by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
First sentence: “Everybody keeps saying be satisfied with Jesus’s lvoe, and he will give us our daily bread.”
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The subtitle for this one goes like this: “A documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem bookseller.” It’s not really nonfiction, though it looks and feels like nonfiction (with documents and pictures and “interivews” from people). It’s about someone I feel like I should have known about: Lewis Michaux, the owner of National Memorial Bookstore that was a fixture in Harlem until it went out of business in the mid-1970s. Many of the major players of both the black literary world and the Civil Rights movement spent time in Michaux’s bookstore, thinking and talking and reading.
The book follows Lewis and his family — his parents, and a couple of his brothers — through most of the 20th century, beginning in 1906, through his many failed ventures to his inception and success in the bookstore. It’s fascinating to read and think about: Lewis’s big thing was that black people can’t stop being Negros — that is, defined by white people — until they know their history. Which means: they need to read. And read about their people.
It got me thinking about the need for this even today. I’m not sure the issue has gone away, even though we don’t talk about it in those terms. People need to read about the Other (boys about girls, whites about people of color), but people also need to read about themselves, to know their history, and by knowing thier history, they can know who they are. Lewis really was a visionary in that regard.
The only thing I didn’t like about the book was that it was a “novel.” It’s mostly factual (the author’s note at the end talks about what is and what isn’t), but the fact that it’s categorized as fiction disappointed me. I know it was done for practical reasons — there wasn’t enough information out there about Lewis to make a non-fiction book out of — but, I felt kind of let down by the novelization.
That doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth reading; it is. It got me thinking, and that’s the best thing a book can do.