Q&A: Author Alice Faye Duncan celebrates two courageous Black women in new picture-book biographies

Contributed Photo / Alice Faye Duncan

"CORETTA'S JOURNEY: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CORETTA SCOTT KING" by Alice Faye Duncan (Calkins Creek, 52 pages, $19).


Author Alice Faye Duncan shines a spotlight on civil-rights activist Coretta Scott King and Olympic athlete Willye White in two new biographies for young readers. "Coretta's Journey: The Life and Times of Coretta Scott King," illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, and "Traveling Shoes: The Story of Willye White, U.S. Olympian and Long Jump Champion," illustrated by Keith Mallett, capture in poetry and prose the persistence and courage of both women and what each contributed to the culture at large.

The multifaced Duncan, who lives in Memphis and earned a master's degree from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, is a librarian, educator, motivational speaker and historian. She has published more than 10 books for children, several of them biographies of Black luminaries. She answered questions from Chapter 16 via email about these two picture-book biographies, both featuring the artwork of award-winning illustrators.

  photo  Calkins Creek / "Coretta's Journey"

Q: When did you first learn about Willye White and decide to tell her story?

A: I learned about Willye White on a Mississippi road trip in 2015. As I entered Greenwood, I saw a big sign that said: "Home of the 5X Olympian, Willye B. White." As a person well-versed in Black history, I did not know Willye's name. That annoyed me. I returned home and went on a journey to learn about this international track star, whose life began in the Delta cotton fields.

Q: What was your research like for "Traveling Shoes"? How many of Willye's former Olympic colleagues did you interview?

A: Willye White passed away at 67 in 2007. There was no autobiography to explain how this sprinter and long-jumper used grit and guts to run across 150 countries during a track career that lasted 20 years.

Wilma Rudolph — Willye's most famous teammate, friend and fellow Tigerbelle at Tennessee State University — was also dead. So I leaned on interviews with Donna de Varona, Olympic swimmer and activist; Coach Billee "Pat" Connolly, retired pentathlete; and Ralph Boston, Olympic long-jump medalist and Mississippian. Willye's three friends served me the tone and texture of her personality and voice. Newspapers and magazines served me the historical facts.

Q: While writing "Coretta's Journey," did you learn anything about Coretta's life that surprised you?

A: I discovered that, during her childhood, Coretta Scott King was a petulant and pugilistic girl. When siblings or friends disagreed with her, Coretta raised her fists to fight. During her teenage years, she met Bayard Rustin. He introduced her to the principles of pacifism. People often think that Martin influenced Coretta's politics. That is not true. She was an activist when they met in Boston during the winter of 1951.

Q: What is the one thing you most hope that child readers will take away about Coretta Scott King after reading this biography?

A: The introduction is long overdue. I want readers to meet and celebrate Coretta Scott King, a Black woman from Alabama who used her voice as a prophet, preacher and activist to speak truth to power. Coretta did not swoon when the movement served her physical and emotional challenges. She marched onward.

With faith in a power greater than herself, it was Coretta who pulled Martin up from his self-doubt. And in Martin's absence, she preached even louder to demand equality and economic justice for all marginalized people. I want children from every economic class, culture and creed to read "Coretta's Journey" and emulate her dedication to democracy.

Q: You wrote each of these books in a combination of poetry and prose, but both are primarily in verse. What do you think poetry brings to these stories that prose cannot?

A: The lyrical nature of poetry makes American history enjoyable and easy to understand for children and adults. I did with "Coretta's Journey" and "Traveling Shoes" what Lin-Manuel Miranda did with his musical "Hamilton." I documented the astounding lives of two Americans using rhythm, metaphor and soul.

As for "Coretta's Journey," the book's dominant imagery includes earth, fire and the cosmos. In "Traveling Shoes," the book's dominant imagery is travel, flight and speed. With every book I write, I find dominant symbols or motifs. I repeatedly riff on these images to paint a portrait with words.

To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.

  photo  Calkins Creek / "Traveling Shoes"