This Black History Month, teach your children the true story of Juneteenth

Alice Faye Duncan tells the story of Juneteenth advocate Opal Lee in a new picture book illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo.

It is impossible to talk about the journey to making Juneteenth a national holiday without mentioning Opal Lee. Referred to as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” the 95-year-old Texas native fought for years for the holiday she celebrated all of her life to become recognized nationally. 

Cover: HarperCollins; Photo: AP/LM Otero

“When you speak to [Lee], her personality is infused with joy, kindness and a positive perspective on life,” Alice Faye Duncan, author of the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated children’s book, Opal Lee and What it Means to be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth, told theGrio. “In working toward making Juneteenth a national holiday, she has united Democrats and Republicans under the banner of Juneteenth, under the banner of liberation [and] under the banner of freedom, which is something in this present time that a lot of people have not been able to do.”

In the newly released picture book, Duncan uses prose and fascinating illustrations to educate Black children about the history of Opal Lee, Juneteenth and American slavery. 

“If you were to describe Opal Lee and What it Means to be Free … [it] is doing double duty,” Duncan said. “It is Opal Lee’s biography, expressing the courage and dedication and the light of her life, but it is also a history of Juneteenth.”

The book, which is geared toward children between the ages of 4 and 8, aims to provide children with the knowledge that they need to understand who they are, what they believe and how they should live. Duncan creates a model for children to follow in Lee because her story is one of perseverance, triumph and hopefulness. 

“Hopefully, [the book] serves as a model to children that by your own stubborn wheel and your own individual agency, you, too, can make dreams come true,” she said. “How do millionaires become millionaires? They study other millionaires. So then, how do children become agents of change? They need to study other agents of change.”

Throughout the book, there is a refrain that says, “Freedom, hope and joy divine! Juneteenth means it’s freedom time!” The phrase embodies not only the tragic history that created the holiday, but also the joy and celebration of being free. 

“When you look at the history and the meaning of Juneteenth, it is a holiday that is about … remembering the past of what we have survived during American slavery, but then it is also a holiday of jubilation and celebration,” she said.

Duncan also strives to bring families together in joy and celebration with this book. At the end, she includes a recipe for Juneteenth “Red Punch,” a timeline of Juneteenth and a biography for Opal Lee. 

The serial book author specifically aims to share the stories of the past, so that those tragedies will never be repeated. Her work, which includes books such as Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968 and Evicted!: The Struggle for the Right to Vote, is designed to showcase the entirety of the Black experience. 

“My books are important because I am sharing those aspects of history that are not completely joyful, but they coexist with joy and pain,” Duncan told theGrio.

To find out more about Opal Lee and What it Means to be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth or other books by Duncan, visit her website.

Maiysha Kai is Lifestyle Editor of theGrio, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades’ experience in fashion and entertainment, a love of great books and aesthetics, and the indomitable brilliance of Black culture. She is also a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and editor of the YA anthology Body (Words of Change series).

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