Author Alice Faye Duncan Reflects on Activist Opal Lee, Meaning of Juneteenth

By Sophie Oswald

In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the South, but the decree wasn’t fully enacted until two years later on June 19, 1865, when news reached enslaved people in Texas that they were free. 

Since, June 19, or Juneteenth, has marked celebrations of the end of slavery, but it wasn’t until last year that Juneteenth became a federal holiday through a bill signed by President Joe Biden. One of the people in the room that day was Opal Lee, the focus of Alice Faye Duncan’s newest children’s book, Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free. 

Opal Lee, also known as the “grandmother of Juneteenth,” played a key role in making Juneteenth a federally-recognized holiday.

Alice Faye Duncan

Alice Faye Duncan has been writing for 29 years and serving children in schools as a public school educator for just as long. She is a teacher and librarian who has dedicated her life to making a difference in the world through the written word. 

With books like Evicted! and Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop, her books are the perfect fit for educators and parents who wish to expose their children to important themes like social justice and Black history. 
Alice Faye Dunance spoke with us about her recent release Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free and how Juneteenth is a time for reflection, joy, and celebration.

What led you to write the picture book Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free?

Okay, so what happened about Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free, go back with me if you would, to 2020. It was after the George Floyd tragedy, and so you know there was a lot of upheaval across the nation. But above that upheaval, and above that rage, and above the crackling of the fires, there was this voice calling Americans to rally and unite under the banner of Juneteenth. That voice was grandmother Opal Lee, the activist from Dallas who was marching across the nation as inspiration to have political leaders sign Juneteenth as a national holiday.

Like most of the nation, I discovered grandmother Opal Lee that summer, and then what happened was I got a call because there was a publishing company that wanted to provide a biography on her life as inspiration to children, and also to give children an understanding of the importance of Juneteenth. The editor with the publishing company was like, based on what I had done with other hard topics  in children’s books for the assassination of Dr. King, she was said, “we’d like to see if you’d be interested in writing about grandmother Opal Lee,” and I was like, “Absolutely, because by that time I knew of her, and I knew what her mission was. I understood it, and I wanted to help in that mission and participate.

Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free book cover

How does this book celebrate activist Opal Lee’s vision? 

When you hear Opal Lee speak, you’re going to hear her say a word often, and that is “unifier.” She always says, “no matter who you are, Juneteenth is a unifier that represents freedom.” The way my book shares her vision is that it’s saying freedom, hope, and joy divine Juneteenth means it’s freedom time, and it says that Juneteenth is unity. Juneteenth is you and me, and so I make it clear in my book that Juneteenth should not be perceived as a Black holiday, but Juneteenth should be perceived as American history, because if you hear interviews that I’ve done with Opal Lee she will say when it comes to the institution of American slavery, and when it comes to the freedom struggle, that liberation was received—not just by the valor of Black people, liberation was received because Quakers, white abolitionists, Black abolitionists, helped in the cause of freedom. It is a part of history where diversity and a multitude of people made the liberation movements successful.

How can people celebrate Juneteenth with honor and respect the holiday?

If Juneteenth in fact is a holiday where we can unite under the banner of freedom and liberation, then this is what I suggest to all the folks who want to have Juneteenth celebrations for fellowship and fun. Consider offering invitations to those in the community who do not share your same religion, who do not share your same race, who do not live within your same zip code, because blooming friendships build sturdy bridges.

How should people speak to their children about black history?

Profiles of courage inspire bravery, and ultimately children will be what they see. So when young people explore the history of Juneteenth, they then witness Black Union soldiers and war spies like Harriet Tubman who helped terminate slavery with their brave efforts. They are introduced to quakers who helped the enslaved escape. If you want children to do brave things, show them brave portraits of courage. And then I say make it a family—go to the library, allow children to go on a scavenger hunt in the library finding books of Juneteenth heroes who made the struggle successful. Help your children plan the Juneteenth menu, help your children plan the Juneteenth invitation list, help them make that invitation list diverse, help them make it intergenerational and because Juneteenth is reflective, it’s a time that we look back and celebrate how far we have come. But also Juneteenth is joyous, right? And in the process of that joy, there is food, there is music, and a good way for parents to celebrate the holiday with their kids is to go into the kitchen with your kid and make a red Juneteenth Punch. Go into the kitchen with your kid and make some Juneteenth cookies. In my book Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free there is a Juneteenth punch recipe that kids can make with their parents, and if folks want to visit my website online, I have made an original Juneteenth chocolate chip cookie, and the recipe is there as well.

How do you believe people should speak about race in their homes, workplaces, and other spaces?

Blooming friendships build sturdy bridges. When you know me, you can’t help but love me; but if you don’t know me, if I am a stranger to you, then there can be misunderstanding, there can be no understanding because you don’t know me. But when I experience you, I don’t know you. But when you become my friend, I then understand that we both are human, we both are aspiring for the comfort of our families and the prosperity of our families. 

I think they should allow or encourage themselves to familiarize themselves with the unknown. You can do that through books, through reading, and by celebrating culture, go to an African American Museum. But it also works the same way—African Americans can go to Asian museums, Hispanic museums, and interact with the culture. Food is such a fun thing for people. If you are unfamiliar with Asian culture, don’t understand it, find yourself fearful of it, go to an Asian restaurant to experience that, go to a Mexican restaurant to experience that culture. If you are unfamiliar with African Americans, go to a soul food restaurant, go to a jazz concert, go to a blues concert, go to a blues museum—expose yourself to the culture of a people and you will not be able to do anything but love them. You will not be able to do anything but understand how we have been created so very similar. Why? Because we are humankind, as opposed to different-kind.

Sophie Oswald (she/her) is a writer and creator currently living in Kansas City. She got her degree in mass media with an emphasis in film and video from Washburn University. She also has minors in art, history, and women’s studies. When Sophie isn’t writing or volunteering her time to social justice, she can be found hanging out with her pets. 

Photos courtesy of Alice Faye Duncan

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