In 1939, with only five books, a storefront, and $100—along with a great deal of passion and determination—Lewis Michaux opened a bookstore in Harlem to sell books by and about black people. The National Memorial African Bookstore became an intellectual, cultural, and social hub of the community before, during, and after the Civil Rights era, and was frequented by such luminaries as Malcolm X and Langston Hughes before its doors closed in 1975. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, who won the 2010 Coretta Scott King Award for Bad News for Outlaws, now offers a fiction-laced memoir of her great-uncle in No Crystal Stair: A Novel in Documents, Based on the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller. The book, featuring period photos and art by R. Gregory Christie, will be published in February by Carolrhoda Lab.
The author (the spelling of her family name was changed from "Michaux" to "Micheaux" in her father’s generation) had visited her uncle’s bookstore as a youngster and had heard family stories about Lewis and his brother Lightfoot, a preacher who established seven churches and was known for his radio broadcasts. "In the late 1980s, when I was in library school, people began asking me if I was related to these two men,” Nelson recalls. “As I talked to more and more people about Lewis, I began to realize that what he accomplished was significant. I started doing some family research, initially with no thought of doing a book, and became increasingly interested in him and the bookstore. As a book person, I soon realized I wanted to find a way to put his story together. I wanted to record and preserve his story for the family, but I also felt he was someone everyone should know about."
For years, Nelson pored through family archives, library collections, and interviewed individuals who had known Michaux, who died in 1976. "My original plan was to write a straight biography," she explains. "But when I finished a draft of it, I realized that there were a lot of holes in the story. There was quite a bit of information I couldn’t find, as well as information that was unclear or contradictory. Also, I didn’t feel as though my manuscript had brought Lewis’s character to life. I hadn’t left readers with a true picture of the person he really was, so I began rethinking the whole thing."
Finding a Focus
Two books Nelson read while struggling to find the right way to tell Michaux’s story gave her a fresh perspective on the project: Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson and Talkin’ About Bessie by Nikki Grimes. "Both authors, whose works I adore, used poetry to give voice to various people—very effectively—and these books gave me a new vision," she says. "I thought perhaps I could do something similar, using prose to create different voices."
Nelson opted to write first-person narratives, in the voices of actual people as well as fictional characters, to supplement her painstakingly researched factual information about her great-uncle, who was himself renowned for his skill as a raconteur. Included at the end of the biography are personal remembrances by a handful of people whose lives were touched by Michaux—who was fondly dubbed "the Professor"—among them Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X; poet Nikki Giovanni; and author and illustrator Ashley Bryan.
With its unorthodox format, No Crystal Stair (whose title is taken from a line in Langston Hughes’s poem, "Mother to Child": "Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair") is an ideal fit for Carolrhoda Lab, says Andrew Karre, editorial director of the YA imprint, launched by Lerner in 2010. 'Vaunda’s book embodies the spirit of experimentation that is a core value of this imprint," he says. 'This is not a format that has a lot of precedent. There is an enormous amount of historical detail, and documents both real and imagined, as well as the storytelling elements of fiction. It is a deeply personal book to Vaunda, and a book that was thrilling for me to work on. Vaunda felt an enormous responsibility to her uncle’s legacy and to her family, and it is very nice to see this book finally out in the world."
"I cannot tell you how meaningful it is to me on so many levels," says Nelson of seeing the final book—the culmination of a decade and a half of work. "I am gratified that the Lord enabled me to complete this project, and I’m grateful to my entire family, who were generous with photos and stories as well as support. I know that my Dad and Mom would have been over the moon about the book. Daddy would probably be showing it to everyone – not just family. My oldest brother, Ed (Norris III), who passed away in 2009, would also be proud to know that this book is out there. He understood, well before I did, that Lewis’s bookstore and his story were a very big deal. I regret he is not here to share this."
Though No Crystal Stair is finished, Nelson hasn’t closed this chapter of her writing career: she is now writing a picture-book version of the story of Lewis Michaux’s life. Still untitled, the book will also be illustrated by Christie and will be published by Carolrhoda Books in late 2013 or early 2014. "No Crystal Stair has been a big part of my life for a long time, and I’m pleased to be working on the picture book," says Nelson. 'I’m happy that I don’t have to leave Lewis’s world quite yet. I’ll gradually let it go as I move on to new projects. But I know I’ll miss it."
No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. Carolrhoda Lab, $17.95 Feb. ISBN 978-0-7613-6169-5