Alice Faye Duncan is an award-winning writer, teacher, and school librarian. She is also a partner in the Sowing Circle, an organization of Black creatives working to bring books to children in schools, hospitals, and homes. Her picture books cover history and family, friendships and motherhood, all with a rich attention to detail and a generosity of spirit. That generous spirit is on full display in this interview, and I am grateful to Duncan for her words, her time, and her thoughtful responses.
SBW: Let’s start with the obvious, from one double-name to another: how do you feel about having two first names?
AFD: Alice was my maternal grandmother’s name. Faye is a variation of my paternal grandmother’s name. Both women died before the age of 55 and I never knew either of them. I love my name. It is a very meaningful inheritance, and I use my life as a tribute to my grandmothers.
SBW: Of course, names are important, especially for characters in books. In Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop, the story opens up through the eyes of a little girl named Lorraine. Would you explain how you came to that name for your character?
AFD: If I can attach a main character to human personalities or historical events, that character is likely to form a three-dimensional posture on the page. My character’s development comes from the energy of what inspired it. For example, the first impulse to name my character Lorraine arrived when I considered Dr. King was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The name association also reminded me of Lorraine Hansberry, the Black playwright, who supported Dr. King and raised money for activists during Freedom Summer. Lorraine Hansberry called to mind Toni Morrison, the Black novelist and Nobel laureate, who was raised in Lorain, Ohio. All of these ideas converged to create my character, Lorraine Jackson, who is a young poet and activist.
SBW: The real-life events portrayed in Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop are complicated and difficult. Some might argue a picture book is not the right arena for such topics. I disagree, and I assume you do. Why do you think picture books work so well, even with the difficult subjects?
AFD: Picture books and poetry have a common benefit. They allow the writer a small intimate stage to tackle sensitive topics. Picture books keep heavy messages short and accessible to children and adults. Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop serves both demographics. Adults think they know Dr. King. They do not. At the time of his death, he was marching to Washington to cash an economic Bill of Rights for all Americans. He had moved beyond bus rides and coffee counters. He was on his way to Washington to demand that every American earn at least a living wage. Are we there yet? My book says to all children that their mountain climb continues.
SBW: I have spent most of my life in Tennessee, but I’ve only been to Memphis a few times. My daughter and I were there last summer and had an absolutely delicious meal down the street from the Orpheum, but we were only there one night. When we come back, what should we see?
AFD: On the night before he was killed, Dr. King preached his Mountaintop sermon at Mason Temple Church in downtown Memphis. The church is closed to the public. However, a security guard stands watch from 9 to 4pm each weekday. Knock on the door. Explain that you are a traveler and he will allow you to enter the sanctuary. A hallowed hush envelops the space filled with 3,000 seats. You can sit for a moment, close your eyes, and imagine the sights and sounds of that rainy night Dr. King preached on April 3, 1968. To lift the somber mood, leave Mason Temple and travel one mile north to Makeda’s Cookies. The bakery is famous for its banana pudding. For the best Memphis BBQ, travel three miles north to Cozy Corner. The owner, Desiree Robinson, is the first Black American woman voted into the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame.
SBW: Was it particularly special writing about your hometown in Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop?
AFD: Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop is a love note to my city and a thank you note to the Memphis sanitation workers who did not allow Dr. King to die in vain. I wrote my first version of the book in 2005. However, I had to grow, learn more about life, and the craft of writing before it was published in 2018.
SBW: Reading Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop about the Sanitation Strikes of 1968 and the protests organized around that effort, I can’t help but draw parallels between the protests we’ve been experiencing these last few weeks? In particular, I am thinking of the opening poem of the book that ends with the urgency to “tell the story -- so that no one will forget it.” Many have noted how the media depiction of today’s protests has focused on the violence or on the conflicts rather than on the peaceful protests and productive conversations taking place. I wonder if you would talk a minute about the importance of WHO gets to tell your story?
AFD: A writer goes looking for a story, while every story is looking for the proper writer to birth it. I attune my ear to the stories and dead ancestors speaking directly to me. I sing their song as they bid me to sing it. That’s my primary focus. Nobody can sing it like me. There are books that are mine alone to write. The ancestors deem it so.
SBW: I love the line in Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop where Lorraine’s daddy says, “Trouble don’t last always,” and I'm pretty sure there might be a story behind it. Is there?
AFD: That line was taken from a Black American spiritual that I heard often during church service when I was a child. The original song title is “I’m So Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always.”
A modern version of the song with drums, organ, and guitar is heard here.
SBW: In your latest book, Just Like a Mama, you explore the concept of “fictive kin,” and in the explanatory note you provide a bit of your own story to explain your interest in this kind of family love. I think this book is a tremendous addition to the wealth of family stories out there, and I particularly appreciate the ambiguous nature of the relationship between Carol Olivia (double name!) and Mama Rose. Mama Rose could be her grandma or she could be any other loving caregiver. I assume this is intentional? And would you explain the concept of “fictive kin” for those readers who might not be familiar?
AFD: Fictive kinship is the act of making a family according to human connection and not biological ties. During American slavery when families were separated, enslaved children received maternal care on the plantation from enslaved women unrelated to them. When separated from their parents, immigrant children often form fictive kinships with established families here in the United States. What is the lesson? Love and compassion are the ties that bind. I wrote my book -- Just Like a Mama -- to affirm children living in happy homes apart from their birth parents. I also hope the book inspires empathy in the hearts of children who do not share this experience.
SBW: Another of your charming books that I love is a little older - Miss Viola and Uncle Ed Lee. As I read, I kept thinking about the complicated nature of representation, especially in picture books. For years, many libraries, especially in schools, would claim diverse representation, but all the books featuring Black faces would be historical, usually focused on slavery or the Civil Rights movement. There are excellent, beautiful books out there doing this work (like your own!), but they aren’t enough. Thankfully, a lot of librarians are seeking out books like Just Like a Mama or Miss Viola and Uncle Ed Lee, books where Black kids and Black communities are represented in the present tense, doing regular life. Would you add your voice to this conversation, both as a writer and as a librarian?
AFD: Joy and struggle grow up together like wheat and tares. Libraries and bookstores need to offer a balanced selection of books that offer both points of view. Hiring more Black editors will bring this balance. Denene Millner and Kwame Alexander are two Black American editors with their own imprints at major publishing houses. If you study their lists, you will see evidence of this balance.
And now, the SBW requisite Top Ten:
Who are your heroes?
My mother--Earline Duncan. Love is her religion and tenacity is her example. She is 83 years old, suffers from a myriad of maladies, and still greets each day with palpable joy.
Do you consider yourself a reader or a writer first?
I eagerly awaited first grade because my cousin said I would learn to read then. She was right. My first grade teacher, Bettye Johnson taught me well. Thus, I am a reader first. The writing bug rested on me somewhere between second and third grade.
Who/what are you reading these days?
I am researching the life and times of Ernest Withers. He was a Black American photographer born and raised in Memphis. Mr. Withers was the only photojournalist to capture a picture of the Emmett Till trial in 1955.
What’s a book that stood out to you in the last year or so?
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom is a 2019 National Book Award winner. While it is a memoir about an ordinary Black family in New Orleans East, the mundane struggles of that family made me see the valor and virtue in my own family, Black and ordinary. No matter who you are--holding on and keeping on is triumphant living.
What else is included in your media diet (tv, movies, podcasts, albums…)?
I find inspiration from documentaries. Five favorites include Boom For Real (The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat), Finding Vivian Maier, I Called Him Morgan, Miles Davis (Birth of the Cool), and Toni Morrison (The Pieces I Am).
What is one important lesson you got from your parents (or upbringing, more generally)?
My mother lives in service to others. By doing so, she makes big demands on the Universe and the Universe provides.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Etheridge Knight visited my school when I was in the 6th grade. That was 1978. He read some poems and told us kids about his literary mother--Gwendolyn Brooks. It was then that I decided to write for a living. He was my example that poetry could be a profession. Then I grew up and discovered that not every poet can sustain a life on words.
What constitutes a really good day for you?
A morning walk with the rest of the day devoted to uninterrupted writing is heaven on Earth.
What is one thing you are afraid of?
Memphis sits on the New Madrid faultline. I am afraid of an impending earthquake in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.
What is one thing you hope for?
I hope parents will purchase Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop for their own education and understanding. A free recording of the book can be seen and heard at www.alicefayeduncan.com.