LEWIS: “I tried to make some money picking berries. The farmer man was paying two cents a quart, and the best you could pick was ten quarts a day. Twenty cents worth. “There were about a hundred kids picking. That fat white man, with his great big hat on, set up under a willow tree with crates and boxes all around. We’d bring him a quart of berries, and he’d give us a two-cent coin. Them old-timey, two-cent copper coins are so big, when we get ten, we think we ’re rich. “Then one day last week after I picked about a half a quart of berries, I stopped and looked at this man’s place. He had corn, tomatoes, cabbage – all kinds of vegetables. He had cows, sheep, mules, horses, chickens, pigs, and I don’t know what all else. And I wondered, how did this man get all this? Picking berries? No, he got it stealing. Stealing the sweat of colored boys like me. “So I took that half quart of berries and ate them. Then I went down to his barn. There were lots of sacks filled with corn. I tried to pick one up, but it was too heavy, so I emptied one of those croaker sacks and took it over to the pigpen. The sows had some itty-bitty babies, and I went over there and took three of them and put them in the bag. Then I went down the road to a water tank and sat there until a freight train stopped to fill up. I got on. Didn’t know where it was going, but I needed to get away with those squealers. “Sometime down the road the train stopped and I hopped off. I tied those pigs to a tree and looked around. Down through the woods I saw a lumber mill where some colored men were hauling logs. I went down there and said to one of the men, ‘You want to buy a pig?’ “He said, ‘Pig? Where are you going to get a pig?’ “I said, ‘I ain’t got to get the pig. Already got the pig.’ “So he comes back through the woods with me, and I sold those three pigs for $1.50 each. I made $4.50 in two hours. Now I’m in business. I’m not picking berries no more. I’m picking pigs.”
Lewis Michaux grew up to become the grand-uncle of this book’s author. He knew a thing or two about books, being that he grew up to establish the African National Memorial Bookstore on 125th Street in Harlem which was an important community fixture from 1932 to 1974. Author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson has melded family stories, fifteen years of research, and her own storytelling abilities into this “documentary novel.” This is a somewhat unusual creature. A story told from the points of view of dozens of characters, it has the flavor of nonfiction in that it is the story of a real person and there is all the substantive research behind it (as seen in the back matter that includes source notes, an extensive bibliography, and an index of historical characters). It also has the flavor of nonfiction for young people (as opposed to fiction for young people) in that the main character is no longer a young person once we are twenty pages into the tale.
While biographies for young people are more often than not about adults, novels for young people, as a rule, have a young person as a main character. So, this somewhat fictionalized biography is something out of the ordinary. More importantly, this is the story of a historic guy.
The African National Memorial Bookstore, which sold all sorts of books about and by people of color, came to be part bookstore, part library, part school, and part community center. It had a major impact in Harlem from the tail-end of the Harlem Renaissance of the thirties up through the Civil Rights era of the sixties and beyond. Lewis Michaux and his establishment played a significant role in the rise of Malcolm X and played a significant role in persuading major publishers to put their money into signing and publishing black writers.
Having grown up in the South, he clearly had a significant impact upon the New York community he adopted as his home. Gus Travers, New York City Newspaper Reporter (OFF THE RECORD) "The sign that seems to attract the most attention reads ‘The House of Common Sense and the Home of Proper Propaganda.’ When this reporter asked Michaux what it meant, he said, ‘Even truth carries a propaganda.’” Check it out! This guy, Michaux, was talking information literacy long before the guys who coined the term were born! Supplemented with photos and documents (such as FBI files about him), and drawings by R. Gregory Christie, NO CRYSTAL STAIR – which is named after a Langston Hughes poem we get to read – is a tasty piece of black history and American history about a guy who far too few today know about.
Recommended by Richie Partington, Librarian, California, USA