The Writer's Page: Born in Babylon: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Duncan in third grade.
Photo courtesy of Alice Faye Duncan.

When I consider my thirty years writing picture books and poetry that honor Black achievement, I know that the template for this life began in 1975 while I read crisp new library books about Harriet, Rosa, and Martin. I know that my love for music, meter, and metaphor was encouraged by passionate Black singers playing on my daddy’s stereo. And as for my mind-boggling dream to birth a brood of books, while female, southern, and Black, that goal was spun from critiques and talks with generous Black writers who shared their light with me.

As the only child of two schoolteachers, I spent much time alone, reading stacks of Black history books borrowed from the public library. I would write little stories and poems on looseleaf notebook paper. At times, I would also disappear into our sunken den to play my daddy’s stereo set. It was assembled with one turntable, an eight-track player, and two hi-fi speakers. I loved to dance and sing. Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, and the Staple Singers were my favorite artists. While I polished my fluency and comprehension by reading album liner notes, the greatest disappointment was to love a record that did not include the lyrics on the sleeve. In dire cases like that, I sat on the floor with my ear to one speaker, and as I listened for the lyrics, I wrote every word in a tattered, dime-store journal.

When I was in sixth grade, I met the famous American poet ­Etheridge Knight. In 1978 when Knight visited my school, my nuclear family was fractured. And while I was a chatty girl in the company of ­classmates, home and my ­mother’s arms were my safe spaces to rage and shed tears. In the darkness with Roberta Flack’s somber piano playing in rotation on the stereo, the den was my sanctuary for solace, solitude, and sulking.

Those trying times found my bedroom cluttered with stacks of paper filled with homemade poems and angry scribbles about my absent father. I did not understand then. But my father had left our home to exorcise ghosts and demons from double tours in Vietnam. He was my first best friend. I missed our talks during the drive to school. I missed his barbecue. However, my soul did smile when Knight entered my classroom. With a tweed apple cap and gangster lean, he was cool as a fan and velvet black, just like my daddy.

Phyllis Tickle, the founding ­religion editor at Publishers Weekly, had just received an art grant and hired Knight to speak with Memphis students about the joys of poetry. She introduced him and told us he had survived Jim Crow Mississippi and the Korean War. I remember that he read his famous poem, “The Idea of Ancestry.” And with the rasp of a smoker, he spoke to the class about love for his mother, respect for Black history, and his eternal gratitude for Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. From the confines of his Indiana prison cell (Knight served time for robbery), it was Miss Brooks who corresponded with him to help him unearth his writing voice. After his release in 1968, it was also Miss Brooks who helped Knight publish his first poetry book. My debt to him has no end because in 1978, when I was knock-kneed, abandoned, and sad, his life preached a sermon to my brokenness. It was louder than a bomb. Poetry is salvation. It can set the captive free.

In 1993, poet and picture book creator Lucille Clifton served as a visiting professor in my hometown at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). I met her when professor Peggy Faulkner invited me to a lecture organized by a local Black sorority. Miss Lucille talked about her picture books and shared her praise poem “won’t you celebrate with me.” She spoke about life as a daughter, mother, wife, and literary woman warrior surviving America. She called the nation “babylon” with a small letter b. That day as Miss Lucille wielded poems like a worldly blues singer, I saw facets of my personal herstory in her lyrical meditations.

In the spring of that year, I was a graduate student working toward a teaching degree and writing career. So, my encounter with a Black poet was impactful and priceless. I remember that Miss Lucille spoke a mighty word. She said that poetry, vivid and spare, is a balm in Gilead. She said that poetry heals, educates, and speaks for the voiceless. As I departed her spirited talk, inspiration wrapped around my shoulders. I doubled down on dedication to my dream. Here in this ­“baby­lon,”­ where Black words like Black life were so often undervalued, I was determined to write books, make magic with poems, and seek to shine like Lucille Clifton.

At the request of my writing professor, Dr. Reginald Martin, Ishmael Reed visited the University of ­Memphis in the early 1990s. I remember how Brother Man Reed rapped with bold Black flair, “we will leap tall couplets in a single bound.” I heard that toast at a noonday reading as he shared his poem “The Jackal Headed Cowboy.” Even now, that striking line primes my pump when writing is a nebulous slog. My dry bones remember the quickening sound. We will leap tall couplets in a single bound.

Here is the generous thing about Ishmael Reed. At the end of his noonday talk, he used lunchtime to read and critique my struggling short story that was a class assignment. Brother Man eviscerated my five pages with a black ballpoint pen. Black ink seemed to hemorrhage like blood. The notes were meticulous and massive. None of his comments were filled with praise. And while the brutal critique gutted my gizzard, I did not give up on language. Revisions make writing sing. That is the gift that Ishmael Reed presented me.

Every life is filled with swift transition. The year is 2024. My finest quality is persistence, as I write every day. And like many Black women in the American South, I also play gospel music on my car radio. I need good news during these bewildering times in present “babylon.” Near and far, there are staggering wars, natural catastrophes, and crime. The battle against books and critical thinking rages on every hill. My mother and father are dead. Records fell out of fashion. Now vinyl is hot again. And after thirty years teaching in the Memphis schools, I am newly retired. But there is no rest. Black history is my weaponry. There is a war to fight.

When I survey the past seasons of my journey, one thing is clear. Black, white, or any other race, children will be what they see. As a young child, I filled my mind with books about Black activists, artists, and history makers. During my formative years, my local elementary school served me one encounter with a compelling Black poet. And while I was never the most accomplished college student, caring teachers at my public university made sure to put me in the room when Black literary giants stepped a foot on campus.

Pay attention to the clock. Be careful how you vote. Some misguided politicians put down state universities and public schools. Such institutions gave me a future. Some people also ­disparage single-parent homes, but here I stand. I thrived. I am thriving. I am writing Black history books and poems for a new generation. My profiles of courage about important history makers like Martin, Coretta, Willye B. White, and Gwendolyn Brooks serve all children as examples of hope during these baffling times.

For thirty years of my professional life, I have been intentional with my subjects. I write Black biographies that are templates to help all children brave their challenges, scale rugged mountains, and live their dreams. If she is looking down from heaven, I pray that Miss Lucille is proud of me.

Singing in a Strange Land

Golden Shovel Poem by Alice Faye Duncan
After Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me”

Praise poets, prophets, and Black grandmothers come
from a legacy of unflinching elders who celebrate
the mournful memory of many thousand gone. With
exhortations, prayers, and singing, insistent Black Me
is a weary voice in the wilds of this desolate democracy that
prefers me docile or dead. But I persist with singing every day.

My shout is a seed. I sow Black stories of the past to harvest something
everlasting like knowledge, kindness, forgiveness, and joy. It has
been grave, grappling with Black history in my praise. I have tried
to find respite in the wine of the world and I have tried to
refuse spirit ancestors, demanding the artillery of my words to kill
or abate ignorance, apathy, and hopelessness. The ancestors compel me.
Singing Black memories of the past is the high calling on my life. And
yet, I falter at sundry times because razing babylon with battle shouts has
tested me. But with God? Discouragement has challenged my faith and failed.

© 2024 by Alice Faye Duncan.

From the May/June 2024 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Our Centennial.

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Alice Faye Duncan

Alice Faye Duncan, a former librarian and National Board Educator, is the author of A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks (Union Square); Coretta's Journey; and Traveling Shoes, a biography of U.S. Olympian Willye B. White (both Calkins/Astra); among others. I Gotta Sing! (WaterBrook) is forthcoming in July.

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