A Reading Room of the Civil Rights Movement
An essay by Anders Høg Hansen
The brand new documentary by Göran Hugo Olsson ‘The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975’ includes intriguing footage and interviews with intellectuals and artists involved in American Black Power and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, with an emphasis on Black Panthers. Footage hidden for decades in the Swedish SVT (Swedish Public Service TV) archives has been brought to light by Olsson, including fascinating interviews with Angela Davis, an activist who is still alive. The documentary also includes interviews from 1972 with Lewis H Michaux, who ran a bookstore in Harlem, New York City, for over four decades. Much has been written about Angela Davis and Malcolm X, who often spoke from Michaux’ store. Michaux who passed away in 1976 is less known. Not even a Wikipedia entry existed (until I wrote a brief entry, please edit/add if you know more).
This essay is an introduction to Lewis H Michaux, a great social facilitator and mediator of the importance and empowering potential of reading and books, with added reflections on social movements, identity and change, which Michaux’s store also played into.
The House of Common Sense and Proper Propaganda
Lewis H Michaux was a Harlem bookseller, owner of African National Memorial Bookstore in Harlem, New York City from 1932 to 1974. He was born in Newport News, Virginia, USA, the son of Henry Michaux and Blance Pollard, in 1884 or 1885. His birthday is uncertain. A New York City birth certificate says 23 Aug 1884. Michaux died in 1976. Michaux was married to Beattie Kennedy and they had one son. His brother was Solomon Lightfoot Michaux, a radio preacher, who also acted as an advisor for President Truman and helped to build a housing unit for the poor in Washington D.C. (See e.g. Youel, 1976, obituary, or springerlink.com).
The bookstore was founded by Michaux in 1932 on 7th Avenue and stayed there until 1968 when Michaux was forced to move the store to West 125th Street (on the corner of 7th street) to give space to the State Harlem Office Building. The bookstore finally closed in 1974 after another row with authorities over its location (Youel, 1976).
In Olsson’s film we see a young tall teenager entering the store with a basket ball. The store also had a range of more well known visitors, and quite a strong reputation too. Michaux called his bookstore ‘House of Common Sense and the Home of Proper Propaganda’ (Goldman, 1979: 51). A place where you could bump into Muhammad Ali browsing through books, or Malcolm X speak in front of the store. Many of his visitors called him ‘the Professor’, although Michaux had little formal education. Before coming to New York he worked as a pea picker, window washer and deacon in the Philadelphia, church of his brother, Lightfoot Solomon. He began to sell books in the Philadelphia, later from a wagon, before opening the store on 7th Street.
The early days were however not easy. Allegedly, a white banker advised Michaux to sell fried chicken, not books since ‘Negroes don’t read’. However, Michaux stubbornly stuck to his dream and founded the store with a few books with him, including a copy of Booker T Washington’s Up from Slavery. In Harlem ‘you couldn’t find 15 to 20 books by black people’, he said to New York Times, 27 Aug, 1976. In the beginning he slept in a back room and earned daily receipts of around 1 dollar. When he retired his receipts totaled up to 1500 dollars a day, and the bookstore, with over 200.000 volumes, had become a famous Harlem landmark.
Michaux’ bookstore filled a need. It had been difficult to get books by black people, even in New York, but during its hey days Michaux’s store attracted visitors from all over the world. The late W. E. B. Du Bois (author of The Souls of the Black Folks) and Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance poet and writer visited. Also Louis Armstrong and Kwame Nkrumah, later the first president of Ghana, came to the store.
Michaux stimulated a generation of students, intellectuals, writers and artists. While Izzy Young’s Folk Center further south in Greenwich Village became the hang-out during the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, including the new arrival in the village, Bob Dylan (e.g. Scorsese, 2005, Høg Hansen, 2011, both includes interviews with Izzy Young), the Memorial Bookstore up in Harlem was a hang-out for black people and scholars and anyone interested in literature by or about African Americans, Africans, Caribbean’s and South Americans. In the early 1960s folk and popular music and the civil rights movement where inter-related, overlapping and “inspiring the growth and creativity of each other” as historians Izzerman and Kazin writes (2008: 93). Michaux had towards its end made the store the nation’s largest on its subject. Anyone, white and black, were encouraged to begin home libraries and those who were short of money was allowed just to sit down and read.
Michaux was active in the Black nationalism movement from the 1930s to the 1960s and supported Marcus Garvey’s Pan-Africanism. Harlem had been the headquarters of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities’ League of the World, the largest mass black movement of the times. When it came to religion Michaux on the one hand flashed a sign in the store saying ‘Christ is Black’, but he also departed from his brother, Lightfoot’s Solomons, affiliations with Christianity, saying: “The only lord I know, is the landlord” (Youel, 1976).
Books, Movements and Social Change?
Academics and writers may advance social awareness and transformation, whether they deliberately and strategically work to do so or not. The objectives may be visionary and hardly comprehensible or specific, more or less participatory or interactive with its audiences/users and more or less time-framed or site-specific.
Book stores or book archives may not, if ever, have been a dominating focus area when looking at mediators of social awareness and change. But anyone using e.g. Amazon.com or other internet book shopping relies on them. And as offline physical spaces (in addition to the also growing digital heritage of books), there are recent famous examples, some that even have caught attention in a range of countries, such as the book seller in Kabul depicted in Seierstad’s fictional journalism around a decade ago. Also Shakespeare & Co in Paris gradually attracts media attention and not only tourists (recently covered on BBCs online section on travel). Foyles and others on Charing Cross Road in London also house classic book spaces. ‘Foyled again’, as the saying warmly goes about the famous book mecca. Most young book lovers have tried to get lost and enriched in book shops when strolling Charing Cross Road. I leave out libraries in this essay.
A book store, as a mediating space of the world of books, may have the potential to facilitate new awareness because of its ability to create a collective public sphere, here drawing from a conversation between Flemming Røgilds and Oscar Hemer on a different but related matter; that of fiction writing (Røgilds, 2012: 95). In this slightly different, but related context, in the physical space of a book store and on its corners, as in Michaux’s store where orators and activists gathered, its content can be re-thought and ideas can be thrown around, debated and used. They may create a lasting mediating platform, not just one outburst or event, but a returning space where content, argument and identities can grow? The production of meaning and membership for its joiners in interaction is important (see e.g. Della Porta and Diana and other theories introduced by Crossley, 2002: 1-16), that means a space of and for the participants. The ‘things’/media of concern are also crucial; the books, Michaux’s voice and talks, the karma of the House of Common Sense and Proper Propaganda. A signified space, hence its ability to provide and produce identity. Its ‘players’ may be central play makers or peripheral on-lookers, they may adapt their exposure and learning to their temper, time, ambition and so forth (inspired by Lave, 1991), but they can belong and be apart. Movement spaces may provide a flexible relationship between leaders or/and old-timers and newcomers, and provide an informal form of apprenticeship? (inspired by Lave, 1991: 29). When I think of my own history as volunteer in an NGO (Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke/ActionAid Denmark) and in various clubs/societies, from table tennis to photography, I recognize the experience of being able to lean on freely to experience, and also at later stages to pass knowledge and activity back to newcomers. Yet in these complicated and useful processes of learning production – processes where the moves become directed and in many cases also institutionalised – there are other issues at stake too:
To be part of a space of collective activity and action is not only about the content – whether at a book store, in Tahrir square, or in some village project anywhere in the world. It is about the identities that are nurtured and given space to in the process. So content and process or people is inseparable. Movement spaces and activity has been such a globally prominent topic during the recently finished year 2011, from the ‘Arab Spring’ to Occupy Wall Street. These activities may be attractive for many because they do not necessarily call for specific roles or institutional positioning, they allow for another play with position, partly due to horisontal or a semi- or non-institutionalised nature, with different degrees of participation and involvement. Content may also, particularly in the digital age, travel quickly from ‘tribe’ to ‘tribe’, clustering different groups into one movement (inspired by Sandborg’s use of Godin, 2012). One could also say that one can choose to respond/interact with less responsibility? As in internet ‘clicktivism’? (e.g. McCarthy, 2011, and White, 2010, the latter for a critique of particular forms of clicktivism)
Social movement activity’s production of identity relies on the its ability to be a feeding ground for particular collective emotional vibes or feelings – a phenomenon explored interestingly by Chantal Mouffe and coined collective passion (e.g. 2001: 10-13 or 2010). Belonging and identity builds on emotional content and memory. This may be compared to a prominent collective passion as nationalism, as Mouffe says (2001: 10-13). Importantly the power of movement activity in the public sphere relies on much more than the rationalism of discussion as Mouffe critiques Habermas (Mouffe, 2001). The collective passion that can be created plays a role. A danger or downside of this is what may lead to ‘emotional bandwagoning’, everyone following blindly in the emotional rush. A sort of mass psychosis?
This brief discussion engaging with theories of social interaction, notably in relation to sociological and educational theory can/may be explored further in an expansion of this essay. However, to round off I will move back to a point on how features or the quality of space may help interactions to take and form place. Places likes Michaux’ store can be seen, at least, as public spaces where this awareness could take off. A public space does not necessarily generate a public sphere – but Michaux’s rooms provided a stable place with a particular identity and flavour where movement interaction and uttering flourished. It was mediated and triggered by the power or the presence of books, a certain clientele possibly, and a witty man promoting readership and talk. In the interview in Olsson’s Black Power Mix Tape, Michaux rhymingly croaks:
”Black is beautiful, but black isn’t power. Knowledge is power. For you can be black as a crow, and white as snow, but if you don’t know and ain’t got no do you can go” (Olsson, 2012, see e.g. YouTube clip, in references)
Thanks to students on MA Communication for Development and BA Media and Communication Studies, Malmö University, for inspiring essays on social movements, October 2011 and January 2012.
Black Power Mixtape, the. 1967-1975 – A film by Göran Hugo Olsson (2011). Documentary, Sweden.
Crossley, Nick (2002) Making Sense of Social Movements Buckingham: Open University Press.
Dahlkvist, Mats (2003) ’Jürgen Habermas teori om privat och offentligt’ , in Jürgen Habermas Borgerlig Offentlighet Lund: Arkiv. [Introduction, pp i-xxx, in Swedish]
Goldman, Peter (1979) The Death and Life of Malcolm X. 2nd Edition. New York: Harper and Row
Henry Admas, M (2009) ‘Reading Amanda’ in Huffington Post, 13 May 2009, available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-henry-adams/reading-amanda-one-black_b_202819.html [accessed Jan 2012]
Høg Hansen, Anders (2011) ‘Time and Transition in Oral and Written Testimonies’ [unpublished conference paper given at Cultural Studies conference, Linköping University, June 2011]
Høg Hansen, Anders (2012) ’Bob Dylan. Kærlighed, krig og historie 1961-1967’. Copenhagen: Frydenlund [Published 31 Jan 2012]
Isserman, M and M Kazin (2008) America Divided. The Civil War of the 1960s. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lave, Jean (1991) Legitimate Peripheral Participation Cambridge University Press
McCarthy, Casey, using the term ‘clicktivism’, during an online chat session, Communication for Development seminar, September 2011 [needs to be checked]
Michaux, Lewis clip from Olsson’s The Black Power Mixtape: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UogJ8zSQwY [visited Jan 2012]
Mouffe, Chantal (2002) ‘Democracy – Radical and Plural’. Centre for the Study of Democracy, CSD Bulletin, Vol9. Nr 1: 10-13. Interviewed by Evans, Tambakaki and Burke. Available at: http://www.ciaonet.org/pbei/west/win01/index.html [visited Jan 2012].
Mouffe, Chantal (2010) ‘Interview with Chantal Mouffe: “Pluralism is linked to the acceptance of conflict”’ Barcelona Metropolis. Interviewed by Enrique Días Álvarez. Available at: http://www.barcelonametropolis.cat/en/page.asp?id=21&ui=438 [visited Jan 2012]
Røgilds, Flemming (2012) ‘Fiktionens Sandhed’ [Interview med Oscar Hemer] Social Kritik 128: 92-99.
Sandborg, Elin (2012) Assignment essay on ‘Musikhjälpen’, for course on BA Media and Communication Studies, School of Arts and Communication, Malmö University.
Youel, Barbara Kraley (1976) Obituary. New York Times, 27 Aug 1976. Also in American National Biography’