“Books will help him clear the weeds and plant the seeds so he’ll succeed” – Lewis Henri Michaux
Lewis Henri Michaux opened up The National Memorial African Bookstore in 1932 and it became an integral hub in Harlem for African Americans, drawing prominent figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Muhammed Ali, Eartha Kitt and Louis Armstrong. Malcolm X would speak at rallies outside of the store.
Michaux referred to his bookstore as “The house of common sense and the home of proper propaganda”. Despite not having much of a formal education, Michaux had a fire in his belly and wanted to make sure that his people had access to books. Indeed the quote “this house is packed with all the facts about all the blacks all over the world” was splashed on the entrance of his store.
The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore is written by Michaux’s great-nephew and narrated through the eyes of Michaux’s son. It is said that the store was started with just five books and a mission. He was so passionate about starting the book store that he would have done just about anything to make the dream a reality.
The author certainly touches upon the challenges of being a black man in America-being told by the banker that he could have a loan to sell fish and chips or fried chicken, but not books because black people don’t read. However the book is ultimately about sheer resilience and tenacity in the face of constant daily adversity. If people had no money, they were still invited into the bookstore to read. People came in and they read, but even if they didn’t, Michaux would hit the streets with his son and book cart proclaiming “knowledge is power, you need it every hour. Read a book!” Though he did not go to university, Michaux was referred to as The Professor and he encouraged his son to go to school, but never to stop thinking for himself.
The book is a great introduction for children to learn about civil rights and is something I would regard as absolute mandatory reading for all children of all backgrounds. Winner of the Coretta Scott King book award it is honest; not sugar-coated and deals with very real subject matter but in a way that promotes hope and sparks dialogue. If you are black, I imagine it sends a message of hope and offers black heroes and role models. If you’re not, it offers important insight into the lives of black people during a seminal turning point in Black history and told through the eyes of a boy, it is easy for children to relate to the narrator’s experience.
Check it out in our Children’s section