No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller
By: Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Publisher: Carolrhoda Books
Publication Date: February 2012
Reviewed by: Deb Fowler
Review Date: May 5, 2012
More than anything Lewis wanted a bicycle, but there wasn’t any money for one. His father, John Henry Michaux, was a "smart Negro," but the money he made from his store wasn't enough for frivolous things like a bike. He told his son to pray "and the Lord will provide." Lewis did his own providing and went out and stole one. What was the sense of working when a boy could get one free for the taking? Lewis's mother, Blanche, who was "strung tight as a Banjo," made no effort to hide who was her favorite child and it sure wasn’t that thief Lewis. Lightfoot Solomon was her favorite; a boy who was "born for greatness."
When Lewis's mother was sent to Central State Hospital in Petersburg, Virginia for "nervous exhaustion," he began to act out even more than before. John Henry was exasperated by his fourteen-year-old son and was appalled when "The judge sentenced [his] boy to twenty lashes for stealing a sack of peanuts." Would the boy ever amount to anything or was he simply destined for a life of crime? His brother Lightfoot had little hope for him when five years later the boy ended up serving time on a chain gang. Blanche had high hopes for Lightfoot, but not that boy.
Lewis would never be like Lightfoot, but when he read copies of "Negro World" with his father, there was an inkling of what he could be, how his life would change. Marcus Garvey wrote that they needed "to take pride in our race, embrace our history." Lewis grew closer to his father and began to embrace Garvey's ideas. When John Henry died, his wayward son took a cool thousand and headed to Philly. Brother Norris was not far behind, nor was Lightfoot's comment that Lewis had partnered with the Devil. Trouble was indeed on the horizon and it wasn’t long before Lewis lost an eye when he was a bit too brazen with a police officer. He claimed that "sometime's it's a good idea to stay quiet," but would he? Could he?
Lightfoot began preaching about God, while Norris became a pool shark and Lewis did some thinking. He was reading about and listening to the likes of Garvey and Frederick Douglass. Now they had something worthwhile to say. Not that Lightfoot's Church of God didn't but Lewis, who would one day be called "The Professor," believed that his people needed to read. They needed to read "books for black people, books about black people here and around the world." It was all about education, all about empowerment. With five books and a hundred dollar loan from the brother who wanted to write him off, Lewis started the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem. Was he a fool or would his dream become reality?
An unlikely hero, this simple Harlem bookseller achieved his dream and in doing so spurred many others to achieve theirs as they empowered themselves. This book, written by Lewis's great-niece, superbly captured many voices that were instrumental in the African-American Civil Rights movement. I was fascinated by the evolution of the tale as Lewis, the young thief, turns his bookstore into a "major center of black nationalist thought and political activity."
Although, out of necessity Vaunda Micheaux Nelson had to fictionalize the tale, the events and characters are based on fact. R. Gregory Christie's inimitable work graces the pages in this book. Interspersed throughout are numerous informative sidebars, photographs, and actual FBI materials. In the back of the book is a character index, remembrances, the Michaux family tree, extensive source notes, a bibliography, and additional recommended book resources to explore. Additional complimentary educational resources can be accessed on the publishers website.
Quill says: This is an amazing book about Lewis Michaux, a black man who changed the course of history.