Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Erasing Injustice

When you hear the word erase, depending on your life experiences, it can have different meanings.  A wave can erase an afternoon of sandcastle building.  A heavy snowfall can erase deer tracks across your yard or wet paper toweling can erase muddy pawprints on a wood floor.  If using a pencil, you can erase a written mistake.  As an artist, depending on your medium, you can usually erase a wrong color or line or element out of balance with the whole.  The delete key can erase something in a matter of seconds, much to your horror sometimes.

Injustice is much harder to erase.  It can take decades to right a wrong and then, some people don't see, understand or accept that a change has happened.  To them, there was nothing to erase.  Evicted!: The Struggle For The Right To Vote (Calkins Creek, an imprint of Astra Books For Young Readers, January 11, 2022) written by Alice Faye Duncan with art by Charly Palmer is about a pivotal time in American history.  It focuses on the injustices happening in Fayette County, Tennessee concerning voting rights and specifically the Tent City Movement. You won't be able to turn the pages fast enough as the stories of key figures unfold, intertwine, and challenge oppression.

Prologue to Freedom
This is the story of a battle, a boy, and his broken-hearted blues.
It is James Junior's journey through turbulent times in Fayette County, Tennessee.  The people in Fayette County lived apart. Black and white children went to separate schools.  Jim Crow signs hung high.

This initial paragraph of five is preceded by a moving dedication page, acknowledgements which read like an author's note, a quotation by William Herbert Brewster, sections titled Mapping a Movement and Tent City Profiles and a contents page listing twenty-two portions in this profound, intentional narrative.  Fourteen people are named in the Tent City Profiles along with their birth and death dates.  Some are living today.

For the remainder of Prologue to Freedom, we read of voter suppression due to fear of retaliation by the Ku Klux Klan or White Citizens Council.  We read of Black land owners, John McFerren and Harpman Jameson who rallied, in the face of fear for their lives, to form voter registration drives.  We read and are asked to remember the men, women, and their families who were a part of this movement.

In each of the narrative sections, James "Junior" Jamerson is a thread tying them together from an early age to his mid teenage years.  We read how he and his younger sister were rescued by their grandmother, Golden Jamerson, and taken to live with their uncle, Harpman Jameson.  In The Legend of Burton Dodson, we marvel at a man who escapes a rain of bullets only to be later tried and sent to jail for a crime he did not commit.  There was no jury of peers for him.  You had to be registered to vote to be a part of the jury.  This was a call to action for John McFerren, a local farmer.  John formed and was the president of the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League.

We hardly dare breathe as we read a poem in the voice of Thomas Brooks, now a ghost.  He was lynched. (The newspaper article account of this is listed in the bibliograhy.  It is haunting to read.)  Harpman, a World War II Navy veteran, decided to join with John McFerren.  Being a father to Junior (Anne died at age six) changed him.  His wife, Minnie, also joined, but she lost her teaching position ofr registering to vote.  For others that registered, after the crops were harvested they were evicted from their homes.

By now a federal lawsuit had been filed by attorney James Estes on behalf of the League.  Black registered voters had been blocked from voting.  They were also named on a "blacklist" and denied medical services, insurance on homes and cars was canceled, and the purchase of groceries and gasoline was prohibited.  A compassionate Black landowner, Shephard "Papa" Townsend, set up army surplus tents purchased from an anonymous white merchant for the evicted people.  The tide was about to turn.

Up until now, not many people knew what was happening in Fayette County.  The photographs of Ernest Withers of the people living in Tent City changed everything.  Prominent national newspapers sent people to cover the story.  The federal government sent people to investigate.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy now knew.  College students began to spend their summers assisting with voter registration and protesting for civil rights.  In 1967, quiet James "Junior" Jamerson graduated from Fayette County High, having integrated it in 1966. 

The poetry and prose written by Alice Faye Duncan is powerful and engaging from the first words we read to the last words in the Epilogue.  Her meticulous research, including many phone and in-person interviews, is evident in each line we read.  She wants us to know and understand the fourteen people in the profile section.  Her highly-descriptive essays on them with personal facts bring them to life for readers.

Alice Faye Duncan's choice of words for her sentences convey time, place, motivation and mood with excellence.  We are there with these people.  We are able to get a sense of what was happening and what they were feeling.  Here are two portions of longer passages, chapters.  

RAP-TAP-TAP! His grandmother knocked.  A grumbling in her feeble mind made her remember the children.  She stood on the porch in a blue work jacket, and mismatched brogan boots.  She wore a crumpled old church hat with a silver cross around her neck.  Golden was her name.

When Mama Golden opened the unlatched door and shuffled toward the bed, James Junior shot up to hug her with all his strength.  Baby Ann stretched out her arms for Golden to pick her up.  Golden helped the children button their clothes over frayed pajamas.  She tied their scuffed-toe shoes, and they all sat on the bed, watching black storm clouds gather and waiting on a savior.

While his shelter was sure, James Junior worried for friends.  He was especially fearful for Jo Nell Johnson, a girl in his fifth-grade class.  Her parents had seven children and worked for a white landlord with an evil reputation.

One evening as Junior walked the lonely path home from school and whizzing snow cleaved to his hat and coat, he followed rabbit tracks along the trail and posed a question to the listening trees.

"If the Johnsons go register, what's gonna happen to poor Jo Nell?"

(I am working with an F &G.)
When you open the dust jacket, the artwork of Charly Palmer spreads from left to right across the spine in a two-page visual.  It features families living in Tent City, the tents in the background.  They stand shoulder to shoulder, side by side, somber but determined expressions on their faces.  Each brush stroke is filled with emotion.  We are brought into this scene through the placement of shades of red in the clothing and in the nearby flowers.  They join with the red used in the first word of the title text.  

The opening and closing endpapers are a dark, but bright spring green, elevating the colors on the title page and the pastel hues on the last page of the book.  Each painting spans two pages, supplying space through a wash of color for the text.  Charly Palmer's pictorial interpretation of the text is stunning.

He takes us into the peoples' lives represented in the pages of this book.  He takes us to the places in their lives.  He takes us back in time.  He takes us to spaces, not necessarily mentioned in the text, that symbolize the people, places and time.  For example, the image for the quote by William Herbert Brewster, which makes no reference to a residence, depicts the home of a sharecropper.  We are brought close to this representation so we can see every portion of its structure.  The contents' text is placed deep inside a cornfield, representing the work of the people. 

These illustrations rendered

in acrylic on illustration board

do shift their perspective to accentuate the text or Charly Palmer's interpretation of it.  For the pages speaking about the Tent City, we are first given a more panoramic, birds-eye view.  We shift to a close-up scene of a wagon loaded with possessions moving among the tents.  Then, we see families at work in their daily lives there.  A man is chopping wood.  A woman hangs up laundry.  Two children stand silently and two dogs romp.

One of my favorite illustrations is toward the end of the book.  James Junior is seated on a sofa with his grandma Golden.  Their backs are to us.  They face the television set in the living room.   A plant is placed on top of the television set with a small table and lamp off to the side.  Framed artwork hangs on the wall on either side of the television.  James Junior and his grandmother are watching the broadcast about the attacks by white state troopers on the nonviolent activists marching on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965.  The first sentence of this section titled Golden reads:

James Junior remembered 1965 with a furious clarity.

Surely, every student of United States history should read Evicted!: The Struggle For The Right To Vote written by Alice Faye Duncan with art by Charly Palmer.  This book serves two purposes.  It documents history with purpose and facts and it is a call to action.  The right to vote should never be taken for granted.  It is to be protected and preserved.  At the close of the book are seven pages dedicated to the Fayette County Timeline.  Photographs are used here.  This is followed by a Resource Guide including Books Of General Interest, Music, Documentary Films And Websites, and Places To Visit. There are then and now photographs of James "Junior" Jamerson.  There are pictures of Mary M. Williams and Levearn Townsend.  There is a two-page bibliography, an author's note and an illustrator's note.  I highly recommend a copy of this title for your professional and personal collections.  Please, take the time to read this book.

To learn more about Alice Faye Duncan and Charly Palmer, please access their websites by following the link attached to their names.  Alice Faye Duncan has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  Charly Palmer has active accounts on Facebook and Instagram.  At the publisher's website, there is a discussion guide.  At Penguin Random House, you can view interior images.  At School Library Journal, A Fuse # 8 Production, Elizabeth Bird gives her insights about the book and interviews Alice Faye Duncan.  Alice Faye Duncan is interviewed recently by author, reviewer, and blogger Julie Danielson at Chapter 16, A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby.

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