Washington the following day, his secretary failed to report his strange visitors. There were important interviews scheduled and she had understandably classified the old people as just another annoyance. Once the reception room was cleared of their disquieting presence they seemed no more significant than the heavy mail received from white liberals and Negroes, liberal and reactionary alike, whenever the Senator made one of his taunting remarks. She forgot them. Then at about eleven a.m. Reverend Hickman reappeared without the others and started into the building. This time, however, he was not to reach the secretary. One of the guards, the same who had picked up the fifty-dollar bill, recognized him and pushed him bodily from the building.
Indeed, the old man was handled quite roughly, his sheer weight and bulk and the slow rhythm of his normal movements infuriating the guard to that quick, heated fury which springs up in one when dealing with the unexpected recalcitrance of some inanimate object--the huge stone that resists the bulldozer's power, or the chest of drawers that refuses to budge from its spot on the floor. Nor did the old man's composure help matters. Nor did his passive resistance hide his distaste at having strange hands placed upon his person. As he was being pushed about, old Hickman looked at the guard with a kind of tolerance, an understanding which seemed to remove his personal emotions to some far, cool place where the guard's strength could never reach them. He even managed to pick up his hat from the sidewalk where it had been thrown after him with no great show of breath or hurry, and arose to regard the guard with a serene dignity.
"Son," he said, flicking a spot of dirt from the soft old panama with a white handkerchief, "I'm sorry that this had to happen to you. Here you've worked up a sweat on this hot morning and not a thing has been changed--except that you've interfered with something that doesn't concern you. After all, you're only a guard, you're not a mind-reader. Because if you were, you'd be trying to get me in there as fast as you could instead of trying to keep me out. You're probably not even a good guard, and I wonder what on earth you'd do if I came here prepared to make some trouble."
Fortunately, there were too many spectators present for the guard to risk giving the old fellow a demonstration. He was compelled to stand silent, his thumbs hooked over his cartridge belt, while old Hickman strolled--or more accurately, floated--up the walk and disappeared around the corner.
Except for two attempts by telephone, once to the Senator's office and later to his home, the group made no further effort until that afternoon, when Hickman sent a telegram asking Senator Sunraider to phone him at a T Street hotel. A message which, thanks again to the secretary, the Senator did not see. Following this attempt there was silence. During the late afternoon the group of closed-mouthed old folk were seen praying quietly within the Lincoln Memorial. An amateur photographer, a high-school boy from the Bronx, was there at the time and it was his chance photograph of the group, standing facing the great sculpture with bowed heads beneath old Hickman's outspread arms, that was flashed over the wires following the shooting. Asked why he had photographed that particular group, the boy replied that he had seen them as a "good composition. . . . I thought their faces would make a good scale of grays between the whiteness of the marble and the blackness of the shadows." And for the rest of the day the group appears to have faded into those same peaceful shadows, to remain there until the next morning--when they materialized shortly before chaos erupted.
Ralph Ellison (1914–1994) was born in Oklahoma and trained as a musician at Tuskegee Institute from 1933 to 1936, at which time a visit to New York and a meeting with Richard Wright led to his first attempts at fiction. Invisible Manwon the National Book Award. Appointed to the Academy of American Arts and Letters in 1964, Ellison taught at several institutions, including Bard College, the University of Chicago, and New York University, where he was Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities.