By Chinelo Ikem
Today we’re pleased to welcome Alice Faye Duncan to the WNDB blog to discuss Evicted! The Struggle For The Right To Vote, illustrated by Charly Palmer and available now.
This critical civil rights book for middle-graders examines the little-known Tennessee’s Fayette County Tent City Movement in the late 1950s and reveals what is possible when people unite and fight for the right to vote. Powerfully conveyed through interconnected stories and told through the eyes of a child, this book combines poetry, prose, and stunning illustrations to shine light on this forgotten history.
The late 1950s was a turbulent time in Fayette County, Tennessee. Black and White children went to different schools. Jim Crow signs hung high. And while Black hands in Fayette were free to work in the nearby fields as sharecroppers, the same Black hands were barred from casting ballots in public elections.
If they dared to vote, they faced threats of violence by the local Ku Klux Klan or White citizens. It wasn’t until Black landowners organized registration drives to help Black citizens vote did change begin–but not without White farmers’ attempts to prevent it. They violently evicted Black sharecroppers off their land, leaving families stranded and forced to live in tents. White shopkeepers blacklisted these families, refusing to sell them groceries, clothes, and other necessities.
But the voiceless did finally speak, culminating in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which legally ended voter discrimination.
Talk about how you came into writing.
I’m an only child. And so as an only child, I grew up in a house with a mom and dad who were teachers—public school teachers—and we had a large home library. Which was replete with a lot of African American poetry books. By the time I was in elementary school, third or fourth grade, the poetry books by Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, they were poems I could understand and that I could grasp. And I was just drawn to them, and I started emulating them and writing my own poems.
And of course, I was writing terribly. But I was practicing, and I decided very early in life that I was going to be a writer. And then what happened for me, in sixth grade, we had a special guest, the poet Etheridge Knight came to our school. And he was speaking to us about his poetry career and telling us that he wrote books, and telling us about Gwendolyn Brooks, who was his literary mother who discovered him. And I was like, well he was African American, he was writing books, and I was like, well I’m going to write books too. So, I was sold in sixth grade that my profession was going to be writing.
What made you want to write a children’s book, specifically?
I decided that, you know what, if I’m going to be a writer, I want to write for children. Because children’s books are very closely related to poetry. The words are sparse, and there’s rhythm and lyricism. And that’s the kind of writing I had been doing, even as a child. And so, I wanted to continue on with that good feeling. And so yeah, I am drawn to writing books for kids I guess because of that.
But also, in terms of Evicted!, which is a book about a voting rights movement that starts in 1959 and ends in 1962, I live in Memphis, in Fayette County, which is where that movement started. It’s 50 miles away from my home. It’s a part of the Tennessee school curriculum for fifth through eleventh graders, but there was no book about it. As a school educator, I’m a school librarian, I was like, you know what, this is one of those unexplored histories.
What do you want readers to get from your book? Obviously, like you said, the Civil Rights Movement is not over.
With Evicted!, I have this protagonist. His parents abandoned him. This is a true story. It’s drafted as historical fiction, but it is based on a true story. My main character, who spoke with me, his parents abandoned him when he’s very, very young and he grows up with his adopted parents who are his aunt and uncle. But then also when he’s a child, his little sister dies. And so, he is very quiet, very pensive and reflective, and does not do a lot of talking as a kid.
But once he sees his adopted parents working in the movement, giving their resources to the movement, giving their time and sacrifice to the movement, he decides then that when he gets to be an older student, he decides to use his voice. And without provocation from his parents, he decides that he is going to be one of the first Black students to integrate the schools in Fayette County. And so, what I want kids to also understand is that they don’t have to wait. That even as children, they have agency, they can affect positive change in the world. That age is not a limitation. Desire, determination, and courage means everything.
Who did the illustrations for your book? Did you choose? It’s so beautiful.
The illustrator is Charly Palmer, who recently did some NFTs for Time Magazine talking about Black love. But he’s an award-winning illustrator. He does album covers, for John Legend, he’s done Time Magazine covers. I mean, he’s done a myriad of really wonderful things. And so, I do believe it was like a divine order, I think, for him to be the illustrator. Because here’s something interesting—the Evicted voter registration movement really takes off and begins to flourish in 1960 when John F. Kennedy comes into office. Charly Palmer was born in 1960. Also, the place and location of the movement is Fayette County, Tennessee, and Charly Palmer was born in Fayette, Alabama. And so, I’m like, how uncanny is that. They are really disparate connections, but they are connections to me all the same, which is a wink to divine order.
What are some of your inspirations? When you were writing this book, what are some musical inspirations or other literature that inspired you?
There’s a Pete Seeger song that actually he made in 1959, ’60 called “Fayette County.” He was a white folk artist and he made a song to popularize the movement so more people would know about it. And so, I would listen to that.
And then I would also listen to songs by Fanny Lou Hamer. There was a CD called The Songs My Mother Taught Me. And so, I actually had that music put in the back of the book so that kids can listen to the music that I actually listened to while I was writing the book.
Anything else you like readers interested in this book to know?
I’m hoping that for Evicted!, children will realize they have an agency to change America for good.
Alice Faye Duncan is a National Board educator. She writes to help children remember important moments from American history. Her lyrical texts include A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks; Just Like a Mama; Honey Baby Sugar Child; and Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop, which received a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. Alice lives in Memphis,Tennessee, where, at a young age, her mother nurtured her love for writing with reams of paper, packs of pens, and poetry books. Visit Alice at www.
Chinelo Ikem is a blog volunteer for We Need Diverse Books, and a bookstagrammer @interestedinblackbooks. She has been an avid reader ever since her first grade teacher introduced her to the Junie B. Jones series. Her bookstagram, as well as her bookish blog, is dedicated to highlighting Black authors, especially Black women and Black queer voices. She received her double B.A. in Political Science and Philosophy from UC Santa Barbara, and her J.D. from USC Gould School of Law. She is based in Northern California.