Reading into History: Interview with Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Author of No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller

PROMO PHOTO by Drew Nelson
Photo by Drew Nelson

This Sunday, March 9, our family book club will meet to discuss No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, a book that looks at Lewis Michaux and the National Memorial African Bookstore. This bookstore was the intellectual heart of Harlem from roughly 1939 to 1975 and a favorite spot of such figures as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. We will be lucky enough to be joined on Sunday by Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, who will read from her new book Malcolm Little. Though No Crystal Stair’s author, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, will not be joining us (she lives in New Mexico!), we were lucky enough to interview her about her incredible book, which has won multiple awards including a Coretta Scott King Honor and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. Here are Ms. Nelson’s thoughts on her book and her great uncle, Lewis Michaux.

DCHM: What were you like between the ages of 9 and 12?

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson:  I was a rule follower.   I had a real sense of wanting to do the right thing.  When I did get in trouble, it was unintentional.  I loved school and studied hard.  Call me a nerd if you must.  I was fan of the Beatles and Motown.  The youngest of five siblings, I listened to the music they did —  a lot of Motown and rhythm and blues.  We often lip-synced to popular songs.  My mother and father exposed us to to artists like Billie Holliday, Johnny Mathis, and songs like “Rhapsody in Blue,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “Summertime.”   And my whole family was in our church choir.  My parents also read to us every night and taught us to value words and to love stories.  From an early age, I was a reader and wanted to be able to write stories that moved other readers the way I’d been moved.

DCHM: What is your favorite place in New York City?

VMN: I haven’t been to New York City enough to give an informed answer but, with my limited knowledge, I guess I’d say Central Park. I enjoy the natural world, and the park may be the closest place you can come to that in New York City.  It would love to visit John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Memorial.


DCHM: Why did you write No Crystal Stair?

VMN:  It began as a family history project.  I just wanted to learn about my uncle and his bookstore and record what I found.  The more I discovered about Lewis’s life and contributions, the more I needed to share his story with others.  His message about the value of education benefits all people, young and old. Also, as a writer, I love exploring character.  And what a character Lewis was!  I enjoyed getting to know him through research, trying to figure him out.  I was intrigued by his struggle, his journey.   As a librarian, I was taken with this life so influenced by reading — by how books saved Lewis and how he went on to save others through his bookstore.  Lewis’s life is important historically, but it’s also just a great story.

DCHM: Black Nationalism, Black Islam, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X were important in Lewis Michaux’s life and in this book. What do you think young people should know about them and why?

VMN:   Wow, this could be a thesis topic.  Historic figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks are regularly studied in school, but Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, who are part of American history too, are often skimmed over or neglected.  Their ideas and philosophies about the fight for equality were out of the mainstream and, for some, were threatening.  They were seen as radical, explosive, enigmatic personalities.  Most of the grownups in my childhood saw Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement as extreme and Malcolm X as intimidating.   But there is much to learn from Garvey’s commitment to blacks building their own businesses, creating their own communities, becoming self-sufficient, and uniting globally.  Malcolm’s struggle for human rights  “by any means necessary,” his personal evolution, his compelling speeches, and (like Lewis Michaux) his belief in education are powerful,  significant, and worthy of study.  Learning about figures like Lewis, Malcolm and Garvey can help young people grow as thinkers.   Without alternative perspectives, they are in danger of believing there is only one right way of seeing and being.  They may simply fall into lock step rather than discover who they really are.

DHCM: What three words best describe No Crystal Stair?

VMN:  I found Lewis’s story unique, provocative, and inspiring.  I hope I was able to bring those qualities to the page.


The Reading into History family book club is supported by a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post and/or in Reading into History programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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