Editor's note: Very few people are aware of the history behind Juneteenth. As people are discovering this 155-year-old holiday, Sojourners reached out to Dallas-based, African American artist, Calvin J. Walker to shed insight on how the holiday he grew up with might have influenced Black Texans. Walker wrote the following poem, performed in this video by Jasmine Shanise Gammon.

I woke up to the sounds of the djembe
I woke up to the warmth of the sun caressing my face as if it were an extension of God’s hand
I woke up free
And then ...
I didn’t sleep, yet my soul awoke in the dark rooms of the slave castle
My hands and feet shackled together
The woman next to me sobbing so that her tears created a river
She tried to jump into that river and let her sorrow carry her away to somewhere safe, alas the river was too shallow
I woke up next to her in the belly of the ship
She’d never stopped crying since I met her—never stopped filling that river
She’d cried a river to the city of Zion and she’d snuck away as we slept
I woke up to a sun thats warmth didn’t caress me
This sun seemed to scorch, to burn, to punish
I stood naked on an auction block while strange men shouted strange things with strange looks in their eyes
I woke up in a shack
The piercing sound of metal jolting me
Speaking for the strange men whose strange language I didn’t understand
I didn’t sleep, yet my soul awoke in the cotton fields
My fingers pricked and the cotton bulbs were dyed red
I didn’t sleep, yet my soul awoke the first time I saw a man’s flesh rip apart as a whip cracked against his skin
I woke up to the sound of horses—heavy footsteps crashing through my door
Men ripping my children from my arms
A hand slapping my face as I protested, knocking the scream out of my mouth and rendering me mute
I woke up to wars
Guns shooting
People dying
Rumors of freedom
Freedom never coming
And then ...
I woke up to the sounds of feet marching
Steps so loud they sounded like a band of horses
Death’s horses finally coming to take what was left of our souls
Death’s horses finally showing us mercy
But it was a different kind of death—the kind the leads to life
The kind that springs up three days later
The kind that testifies to divine power and divine justice
Death’s horses had come for the thing that had come for me
the day I woke to the sound of djembe
the day I woke without any thought of a strange new world or its evil practices
Death’s horses were thousands of Black men in army uniforms that had come
with sickle in their hand to reap the souls of the slavers
My soul awoke as Gen. Gregory read from General Order No. 3
The order said that we’d been free
We’d been free for years yet no one had bothered to tell us
Truthfully, we’d been free long before we were emancipated
We were created free
Born free
The ones who were truly enslaved
were the men whose minds allowed them to believe they were gods that could own people
I woke up to the sounds of marching not too long ago
I woke up to the sounds of chants
I woke up to the sounds of the voices of ancestors and descendants speaking with one voice
I woke up to the sounds of proclamations whose power has yet to fully emancipate a people that were always meant to be free

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.