Thursday, June 23, 2022

Juneteenth 2022 and the Birth of the Book

Sojourner Kincaid Rolle

Guest post

A Juneteenth Poem
By Sojourner Kincaid Rolle
Illustrated by Alex Bostic
Union Square Kids 2022

I came to the world of Juneteenth in the late 1980s when my friend, Mrs. Mattie Brewer, from San Antonio proposed that we organize a Juneteenth celebration for Santa Barbara. In preparing for that event, I researched the history and created a hand-out: “The Meaning of Juneteenth.” Over the next few years, local groups would organize Juneteenth celebrations. Some years, my friend Mattie would host a Juneteenth celebration at her home. Every year—whether in a community center or at a backyard barbeque—we marked the day.

 During the early 1990s I met Yvette Sutton and Daisy Cotton, two residents of Oxnard, CA,  whose Texas roots sprang from the soil where Juneteenth originated. Sa\\\ “In 2004, my friend and mentor, Mrs. Valencia King Nelson, invited me to submit a poem for a special Juneteenth page that was being published by AfriGeneas, an online magazine. I wrote ‘‘Free at Last: A Juneteenth Poem” and sent it in.

Since then, my Juneteenth poem has become somewhat of a standard. Bloggers, community organizers, and educators all over the country and even from Canada have used it. In 2018, a local group (now known as Healing Justice Santa Barbara) institutionalized our local Juneteenth celebrations. ‘‘Free at Last: A Juneteenth Poem.” has been an integral part of subsequent celebrations. It was even filmed and included when the celebration was held virtually.

Over the years interest in my poem made me feel more connected than ever to the holiday. But recently I sensed a profound change starting with 2020. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the rise of Black Lives Matter, African-American communities all around the country celebrated Juneteenth. And beyond Black communities, Juneteenth had entered the mainstream consciousness. That year, a Texas-based film company created a film based a recording of me reading my poem aloud. The film was shared widely and I received notes and comments from across the country and around the world, including Australia, Poland, Germany, South America and the Caribbean.  

One year later, 2021 held another change…the big surprise. Juneteenth was declared a national holiday! It has become part of American Experience.  in  the months before and since, there have been numerous critiques on the holiday’s importance. One is that the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order signed on January 1, 1863, did not end slavery in the United States and many people remained in servitude even after June 19, 1865. It’s true. Lincoln’s executive order only applied to those who lived in the Confederate States. Slavery did not officially end in the United States until the 13th Amendment to the constitution was ratified on December 6, 1865.

Nevertheless, Juneteenth has emerged as the accepted date marking the end of slavery in the United States. It is a symbolic holiday. It is a symbolic representation of freedom for all who had been enslaved here.

Juneteenth commemorates a moment in time. That moment occurred in Texas for people who experienced the day,. noted its importance and carried the memory of that moment forward, sharing it with future generations. In 1979, Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. Over the next 52 years, nearly all 50 states followed suit.

Now, the poem emerges as a book for young people. A book that tells the world about this revered holiday. What it commemorates. What it celebrates. For me, it celebrates endurance, perseverance, resilience, and the joy of being alive.

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