Saturday, November 17, 2012

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

This interesting twine of factual and fictional material brings to life the charismatic bookseller Lewis Michaux who pushed for education and literacy in the Harlem community. He believed that the power of knowledge that came from reading would move blacks from being victims of injustice to educated citizens producing leaders in the community. He created an institution with his bookstore that not only sold books "for black people, [books] by black people, books about black people here and all around the world," but a library where people could read for free and intellects or leaders would gather to change society such as Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammed, and a Ghana president to name a few. Michaux believed that Africans who had been stripped of their identity and culture through slavery needed knowledge to reclaim their identity because "you gotta know who you are before you can improve your condition." Books meant knowledge and knowledge meant power, a sense of history, pride, advancement, and respect.

The author who is Michaux's niece, notes that the years of research and contradictory information made writing this book difficult, but she pulls it together in an unusual and powerful way giving the reader a sense of Lewis' legacy from the 1900's to 1970's. Lewis had a rough start being caught for stealing over and over and whipped for it as a fourteen-year-old and later jailed for the crimes. The author hints that perhaps Lewis felt white people had robbed him and his people of their past through slavery; hence, he had no qualms about robbing them in the present. Later he had a gambling house and then worked for his brother Lightfoot's church before finding his passion and purpose in life.

Lewis was a brilliant man with little education who tenaciously held onto his individuality. He was not going to let religion swallow his uniqueness and while he respected his brother who was a pastor, he also said "you have to be smart about religion. You have to look closely at who's claiming it and how they're using it."  Even when Lightfoot funded his bookstore then withdrew the money in order to force Lewis to buy books Lightfoot felt were appropriate, Lewis didn't give in. When he became friends with Malcolm X and Lightfoot protested cutting him out of his will, Lewis didn't compromise his beliefs and give up his friendship.

Through the collective voices of many different characters Lewis emerges as an energetic, witty man with a purpose of educating black people. He was called The Professor but did not think he was better than others. Lewis admired Malcolm X because he was common, not like the highly educated Martin Luther King Jr, "King has a wonderful program and there's beauty in his words. But he's so educated, a common man has to carry a dictionary in his pocket to find out what the hell he's talking about." I was afraid that I would not be able to keep track of all the different points of view, but the author weaves the dialogue together in such a way that it is easy to remember who's who.

Some of the voices are real and some are fictitious and I found the author's notes at the end revealing. Two of the characters I particularly liked, the reporter and Snooze, were completely made up. Snooze shows how Lewis changed his life from the day he introduced Langston Hughes poem about "no crystal stair" that inspired him to finish high school, to when he joined The Black Panthers, to his pride at finding a job as an adult. The reporter gives a detached view of Lewis that shed a different light on his personality.

This wonderful book is more appropriate for middle or high school students than elementary students. Younger students need to have some historical background to understand the different leaders that Lewis deals with at his bookstore. A long period of time is covered and while the historical events are explained some, I can see young readers being bored or confused without knowing some black history.

Here's a great line in the book to all of you Goodreads authors who are passionate about reading, "When I'm home, I read. I stick to my business. I've found out that if you have a crop to grow, you tend it." On another interesting note when I was in Beijing, Goodreads was blocked by the government. Knowledge is power.

5 out of 5 Smileys
Young Adult

No comments:

Post a Comment