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This weekend we will celebrate the birthday of one of America’s greatest legacies: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Now, this newsletter isn’t going to add to the annual flood of MLK quotes in your feeds. We don’t just preach King’s “I Have a Dream” speech here. We also preach, “We are coming to get our checks.”
So in his honor, I wanted to center those carrying the torch of his full legacy. We are still marching on, but we are marching on in joy. 😁
Know of anyone else who wants to join us on this march? Consider forwarding this newsletter so we can all revel in f the Black and radical joy.
‘Dr. King is a friend of mine’
Alice Faye Duncan is an author of Black joy in my book.
She’s not only educating children about the hidden gems of Black history through her writing. Born in Memphis, Tenn. in 1967, Alice was raised by Black history. Her father, an educator, integrated his school after becoming one of the first Black faculty members. Across the street from Alice’s home was her neighbor, Ed Redditt, a detective who guarded King – well, until he was pulled from King’s security detail shortly before the civil rights leader was assassinated.
Alice’s pastor, the Rev. Henry Logan Starks, helped to galvanize the city’s Black sanitation workers after two employees were crushed by malfunctioning equipment. Known as the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, 1,300 Black men marched the picket line with signs that read “I Am a Man” as they demanded the creation of a union, better safety protocols and a living wage.
These were just some of the legacies that surrounded Alice as a child. Her parents gave her space to interact with the Memphis civil rights movement.
“My mother and father held conversations with me like I was the third grown person in the room,” Alice said. “I was allowed to listen to these to these conversations. I was allowed to participate in these conversations and ask questions.”
Now a national board certified librarian in Memphis, Alice is familiar with the curriculum – and the Black stories it leaves out. Over the past 29 years, she has made it her mission to fill in these gaps with brightly colored illustrations and poetry. Alice said most Memphis children can name the hotel where King died, but are unaware of how he thrived in their hometown. So she wrote “Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968,” which won her the 2019 Coretta Scott King Honor Medal. This week, Alice dropped two more gems: “Opal Lee and What It Means To Be Free,” which tells the story of Juneteenth from a child’s perspective. “Evicted! The Struggle For The Right To Vote” helps middle schoolers explore the 1950s Tent City Movement in Fayette County, Tenn.
Growing up, Alice was so enamored by King’s legacy that she told her second grade teacher, “Dr. King is a friend of mine.”
Her teacher tapped Alice’s hand with a ruler, reminded her that King was assassinated a year after she was born and told her to be quiet.
But that moment taught Alice the power of telling Black stories – how they can bring history closer to children.
“I’m hoping I will make history so alive and emotionally palpable, that young readers will be inspired to carry on the legacy of those activists,” Alice said. “The reader doesn’t necessarily need to be a civil rights activist. But I want them to find their own personal passion – their own personal joy – and pursue that.”
Storytelling naturally became Alice’s medium of liberation. Her father erected a bookshelf in every room of their three-story home. As an only child, Alice spent her spare time combing through the works of Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes. She literally woke up to Black literature every morning as her mother recited the Kentucky-born poet Paul Laurence Dunbar:
‘Lias! ‘Lias! Bless de Lawd!
Don’ you know de day’s erbroad?
Ef you don’ git up, you scamp,
Dey’ll be trouble in dis camp.
Alice would eventually start penning poetry with dreams of becoming a professional poet. She found herself emulating Dunbar’s vernacular and calling Gwendolyn Brooks her “literary mother.” She wanted to follow the footsteps of North Carolina-born writer Eloise Greenfield, who pioneered a new field in children’s literature for Black children.
“I have a commitment to do what (Greenfield) did, which is to write books about Black history, Black joy, Black love, Black families, Black music and Black art – things that are life affirming and life giving,” Alice said.
While some parts of Black history can be traumatizing, Alice makes sure to amplify the joy in each of her tales. For example, the Memphis sanitation strike happened shortly before King was assassinated, but the concise and lyrical nature of Alice’s poetry keeps things light. Her research included interviews with people who were kids during the strike so she could write about the protest through a childlike lens.
“What I found out is that the Memphis sanitation strike was a family affair,” Alice said. “My book talks about the sustaining love and joy of a Black family that is resilient, and that despite all odds, they stand rooted in love.”
Although she would eventually become a librarian, Alice never put down her pen. Since publishing her first book at 24, Alice has authored 14 titles and counting. “Yellow Dog Blues,” which follows the protagonist Bo Willie as he ventures up the Famous Blues Trail in the Mississippi Delta to find his missing hound dog, will drop this summer. She’s currently doing research for a book about Coretta Scott King that should publish next year. Aspiring authors can commemorate MLK day by taking advantage of Alice’s free writing workshop, where she will share her almost 30 years of wisdom in the picture book industry.
“I found my voice through those poetry books. That’s what chose me and now I am sharing it with others,” she said.
Radical day of healing
Looking for something different to do for MLK Day?
A Black, women-led seminar wants to help you change up your wellness game in honor of the National Day of Racial Healing, which happens after MLK Day.
During the free, 90-minute virtual seminar, “What Black Women Want You to Know,” Alabama literary healer Salaam Green and Kenyan mental health reformer Lucy Wairimu Mukuria will help you let go of emotional baggage caused by racial and gender trauma – a mission both women have done well over the years. Salaam has been empowering trauma survivors through her “Write to Heal” workshops since 2016. Whether it’s through journaling or poetry, Salaam believes writing is a therapeutic way to find one’s own voice.
“Literary arts support healing through strengthening one’s ability to express themselves. Expressive writing allows the brain to process traumatic events and develop coping strategies through writing techniques,” Salaam said. “Putting my feelings on paper daily helps me to acknowledge my feelings and emotionally regulate. Also keeping a journal over time is a great way to measure personal progress and reflect on self-healing.”
When the ‘Rona caused pandemonium two years ago, Salaam linked up with Mukuria, a humanitarian who provides mental health services to Kenyan veterans traumatized by war and their families through her organization True North. Salaam, Mukuria and another friend created a virtual healing space where they can check on each other once a week and share their stories and wisdom. This later evolved into an initiative where Salaam asked Murkuria to host racial healing circle “so the world could feel the energetic presence of global healing while experiencing storytelling of racial justice from the lens of a black woman and an African woman,” Salaam said.
Registration is open through the day of the event, but Salaam asks that you sign up sooner rather than later to get special messages from the facilitators before the event.
Go forth and spread the Black Joy this weekend! See you next week.