Evicted: An Interview on a Timely Topic with Alice Faye Duncan
Plug the word “Eviction” into your favorite news source right now and all at once it lights up like a Christmas tree. Evictions are on a lot of minds right now. In some places in America right now, moratoriums on evictions are being lifted, while in others they stay firmly in place. In the course of the pandemic, a bright light has been shone on a wide variety of problems with our society. Housing has been no exception to this.
So thinking, this January we’ll be seeing a book that is nothing if not timely, even as it speaks about a different kind of eviction. Evicted!: The Struggle for the Right to Vote is being released by Calkins Creek. Authored by Alice Faye with art by Charly Palmer, this is how the publisher best describes it:
“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.”
It wasn’t enough. I needed to know more. And Alice Faye Duncan was kind enough to answer some of my questions:
Betsy Bird: Tell me a little bit about the origins of this book. At the beginning you have an Acknowledgment that discusses a photography book you received in 2006 about the Tent City Movement. Can you tell us a little bit about the book and what it was about it that took root in your brain?
Alice Faye Duncan: Ernest Withers was a popular Memphis photojournalist. In 2006, he gifted me a book of his famous Civil Rights photographs. The collection introduced me to Black sharecroppers and their sad-faced children, standing in a field. A caption said these laborers were evicted from white farmland and forced to live in tents during 1960, because they registered to vote in Fayette County, Tennessee. This voting initiative was called the “Tent City Movement.” It is the event that inspired John Lewis and his college friends to tackle voting rights in the rural South.
I was unfamiliar with Tent City at the time. But my grandfather’s sister, Aunt Boots, had lived and farmed in Fayette County. She and her husband, Uncle Buck, had worked as sharecroppers for more than fifty years. I knew that land. But I did not know that history. I wrote EVICTED to fill the potholes in my own lack of knowledge.
BB: Some authors of children’s books do their research sitting on chairs in libraries or sitting on their rear ends and just scanning the internet. You actually got up and sought out the farmers and activists that back in 1959 took part in the movement. How did you track them down? Did you visit in person? And what was it like cold calling people about events that occurred so long ago?
AFD: I learned about Tent City in 2006. But I did not pursue serious research until the Fall of 2018. To begin, I collected names of Tent City farmers from a PBS documentary. The first interviews happened over the phone. And each person that I called seemed eager to talk when I explained my book was for children.
During November and December of 2018—I would leave my Memphis home every Saturday and drive fifty miles to Fayette County to speak with Tent City participants. I interviewed retired farmers like Levearn Towles, James Jamerson, and Mother Mary Williams. I always packed my Nikon camera and took pictures as I visited Fayette churches, graveyards, and a variety of homes that were landmark locations during the voting rights movement. Every Saturday felt like an expedition. I was searching for lost treasures, and I found them. Black sharecroppers in Tennessee changed America and paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
BB: It would be easy to look at the cover of this book and assume that it’s a picture book for younger readers. Inside, however, you find a complex text appropriate for older grades. Did you ever consider making a simpler book or did the amount of information you had demand something more detailed?
AFD: The main character is James Junior. He is a young activist and orphan, who also struggles with the death of his baby sister. While the story ends on a triumphant note and sharecroppers win their right to vote, James Junior is the protagonist marching to find his place in the world. To make his blues story accessible and engaging, I composed the book with a collection of poetry and prose. I believe poems work like music. They convey heavy messages with a gentle touch.
BB: I imagine that from all the interviews you conducted you had a lot of material to work with. It would have been difficult to cut things out. Did you have to lose anything in the final edit that you would have liked to have kept?
AFD: I went into each interview searching for a child’s point of view. I wanted to write the story through the eyes of a young person, who participated in the Tent City Movement. I found that character in retired farmer, James Jamerson. His adopted parents were Tent City activists and as a child, James attended Tent City rallies. While I used what was needed to capture the spirit of the movement, I have enough research from my time in Fayette County to write at least two novels, a movie, and musical about this daring episode in American history.
BB: Charly Palmer, aside from having what might be the best artist website I’ve seen in a long time, has slowly been increasing his children’s book repertoire these last few years. When he was selected to illustrate your book, what was your reaction? How do you feel about the art he’s done for your book?
AFD: I believe Providence sends an oracle sometimes to confirm a divine collaboration. EVICTED is about courageous farmers in Fayette County, Tennessee during 1960. The artist, Charly Palmer was born in a place called Fayette, Alabama in 1960. I take these disconnected correlations to mean something cosmic and good. And yes, I am most pleased with Charly’s wondrous artwork.
BB: I was particularly taken with a moment near the beginning of the book where Charly provides a cast list of characters along with names, dates, and one sentence descriptions. Was that his idea, your idea, or your editor’s idea? Because it’s something I wish that a lot more books considered doing, and I almost never see it done.
AFD: I made the list of character profiles as a type of “map legend.” The profiles can also help readers forecast the story. And if they fail to remember the relationship of the characters, they can always turn back to the list. I have more forthcoming books organized in a similar way. Not only does this format help the reader, but as a writer, starting with the character profiles helps me outline the arc of the story.
BB: If there is one thing you want young readers to take away from this book, what is it?
AFD: The right to vote is what makes America a democracy. But unfortunately, today is no different from 1960. Voting rights are under attack. To counter this tide, EVICTED is a candid plea to young people. It says—Prepare now to restore and protect, unhindered elections with vigor and vigilance, like the farmers and children from the fields of Tennessee. Remember—TENT CITY.
I’d like to offer a great deal of thanks to Ms. Duncan for taking so much time to answer my questions. EVICTED is on shelves everywhere January 11th. Be sure to look for it then!
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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