Alice Faye Duncan is the author of the new children's picture book Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968. Her other books include The Twelve Days of Christmas in Tennessee and Honey Baby Sugar Child.
Q: What was the inspiration for your character Lorraine Jackson in your new book, Memphis, Martin and the Mountaintop?
A: Dr. Almella Starks Umoja is a Memphis teacher. As a child, she marched with Memphis sanitation workers and Dr. King in 1968. She heard Dr. King give his last sermon at Mason Temple Church. Listening to her memories of the strike moved me to write my story from a Black girl’s point of view. My book is a historical fiction. However, it is knitted from the fibers of real life.
Q: You've noted that it took 10 years to write the book. What kind of research did you do, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?
A: A great amount of inspiration came from Memphis neighbors, who marched in the strike. I spoke with Ernest Withers, the noted photographer, and I interviewed sanitation workers Elmore Nickelberry and Baxter Leach.
I even spoke with a man who was on the scene during the Memphis riot when Dr. King was chased off Beale Street and a white police officer killed Larry Payne, a Black teenager from Mitchell High School.
Dr. King was not the first person to die during the Memphis Strike. Larry Payne was the first casualty. The history books do not mention Larry Payne. I plan to write a poem that remembers his name.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?
A: I want young readers to understand that freedom is not free. The liberties we have today will dissipate like a mist, if children are not poised to resist, march, speak up and vote against injustice.
I write to prepare children for the world they will inherit. I write to arm them with an arsenal of words. Poetry is powerful enough to heal a heart and save a life.
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?
A: I love Gwendolyn Brooks. Her poetry inspires me to seek out meaningful metaphors and appeal to readers with toe-tapping rhythms and alluring alliteration.
However, I call Eloise Greenfield my “literary mother.” She writes poetry from a soulful place that is earthy and unapologetically--BLACK. While always poignant, Eloise Greenfield writes simply. It is my intention to carry on, wherever she stops.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Charnelle Pinkney Barlow will illustrate my new picture book—Just Like a Mama. Charnelle is Jerry Pinkney’s granddaughter. Xia Gordon will illustrate my picture book biography--A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks. If all goes well, I will write my first middle grade novel in 2020.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: What is [my] best advice for authors writing biographies: When seeking telephone interviews, use the whitepages©. Once while researching the life and times of Leontyne Price, I called her brother, George. While researching the life of Mavis Staples, I called her brother Pervis. I was able to reach both siblings in the whitepages and they granted me an interview.
Presently, neither book has found a publisher. I am not discouraged. Write ON!
Learn more about my books here.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb