By Anisa Lewis
Today we’re pleased to welcome Sojourney Kincaid Rolle to the WNDB blog to discuss Free At Last: A Juneteenth Poem, illustrated by Alex Bostic and out since May 3!
This lyrical celebration of Juneteenth, deeply rooted in Black American history, spans centuries and reverberates loudly and proudly today.
After 300 years of forced bondage;
hands bound, descendants of Africa
picked up their souls—all that they owned—
leaving shackles where they fell on the ground,
headed for the nearest resting place to be found.
Deeply emotional, evocative free verse by poet and activist Sojourner Kincaid Rolle traces the solemnity and celebration of Juneteenth from its 1865 origins in Galveston, Texas to contemporary observances all over the United States. This is an ode to the strength of Black Americans and a call to remember and honor a holiday whose importance reverberates far beyond the borders of Texas.
Your poem “Free At Last” highlights the holiday Juneteenth. What does this day represent and why is it important that we continue to acknowledge it today?
Juneteenth represents and celebrates the long journey from enslavement to freedom for Americans of African descent. It is important to continue its acknowledgment to honor our ancestors, to understand our past and to continue our quest for true equality in our nation.
In your author’s note you give us a little insight to the journey of “Free At Last”. From your initial inspiration to the picture book it is today, have any parts of this poem changed or evolved over the years?
Over the years, there have been minor adjustments to the language and rhythms in the poem. The premise of the poem and its articulation have remained constant.
What inspired you to turn “Free At Last” into a picture book accompanied by images and art?
My inspiration was the invitation from the publisher. I accepted the invitation because I have always wanted the poem to reach a wider audience and to contribute to a general understanding of this historically significant celebration. To have it published as a book for young readers and broadly distributed served my greatest hopes for the poem.
In your author’s note you also mentioned how interest in this poem allowed you to feel more connected to Juneteenth. Can you elaborate on how writing “Free At Last” has impacted this connection?
When I first created the poem in the early 2000’s, I was trying to provide an explanation of the celebration in poetic form. After it was published online in 2004, I had requests from people across the country and beyond to use the poem. Simultaneously, celebrations became more widespread as people carried the traditions to communities throughout America. Our celebrations became more frequent and I met more people in our own community who had grown up celebrating Juneteenth. As I helped them tell their stories, my own understanding of the holiday’s significance to our history grew. I came to realize that this important milestone is a significant moment in Black history, US history, and world history. It was my history.
Why do you feel it was important for this poem to showcase the nuances of the African American experience immediately following the end of slavery?
I believe that in general, people hold a very narrow view and incomplete picture of events that took place in the lives of the formerly enslaved. This is a result of suppressed stories, inaccurate and misleading narratives, and failure to consider the humanity of a newly unshackled segment of our population.
Juneteenth is not often mentioned in grade school history books. How did you learn about this significant part of History?
I learned about Juneteenth from people of Texas who lived in my community and organized celebrations here. I was able to research the facts from various resources on-line.
Can you name any poets/writers that inspire your work?
Sure, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Walker, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Gwendolyn Brooks to name the most significant. These poets wrote in large terms about the African American experience of life in this country.
Sojourner Kincaid Rolle is a poet, playwright, and an environmental educator. She was the Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara, CA (2015-2017). Her book of poems for young people, The Mellow Yellow Global Umbrella, was published as an e-book and audio book by Lucky Penny Press. She lives in California.
Anisa Lewis is a Communications Specialist in the Higher Education industry located in Southern California. She enjoys the art of storytelling in its many forms whether through books, podcasts, documentaries, or interviews. Anisa is passionate about representation in storytelling and believes in its power to spark creativity, inspire, and empower the voices of young people. In her spare time she likes to cook, hike, and watch an occasional, healthy dose of Netflix/Hulu.