ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The new book for young readers by Rio Rancho author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson is about her great-uncle, Lewis Michaux, who was a bookstore owner in Harlem.
Nelson’s book presents Michaux as charismatic, outspoken and hard-driving, a proponent of literacy for his fellow blacks and an inspiration to the Civil Rights movement.
In 1940, the year after he opened his National Memorial African Bookstore, Nelson’s “documentary novel” has a street vendor commenting on Michaux hawking books when bookstore business was slow. The vendor says Michaux’s pitch to pedestrians went something like this: “Don’t get took! Read a book! Come on by and take a look!”
A bookstore flier from 1944, reprinted in Nelson’s book, declaimed, “A race without knowledge of its history is like a tree without roots.”
Michaux was also a constant fighter for black entrepreneurship.
In one entry in Nelson’s book, there’s an article about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. being stabbed in a white-owned department store in Harlem in 1958. King was at the store autographing a book.
The subsequent entry in “No Crystal Stair” has Michaux saddened by the stabbing but angry over white businesses not hiring blacks since blacks are the predominant consumers at their stores.
Michaux endorsed Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist, who urged American blacks to own businesses, hire black employees and black shoppers need to patronize those businesses.
Michaux also chided King and his publisher for not doing a book signing at his place: “I’ve owned the leading bookstore in Harlem for 20 years …”
Famous blacks did visit the bookstore, among them championship boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, black activist leader Malcolm X, Black Panther H. Rap Brown, and poet Nikki Giovanni.
The store was an intellectual center for blacks and Michaux himself was an inspiration for the Civil Rights movement.
In an email to the Journal, Nelson explained the origins of the phrase “documentary novel” in the subtitle of the Michaux biography.
” ‘No Crystal Stair’ began as a straight biography, but evolved into a kind of historical fiction that my husband started calling ‘documentary fiction.’ When we were kicking around titles, my editor suggested that we use ‘documentary novel’ in the subtitle. This worked for me,” Nelson wrote.
“Think of it as the book equivalent of a film documentary in which individuals with some connection to the subject share their thoughts and experiences amidst historical photos and footage – all filtered through a writer’s imagination.”
Nelson is the youth services librarian at the Esther Bone Memorial Library in Rio Rancho.
In 2010, her book for young readers, “Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal,” won the Coretta Scott King Author Award.