Monday, February 18, 2013

No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

The full title of Vaunda Micheaux Nelson's book about her remarkable great-uncle is No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller. Her lightly fictionalized approach is based on years of meticulous research and interviews. The result is like a film documentary. It's told in first person through many voices, interspersed with historical photos and documents, and further enlivened with R. Gregory Christie's expressive artwork.

The most frequent voice is that of Lewis Michaux himself. He was passionate in his mission of self-education for African Americans. Michaux believed in the power of knowledge and the importance of reading books by and about black people. His bookstore started in the 1930s with a very small inventory.

"I found Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery and four others on Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune, and George Washington Carver. So I've got five books, a building, and a hundred bucks. I'm starting my business tomorrow."

People weren't coming in the door in the early days, so Michaux put his books on a cart and walked up and down the street outside, "Don't get took! Read a book! Come on by and take a look!" and stopping folk and talking to them about reading.  He put up big signs like "The House of Common Sense" and "Home of Proper Propaganda" on his storefront to make people smile and coax them in.

Michaux had a flair for showmanship and a tendency to speak in rhyme. He says about Malcolm X: "Malcolm didn't come from Yale. He came out of jail, and I believe there isn't a Ph.D. he can't debate and prevail."

By the time Michaux closed his shop in the 1970s, he had an inventory of over 225,000 books by black authors. His bookstore had become a longstanding community hub in Harlem, playing a vital role in social activism over the decades. He said, "It tickles me to know that those folks who said I could never sell books to black people are eating crow. [...] And not just the book business. It's the more important business of moving our people forward that has real meaning."

Winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, No Crystal Stair is a moving and inspirational book for readers from Grade 6 and up.

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