Artist Alex Bostic is having quite a year. In February, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring sculptor Edmonia Lewis, bearing a portrait of Lewis that Bostic painted from a photograph. He purposely gave her a determined look.
Then in May a children’s book titled, Free At Last: A Juneteenth Poem, was published, illustrated with portraits by Bostic. The poem that forms the text of the book was written by Sojourner Kincaid Rolle. It describes the reactions of slaves in Galveston, Texas when they suddenly learned they were free. Some dropped their work implements and went home to rest. Some continued to work to earn a pittance, while others gathered to thank the Lord. At least one young man danced.
Free at Last is the first children’s book Bostic has illustrated. He used family, friends and his former students from Mississippi State University as models for his portraits. He dressed them in period costumes and his son, Kamau Bostic, a professional photographer, took their picture. The tricky part was to keep them from smiling during the shoot. Bostic then painted realistic, large-scale portraits of the subjects.
One of his models was Larry Young, the man who cuts Bostic’s lawn. Young looks like a true Southerner, wearing his own overalls for a portrait in which he’s carrying a barrel. A former student named Scott was portrayed with his young daughter walking through a meadow with a horse.
Another former student named Tiffany posed next to a cotton field, wearing a kerchief and carrying a scythe. He persuaded a young man in the school cafeteria to don a period shirt and show off some dance moves. Finally, Bostic and the rest of his family are portrayed in a photo album.
He plans to exhibit six of his portraits at a Juneteenth ceremony. The next children’s book he’s illustrating portrays three Black girls being escorted to school by four U.S. marshals during the 1950s. One of the girls later grew up and purchased the school.
Bostic was the first choice of the author when she was offered a selection of illustrators. Rolle was fascinated by his process and says they were a “perfect pairing.” She is the former poet laureate of her hometown of Santa Barbara, California, and is often invited to read her poems at Black History events. She composed her Juneteenth poem about 30 years ago and has allowed its use at various Juneteenth events.
Free At Last will also be read at a number of Juneteenth events this year. “There’s nothing like reading it aloud,” she said. “There’s a magic about it.” The poem is very personal to her. Thanks to its publication, she has attracted a fan club of 8-year-olds. During the publishing process, she had to make her words more kid-friendly. For example, she changed “saloon” to “dance hall.”
I told Rolle how our mayor was from Galveston, Texas. Thanks to the tradition Mayor Hoskins brought from his hometown, Forest Park has been at the forefront of celebrating this important holiday. Now the communities around us are celebrating Juneteenth with their own ceremonies. It’s even become a federal holiday.
Juneteenth is really about the universal struggle for freedom. As described in Free At Last, there were many ways to respond when slaves learned they were free. Some prayed. Some sang spirituals. Others fled as far away as they could get. Some simply danced.
If you’d like to hear the poem “Free At Last,” I have the privilege of reading it at the Juneteenth Pool Party this Saturday. I promise not to dance.