The Book Itch: researching our ancestors’ passions
“You are not necessarily a fool because you didn’t go to school.” – Lewis Michaux
For February, our children’s book club is The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, for grades 4 and up. Nelson is the grand-niece of Lewis Henri Michaux (1895-1976), owner of the National Memorial African Bookstore. She created the story of her great-uncle and his passion for books by researching in family archives, articles, books, transcripts of interviews, and interviewing Michaux’s son.
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The story is told from the perspective of young Lewis Michaux Jr. He tells that his father “had got the book itch and needed to scratch it.” He wanted to create a bookstore for black people, but the banker he asked for a loan wouldn’t give it to him. The banker said, “black people don’t read.” But Lewis didn’t give up. He pushed a cart up and down the streets of Harlem selling books. He said, “Don’t get took! Read a book!” and “Knowledge is power. You need it every hour. Read a book!”
Michaux washed windows and saved up and opened his bookstore. He called it “The House of Common Sense and the House of Proper Propaganda.” Michaux set up a platform in front of the bookstore for civil rights rallies, where he and Malcolm X and others would speak. The young narrator tells about the day he found out that Malcolm X had been shot. His father comforts him and says, “Malcolm used to say, ‘If you’re not willing to die for it, put the word freedom out of your vocabulary’.”
It’s Black History month and a great time to discuss the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the United States. My first grader is learning about civil rights and recently researched the life of Frederick Douglass for homework (with a little help). His class is learning about people who fought for freedom.
The Book Itch is not only a commentary of civil rights, but a story about working incredibly hard to make your dream possible. Lewis Jr.’s mother told him, “[Dad] had something in his heart he believed in so much that he’d do just about anything to make it happen.”
On the final page, Lewis Michaux Jr. says, “Maybe someday I’ll believe in something so much I’ll have the itch to make it happen.”
An Itch To Scratch – Researching Our Ancestors’ Passions
After reading The Book Itch with children, you can discuss, civil rights, education, access to books, and working hard for your passion. A great list of discussion questions and lesson plan ideas can be found at the Classroom Bookshelf, here.
To apply the book to your own family history, tell the children about your own passions. What dreams do you have that you work toward? What are you passionate about? What itch do you have that you’ve got to scratch?
Taking it a step further, we can tell our children about their ancestors and their legacies. How can we find out what our ancestors’ passions were? My mom (Diana) wrote about her grandmother who spent the WWII giving service to the veteran’s home. She was able to discover this passion only when she opened up a little scrapbook that her grandmother made. Other clues can be found in what is left behind by these ancestors.
Children can interview their grandparents about these questions. Child/grandparent interviews work best when children create their own interview questions beforehand, but here are some possibilities:
-I read a book about someone who cared so much about creating a bookstore that he worked really hard to do it. What do you care about?
-What is important to you? What are you passionate about?
-What work did you do because of your passions and beliefs?
-Did you have dreams that were important to you? Did your dreams and plans change during your life?
-When you were little, what did you want to do when you grew up?
If your child is going to interview your parents, you might be able to guide them and give them some ideas beforehand, especially if you already know about their interests and passions. After interviewing their grandparents, children may be inspired to talk about what they want to do with their lives. Every kid has dreams for the future. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is one of those quintessential childhood questions.
Discussions between generations about beliefs, dreams, working toward a goal, and a person’s life work are sure to unite family members are build love and closeness. Children may feel inspired to carry on the legacies of their parents or grandparents.
I’m inspired by my parents and grandparents and hope to continue some of their passions. My Grandma Shults’ cared deeply about family history. She worked to preserve the heirlooms, stories, and traditions of the past and pass them forward. A one-page story she gave to me inspired me to really dive into genealogy research. My Grandpa Shults was a peacemaker. He was soft spoken and kind and loving. I know he was passionate about many things, including sports, serving in church, and farming, but when I think of him, I think of his dedication to keeping the peace and his calm, often humorous responses to conflict and trial.
My Grandpa Elder was a huge advocate for education. He worked as a teacher for over thirty-five years and was constantly reading and learning until he passed away at age 87. I must have inherited his passion for teaching and books. My Grandma Elder gave her entire life to raising and serving her ten children and over fifty grandchildren. She continues to be an example to me of selflessness.
Pass On Your Passion
What do you perceive as your own life work? Don’t leave your descendants to wonder what it was. Write about it and share what you have done to make it happen. Still have an itch you’ve got to scratch? I love Lewis’ Michaux’s legacy of not letting anyone keep you from making it happen.