04/11/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Race and Identity in America: The Magnificence of Ralph Ellison

Three Days Before the Shooting, The Unfinished Second Novel by Ralph Ellison is magnificent. It is magnificent for its plot and characters, for its words, and for Ellison's fearless grappling with themes of race, identity, fate, responsibility, and the promise of the American dream. This edition put out by Random House and edited by John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley encompasses forty years of Ellison's working on and reworking of the novel and includes Ellison's multiple variations of chapters and the notes he made to himself while writing (which are simply captivating: "Nota bene: Remember the sound of your machine, typewriter or computer, helps you work! Start it going, even if at random!") The editorial comments offered by Callahan and Bradley help enormously in understanding the layers of narrative and meanings that Ellison balanced along a continuum of action, reaction, and observation.

Three Days Before the Shooting is the story of Hickman, bluesman, preacher, and foster father; Bliss, an abandoned child who grows up to become Sunraider, racist senator; and Severen, another abandoned child who grows up to become an assassin. A white child is given to a black man amidst a cacophony of lynching and birthing; the child is his to raise, a gift in exchange for lives lost. The child is raised with all the hope of the black community behind him and a belief that racial identification can be transcended. But the child grows up and leaves his people, betrays those who have cared for him, and tries to publicly flog them for their race, their status, and their dreams. Sunraider's rejection of his upbringing will wreak its own judgment hard upon his head: another white child will long for the blackness denied him, and render judgment from on high.

The multitude of characters in Three Days Before the Shooting, Hickman, Bliss/Sunraider, Severen, Janey, Lee Willie Minifees, Jessie Rockmore, Lavatrice, McIntyre, the cross-eyed woman, and the rest, have such blood and bone truth in their presentations that the book could be a documentary about life in 1950s. Much as the blues music of the 1950s reflected life of the Black populations, the characters in this novel reflect both the segregated and integrated realities of 1950s America.

What is most magnificent about Three Days Before the Shooting is Ellison's command and use of words. This novel is rich and deep and thick with words. Open the book to any page and you will become immersed in the movement and play of monologues, observations, recollections, letters, speeches, and sermons. The novel reads like music, a baroque rendition of the blues with layers of sounds, rhythms, and meaning communicating hopes and heartbreak, the painful smack of reality and the endurance of just getting on with it all. People talk "white" or talk "black", and tell the truth of what they've seen as they see the truth to be. These variations together build the story of Hickman, Bliss, and Severen, but most importantly, the words build towards a crescendo of truth about race and identity in America.

The way in which Ellison constructed his novel -- how he uses words to both illuminate and obfuscate the truth behind his story of a white child raised by a black man -- is a deliberate deployment of what Ellison sees as a legacy of slavery: "the way we talk... you know that our people like to talk around a subject even when there's no danger. They enjoy it, and if they know you well enough they're apt to leave their true subject unstated so you'll have to supply the missing meaning." Ellison uses the linking narratives of his many characters to circle around and around the novel's underlying truth. At times the different layers are dizzying. The novel becomes a maze of differing points of view and of tangents gone off on and then returned from; we are returned back to the main story but from a different angle, and we see everything in a new way.

Hickman warns Bliss of the power of words: "Words are everything and don't you forget it, ever." Bliss takes the advice but he abandons the positive and life-affirming use of words that Hickman has tried to instill and instead resorts to life-negating rhetoric of hate and prejudice. A son rejects his father with words but the greater rejection is the wordless abandonment of a son by his true father. Ellison uses the words of one of the most powerful phrases, "Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?" to represent both the disbelief and the despair caused by such abandonment. Sunraider calls those words out when the assassin's bullets strike; Hickman instructs Bliss as a child to recite those words during a dramatization of rebirth through Christ; and Ellison returns us again and again to the lamentation. It is not only the cry of Bliss and of Severen, neither to ever know their fathers. But more, much more, it is the plea of an entire population. The words evoke the abandonment of the Black slaves, set free by Lincoln but then left uncared for and undone. There is a marvelous scene of Black pilgrims visiting the Lincoln Memorial and reflecting on the promise of the man and the failure of a nation.

The breadth and bravery of Ellison's writing is demonstrated by how he tackles his themes of what it means to be black in America, what it means to be white, and the promise and failure of the American Dream. It is a great pity that Ellison never finished this magnificent novel. Perhaps the novel could not be finished because Three Days Before the Shooting raises the issue of what race has to do with our identity as Americans and resolution of that question -- who are we? -- is far from being realized. We are still a nation divided by racial identity, more than forty years after Ellison began his novel. One hundred and forty years after the Juneteenth declaration that all Americans, black and white, are equal in the pursuit of and entitlement to happiness, liberty, and respect, we are still struggling with what these words - Black, White, American -- mean. Ralph Ellison in Three Days Before the Shooting offers a vision that transcends race, recording both the common ground and the individual experiences that define who we are: Americans.