Vaunda Micheaux Nelson: Voices from History

Books have been a part of Vaun­da Micheaux Nel­son’s life since the day she was born. “My moth­er found my name in a nov­el she was read­ing,” Nel­son says. Books and fam­i­ly and his­to­ry form a thread through many of Nelson’s award-win­ning pic­ture books.

Almost to FreedomWe want to focus on Nelson’s telling of his­to­ry begin­ning with the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Almost to Free­dom (Car­ol­rho­da, 2003; illus­trat­ed by Col­in Boot­man) is nar­rat­ed by Sal­ly, a doll made by the lit­tle girl Lindy’s enslaved moth­er for her daugh­ter. “I start­ed out no more’n a bunch of rags on a Vir­ginia plan­ta­tion,” the doll tells us. When the doll is giv­en to Lindy, Lindy hugs her hard, names her Sal­ly, and says, “We gonna be best friends.” Lindy takes Sal­ly every­where, tying her to her waist with a rope when Lindy and her mom­ma pick cotton.

Then Lindy’s father is sold away to anoth­er own­er for try­ing to get to Free­dom, and Lindy is whipped for ask­ing Massa’s son how to spell her name. One night Lindy’s mom­ma wakes Lindy “when the sun ain’t awake yet,” and they run away, Sal­ly tied to Lindy’s waist, to meet Lindy’s father at the riv­er. Once across the riv­er, they run, then hide in an under­ground store­room in a house on the under­ground rail­road. “We almost to Free­dom,” Lindy whis­pers to Sal­ly, but slave catch­ers are after them, and when they fran­ti­cal­ly scram­ble out to run again, Sal­ly falls out of the rope around Lindy’s waist and is left behind in the hid­den store­room. Sal­ly waits alone in the dark­ness, think­ing she might be there “for the rest of her days” until one day a moth­er and her daugh­ter Willa, escaped slaves, are hid­den in the store­room. Willa, shiv­er­ing and scared, picks up the doll, names her Belin­da, and promis­es they will be best friends. While the doll miss­es Sal­ly, she is “mighty glad to be Willa’s doll baby. It’s a right impor­tant job.”

In an author’s note Nel­son says she was inspired by a col­lec­tion of Black rag dolls in a folk art muse­um, about which the guide­book said a few had been found in an Under­ground Rail­road hide­out. Nel­son thought, “if only these dolls could talk,” and Sally/Belinda does talk to read­er, in a voice that makes us care not just about Sal­ly but also about Lindy and her fam­i­ly and, lat­er, Willa and her moth­er and any peo­ple flee­ing the hor­rors of slav­ery. Collin Bootman’s rich dark paint­ings cap­ture the story’s emo­tions, from fear and pain to ten­der­ness and love. While we don’t learn what hap­pens to Sal­ly and her fam­i­ly or Willa and her moth­er, the book is a sto­ry of hope and courage and com­fort in the face of the unspeak­able evil of slav­ery and of the long­ing for free­dom and the “right impor­tant job” of being loved.

Bad News for OutlawsBad News for Out­laws (Car­ol­rho­da, 2009; illus­trat­ed by R. Gre­go­ry Christie) begins “Jim Webb’s luck was run­ning mud­dy when Bass Reeves rode into town.” Mud­dy, indeed. Webb was on the run from Mar­shall Bass Reeves and leaped out a win­dow to escape, but Bass chased him down. When Webb fired his gun Reeves, who hat­ed blood­shed, was forced to shoot Webb down. After that dra­mat­ic show­down scene, Nel­son tells us how Reeves went from enslaved to becom­ing a leg­endary law­man in what was then called Indi­an Ter­ri­to­ry, a wild part of the wild west.

Reeves had been enslaved in Texas, where his own­er taught him to shoot and hunt. When Bass and his own­er argued and Bass hit the own­er, Bass knew he had to run, and run he did for Indi­an Ter­ri­to­ry, where he lived with Native Amer­i­cans until slav­ery end­ed. Even­tu­al­ly Reeves became a U.S. Mar­shall for Judge Isaac C. Park­er. Reeves was known for track­ing down crim­i­nals and also for his shoot­ing abil­i­ty, so accu­rate he could “‘shoot the left hind leg off a con­tent­ed fly sit­ting on a mule’s ear at a hun­dred yards and nev­er ruf­fle a hair.’”

Nev­er taught to read, Reeves mem­o­rized every­thing he need­ed to know to hunt down want­ed out­laws, often using dis­guis­es to cap­ture them. In his long career he arrest­ed more than three thou­sand peo­ple and brought in wag­onloads of crim­i­nals. Both respect­ed and hat­ed, Reeves was “right as rain from the bootheels up” and devot­ed to doing his duty. Once he cut down a man about to be lynched by an angry mob, an act that was “near as risky as a grasshop­per land­ing on an anthill.” When Bass Reeves’s son killed his wife, Bass did his painful duty and arrest­ed his own son.

illustration from Bad News for Outlaws
illus­tra­tion copy­right © R. Gre­go­ry Christie, from Bad News for Out­laws,
writ­ten by Vaun­da Micheaux Nel­son, Car­ol­rho­da Books

For 32 years, Bass Reeves hunt­ed down out­laws and brought them in to face jus­tice. He was the longest serv­ing mar­shal in Indi­an ter­ri­to­ry until Okla­homa became a state and Reeves was out of a job. Near­ly sev­en­ty years old, he joined a local police force, and dur­ing his two years on the force not a sin­gle crime occurred in his area. Such was the pow­er of Reeve’s rep­u­ta­tion as a law­man. When he died, fel­low law­mak­ers called Reeves one of the bravest men the coun­try had ever known and “the most feared deputy U.S. mar­shal that was ever heard of.”

Read­ing this book is a joy, both for the sto­ry of Bass Reeves and also for the voice in which Nel­son tells that sto­ry. Exten­sive back mat­ter includes an author’s note, def­i­n­i­tions for “west­ern words” such as shoot­ing irons and tum­ble­weed wag­ons, a time­line of Reeves’s life, sug­ges­tions for fur­ther read­ing, and his­tor­i­cal back­ground on Indi­an Ter­ri­to­ry and the life of Judge Isaac C. Parker.

Dream MarchIn Dream March (Ran­dom House, 2017; illus­trat­ed by Sal­ly Wern Com­port), Vaun­da Micheaux Nel­son adds a book to Ran­dom House’s Step into Read­ing His­to­ry Read­er Series and tells the sto­ry of the 1963 March on Washington.

Nel­son is not con­tent with the bland style occa­sion­al­ly found in easy read­ers and offers won­der­ful details for the march. “Some walked over 200 miles from Brook­lyn, New York. One man rolled 698 miles from Chica­go on skates. It took him ten days.” She shares lyrics from some of the songs sung that day. And she skill­ful­ly lets read­ers know what was at stake. “Black peo­ple fought/for many years/for the right to be treated/with respect…They fought for the right/to attend the same schools/and eat in the same restau­rants. /They fought to use/the same bathrooms/and drink from the same/water foun­tains. /They fought to sit /on any emp­ty bus seat/and to have the same chance/at a job. /They fought for the right to vote./”

To be treat­ed with respect…the right to vote. The fight is not over. But we can take courage from this moment, this event. Nel­son reports on Mar­tin Luther King Jr.’s stir­ring words: “Final­ly Mar­tin said, / his voice like thun­der: /’Let free­dom ring!’ /’From every hill’ and/‘every moun­tain­side,’ /’from every state and every city,’ /’let free­dom ring!’ /And if we do, people/of all col­ors and all faiths/will join hands and sing: /’Free at last, free at last,/thank God Almighty,/we are free at last!’”

We two like to think of young read­ers learn­ing of this his­toric event through Vaun­da Micheaux Nelson’s care­ful­ly cho­sen words. Per­haps they will nev­er for­get the man who roller skat­ed to attend. Per­haps they will be the peo­ple of all col­ors who join hands and sing. Let us hope.

We have always thought that books give us neigh­bors we nev­er would have had oth­er­wise. And Vaun­da Micheaux Nel­son puts read­ers from a small town in Iowa or south Min­neapo­lis right next to an amaz­ing book­store in Harlem — the Nation­al Memo­r­i­al African Amer­i­can Book­store.. Lucky us!

The Book ItchHer sto­ry The Book Itch: Free­dom, Truth & Harlem’s Great­est Book­store (Car­ol­rho­da, 2015; illus­trat­ed by R. Gre­go­ry Christie) intro­duces us to her great-uncle Lewis Michaux, a self-edu­cat­ed man who want­ed to pro­vide books for African-Amer­i­cans who lived in Harlem. She has also writ­ten a book about this store for old­er read­ers. In this younger ver­sion she tells her great-uncle’s sto­ry through the voice of his son, Lewis Michaux Jr., who she says pro­vid­ed much infor­ma­tion about Lewis Michaux Sr. and his store.

Lewis Michaux’s store even­tu­al­ly became famous and was vis­it­ed by celebri­ties such as Muhammed Ali and Louis Arm­strong, civ­il rights lead­ers such as W.E.B. Dubois and Mal­colm X, and hun­dreds of Harlem res­i­dents. But in the begin­ning when Lewis Michaux went to a bank to ask for a loan, the bank refused. “The banker told him ‘Black peo­ple don’t read.’”

Lewis per­sist­ed and raised mon­ey for the store by wash­ing win­dows. He acquired more and more books until the store was jammed full of books, wall to wall, top to bot­tom. “Cus­tomers stay as long as they want, even if it’s past clos­ing time. Dad nev­er makes them leave like oth­er stores do. Some­times Dad locks up so late he’s too tired to come home. He sleeps there with all his books.” Lewis Michaux loved signs: “Knowl­edge is pow­er. You need it every hour. Read a book!” “Don’t get took. Read a book.” Some of his best signs are repro­duced in the end­pa­pers of the book.

Lewis also host­ed speak­ers for ral­lies out­side his book­store. When­ev­er they set up the raised plat­form “peo­ple crowd around.… Peo­ple come to hear talk about fight­ing for the same rights white peo­ple have. Talk about jobs and vot­ing. Peo­ple shout angry words. They kid around and laugh.…Dad talks to the crowd from the plat­form too. He says black peo­ple need to learn their his­to­ry by read­ing books.” Lewis Michaux was friends with Mal­colm X who spoke out­side the store, received his mail at the store, and often talked with the book­store owner.

The most mov­ing sec­tion of this book reports the assas­si­na­tion of Mal­colm X. The civ­il rights leader was sched­uled to speak at the Audubon Ball­room and Michaux was going to appear onstage with him. But Michaux was late because he had to pick up his son from ice-skat­ing with friends at Rock­e­feller Center.

Mom hangs up [the phone] and looks at me. ‘Mal­colm…’ Her eyes are wet. She can’t talk for a minute. ‘Some­one shot him when he stood up to give his speech.

I can’t breathe.

Lat­er I hear Dad’s key in the door. He hugs Mom and me and sags into his chair. …

After I go to bed, Dad sits in the liv­ing room, cry­ing in the dark. I nev­er heard Dad cry before, and I don’t know what to do. I can’t keep from cry­ing too…

Mal­colm used to say, ‘If you’re not will­ing to die for it, put the word free­dom out of your vocab­u­lary,’ Dad said. ‘They think they got rid of him. But peo­ple won’t for­get, Louie. His words will nev­er leave us.’

Lewis Michaux Sr.’s own grief about Mal­colm X takes us right to the scene of his death. We feel its impact because we already know Lewis Michaux and we care about him.

illustration from The Book Itch
illus­tra­tion copy­right © R. Gre­go­ry Christie, from The Book Itch,
writ­ten by Vaun­da Micheaux Nel­son, Car­ol­rho­da Books

His words will nev­er leave us.” The sto­ry ends by not­ing the impor­tance of words and the impor­tance of books and the “Nation­al Memo­r­i­al African Bookstore.”

Back­mat­ter infor­ma­tion tells us that the book­store was forced to move in 1968 because of the con­struc­tion of a new state office build­ing. (Why on this par­tic­u­lar site? Could it have some­thing to do with the impor­tance of words and books?) Lewis moved the store and a few years lat­er he “received notice from the state that he was being evicted.”

We are so grate­ful for this book (Get a new look. Read a book.) and the glimpse into the life of this remark­able man who fol­lowed his dream to make books avail­able to the peo­ple of Harlem, to pro­vide a gath­er­ing place for his peo­ple to pro­mote the exchange of words and ideas.

Nel­son writes like a poet, and her lan­guage sings. Dolls and law­men, book­sellers and civ­il rights activists, enslaved peo­ple flee­ing for free­dom, ordi­nary peo­ple march­ing in Wash­ing­ton D.C. — all of them come alive in her books. Here are oth­er titles of hers to read and learn from and delight in.

Other books by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson:

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Heidi Hammond
3 years ago

I love Vaun­da’s books! Thank you for fea­tur­ing her work.

Jacqueline Martin
Reply to  Heidi Hammond
3 years ago

We love her, too, and eager­ly await anoth­er book.

Heidi Hammond
Reply to  Jacqueline Martin
3 years ago

I shared your col­umn with Vaun­da, and after she saw your col­umn, she sub­scribed to Bookology!

katherine hauth
katherine hauth
3 years ago

A well deserved recog­ni­tion of an author who cares about her sub­jects and does metic­u­lous research.

Jacqueline Martin
Reply to  katherine hauth
3 years ago

Thanks for read­ing. Vaun­da Micheaux Nel­son’s back mat­ter could be the basis for a course in how to write back mat­ter for non-fic­tion books for kids.

Regina Ramseur
Regina Ramseur
3 years ago

I loved the much deserved arti­cle on Vaun­da Micheaux Nel­son! Over the years, Vaun­da has writ­ten books about real life sit­u­a­tions, that reach the hearts of read­ers, both young and old. Her books, regard­ing black his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, con­tributes much to the edu­ca­tion of peo­ple of all races, and cre­ates a sense of pride in our black children.

Jacqueline Martin
3 years ago

We loved shar­ing her books. And you are so right – her books are sat­is­fy­ing and enrich­ing for read­ers of all ages.

Uma Krishnaswami
3 years ago

I am thrilled to see such an insight­ful look at the glo­ri­ous work of my very dear friend and writ­ing group col­league of over 20 years, Vaun­da Micheaux Nel­son. Your arti­cle is writ­ten with care and lov­ing atten­tion, so it real­ly hon­ors Vaun’s rich body of work.