A Jubilant Juneteenth in San Francisco, 2023

Jeanne Powell and audience at Juneteenth photo by Kevin Dublin

“It’s Juneteenth everybody,” Kevin Dublin, an African American poet, said to the downtown poetry enthusiasts at the upscale Kimpton Alton Hotel in San Francisco near Fisherman’s Wharf. Indeed, it was June 19th, time to celebrate Juneteenth, a national holiday since 2021 that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. I first heard about the day when I lived in Austin, Texas, once a slave state in the Confederacy and where Major General Gordon Granger proclaimed freedom for enslaved people in Texas on June 19, 1865, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Dublin, the founder of The Living Room SF —a reading series and salon— had assembled a group of eight impassioned Black Bay Area-based poets who performed work on the theme of freedom. All acutely aware that The City’s Black population is in decline.

Davion Marshall, the youngest poet to take the stage, welcomed everyone. “We’ve all been in some kind of struggle, white, Black, Mexican,” he said and explained that he’d gone from being a troublemaker to a thoughtful young adult who participates proudly in 826 Valencia’s Black Literary Achievement Club, an organization that centers on youth literacy and mentorship. Up next, Ashia Ajani whose work focuses on environmental issues. Evoking Fanny Lou Hamer, the civil rights and women’s rights activist and organizer, she said, “I echo apocalypse.”

Poet Ashia Ajani on Juneteenth photo by Jonah Raskin

In the spirit of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America,” Karla Brundage addressed the nation itself: “America, you make me sick, but I keep loving you.” Nazelah Jamison called herself “a Black militant revolutionary” and suggested that “racism should make all of us uncomfortable.” Jeanne Powell, probably the oldest of the poets that evening, read a non-fiction piece titled “Reverend Jackson’s Tears,” a chronicle of Black history excerpted from her book Carousel.

Ladi Rev wore a T-shirt with an image of Malcolm X. She noted that there was a “thin line between revolution and treason.” She asked, “What be the price of penance,” and added, “Every f—–’ thing.” Shawna Sherman, who works at the African American Center in the San Francisco Public Library, read a series of epistolary poems inspired by ads for runaway slaves. Darius Simpson who said that he lived “just East of a contradiction,” closed things out with a performance from memory of a narrative poem with the assertion “it’s okay to shoot back at cops.” He ended with a plantitive, “Will you cry for me?”

If there were tears, there were also cheers and applause for him, for Kevin Dublin and for the assembled tribe of poets who showed that San Franciscans know how to celebrate Juneteenth and how to honor those who have put their bodies on the line to end slavery, police brutality and racism, from the days of Malcolm X and Fanny Lou Hamer to right now.

Audience members, tourists and locals, the angry and the reverential filed into the dusk, bound by an unspoken notion expressed by the poet Dylan Thomas and doubly potent for Juneteenth: “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.