After Christmas, my wife and I took our kids (ages 13 and 15) for a week-long trip to New York City. We went to a few of the usual tourist attractions (like the Statue of Liberty) but we also tried to visit some sites that were off the beaten track, including Harlem. Like many people, my impression of Harlem was shaped in the 1970s and 1980s by television shows like Kojak and movies like Serpico that depicted it as a place so dangerous that taxi-drivers would refuse to take passengers there. This stereotype was evidently grounded in truth. In 1972, Charles Rangel, the congressional representative for that neighborhood, said “Walk along any street uptown and you’ll see Harlem’s great addict army slumped over in doorways, stumbling along in a trance, nodding in front of bars, standing in the cold without enough clothes on.” This worsened in the 1980s when heroin was superseded by crack cocaine. At that time, the crime rate in Harlem was six times that of the rest of New York City and infant mortality was double.
In the midst of this urban nightmare, the occasional beacon of hope flourished, and one such was the Liberation Bookstore at the corner of Harlem’s Lenox Avenue and131st Street. The Liberation Bookstore was established in 1967 by Una Mulzac, a passionate advocate of Black history, culture, and politics. The walls and windows of the bookstore were covered with posters and photos of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and other figures of the civil rights movement. On the window to the left of the bookstore’s front door was a stenciled sign that said, “If you don’t know — learn!” On the right side was another that said, “If you know — teach!”
Of the hundreds of memorable “education quotations” that I’ve come across over the years, this one, painted on the windows of a bookstore in Harlem, is the one I most admire. To me, that pair of imperatives — “If you don’t know — learn! If you know — teach!” — articulate the duality which is at the heart of education and at the core of being human: namely, we all have an obligation to better ourselves through learning, and — once we’ve learned — we all have an obligation to teach so that others can better themselves in turn. These dual roles form a cycle — or, hopefully, an upward-moving spiral — that human history and human progress are founded upon.
Sadly, the Liberation Bookstore closed in 2000 because at 85 years old, Una Mulzac was too frail to keep running her business. The neighborhood, in contrast, was thriving, thanks to a renaissance that Harlem experienced in the 1990s: crime plummeted, the city renovated the neighborhood’s infrastructure, and development funding and tax breaks encouraged economic growth. Ironically, though, this renewal might be why Una Mulzac was unable to find anyone to buy her bookstore: it was out of place in a gentrified Harlem, one that now has stores such as Starbucks, The Body Shop, and Ben and Jerry’s.
When my family and I stopped and looked at the empty storefront at the corner of Lenox Avenue and 131st Street, we could still make out the name “Liberation Bookstore” on the faded sign over the door. The window on the left side of the door — the one that said, “If you don’t know — learn!” — had been removed and thrown out by construction workers who were in the process of renovating the building. But on the right side, its counterpart — “If you know — teach!” — was still intact. As I took a picture of my kids standing beside it, a young black man came up and asked the construction workers if he could have that window after they removed it. “Sure,” they told him. “Come back in half an hour and you can carry it away.”
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