Memphis author shares black history for kids

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By John Beifuss | The Associated Press

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — When news services reported earlier this month that 33 members of Congress had signed a letter nominating Opal Lee, a 95-year-old Texas schoolteacher and activist, for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, a woman from Memphis had a special reason to celebrate.

“It’s amazing for my soul,” Alice Faye Duncan said. “Do you realize that my book is the first official published biography of his life?

Released in January, Duncan’s “Opal Lee and What It Means To Be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth” is a 32-page picture book that chronicles the hard-fought end of slavery in the United States and Lee’s struggle to have the effort recognized by a federal holiday.

According to a review in Booklist, the journal of the American Library Association, Duncan’s tome – filled with colorful, painterly illustrations by Ohio artist Keturah A. Bobo – presents “a joyous account of the meaning of Juneteenth which does not neglect the hardest aspects of history”. or the work that remains to be done.

As Opal Lee says in the book, “Juneteenth is the rise of freedom. And freedom is for everyone.

‘Opal Lee’ is Duncan’s 13th book for young readers since the Memphis public school teacher and librarian sold her book ‘Willie Jerome’ – about a boy who fills his neighborhood with the music of his trumpet be- bop – at the great publishing house Macmillan nearly 30 years ago.

Another book, “Miss Viola and Uncle Ed Lee,” about a little boy who plays matchmaker, was purchased soon after.

“I thought to myself, ‘If I sell these books to the big publishers in New York, that means I have the gift, and I won’t be working in schools for three decades,'” Duncan, 54, said.

But she soon realized that making a living writing children’s books wasn’t as easy as one, two, three or even one fish, two fish, goldfish, blue fish.

“At some point, I resigned myself to the idea that I was going to spend my life working,” she said. “But here’s the beauty of teaching at school: you get off at 3 o’clock and you have all the weekends to yourself. This writing career has been three decades of rejection, dear, but I write creatively every day that the good Lord makes available to me.

“THE PATH TO CRITICAL THINKING IS BOOKS”

After a fast start followed by a slow stretch, Duncan has recently found more acceptance than rejection. Published by Thomas Nelson, an affiliate of HarperCollins, “Opal Lee” is just one of two Duncan picture books that debuted in January. The other, illustrated by Charly Palmer, is “Evicted! The Fight for the Right to Vote,” from Calkins Creek Books.

Built around the real-life stories of some of its participants, “Evicted!” revisits Fayette County, Tennessee in the early 1960s, when black sharecroppers launched a “Tent City” protest movement after being evicted by white landowners, who were punishing them for registering to vote .

As his later works demonstrate, Duncan’s books spotlight African-American characters and are drawn from black history or inspired by traditions of black family and community life.

“A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks” introduces young readers to the first black poet to win the Pulitzer Prize. Told in dialect, “Honey Baby Sugar Child” expresses a mother’s love for her child. “Memphis, Martin, and the Mountain Top: The 1968 Sanitation Strike” is self-explanatory. (Duncan’s website, alicefayeduncan.com, includes downloadable lesson plans for most of her books.)

“Because I teach in the school, I know the curriculum and I see the gaps in the curriculum,” she said. “I talk to kids and ask them if they know why Dr. King came to Memphis, and year after year the only thing they knew was that he was killed on the balcony.

“I also see what children may need for affirmation and empathy.”

Duncan believes these books are especially needed in the context of recent controversies in Tennessee and other states over suffrage, books in school libraries, and history lessons about racism in America. Duncan calls such efforts “anti-critical thinking.”

“Expelled!”, for example, is especially “timely” for young readers, she said. “Today they are children, but tomorrow they are voters. Their voting rights are today violated.

“The way to critical thinking is through books,” Duncan said. “When you ban books, it means you’re not in favor of having an educated electorate.”

She said history is not always inspiring and the exclusion of its harsh lessons is an insult to people from the past who want their life stories told with sincerity and honesty.

“Writers are always looking for stories,” she said, “but also stories are always looking for writers. They’re looking for a brain and a body. The dead want to talk, they want a voice and a body to share their stories.

GROWING UP IN SOUTH MEMPHIS

Duncan’s interest in education comes as no surprise. His mother, Earline Duncan, 85, was a teacher at city schools (in fact, she was the first black teacher in Snowden), while his father, the late Kenneth Duncan, was a Vietnam veteran and ROTC instructor. in high school. (Duncan’s husband, businessman Michael Thompson, also comes from a family of educators.)

Meanwhile, Duncan’s childhood neighborhood on Wellington Street in South Memphis was populated by even more principals and teachers — not to mention politicians and policemen, taxi drivers and servants.

“It was very eclectic,” Duncan said. “It was sort of intergenerational. It was all dark, but you had all these disparate people from different professions living together. It was a vibrant neighborhood, a loving neighborhood, where neighbors were like relatives.

An only child, Duncan spent a lot of time reading. “When I was a kid, I gravitated to the books on the shelf that were easier to read, and those were the poetry books. Gwendolyn Brooks. Langston Hughes. He didn’t use big words and the language was free. I could read a Langston Hughes poem by myself, honey.

Duncan “fell in love with words” and decided to become a writer. She credits her instructors and professors at the University of Memphis with teaching her the craft and discipline to pull her ideas “everywhere” into cohesive narratives.

Eventually, she realized that picture books, with their colorful illustrations and relatively simple sentences, seemed an ideal way to combine her interest in poetic language and meaningful subject matter.

“Picture books are very similar to long poems. The text is stripped. There is lyricism, but they don’t have to rhyme. They tap into emotion while giving you information.

Duncan said she enjoys writing about “moments in history that speak not just of the triumphs but of the trials of black people”. She said she enjoys presenting these “inspiring” stories in an entertaining and engaging format for young people.

“I have a gift, writing is that, writing for young learners. And I will continue to use it as long as I have a life to do so.

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