by jeff obafemi carr
Yusef Harris was The Nutty Professor in my 19-year old mind—and reasonably so. As a Freshman college student in a Psychology 101 class at Tennessee State University in the Spring of 1986, I had no other reference besides memories from reruns of the original 1963 Jerry Lewis film. It was the first thing that came to mind when he entered—slightly tardy—the classroom in the Education building.
Holding the door open with his foot, he broke the threshold with the rest of his body, clad in some eclectic, African-inspired clothing, accentuated with a multicolored scarf. His hair, only showing a few strands of gray, was full and slightly bushy. He had a bag on his shoulder that looked to be full of books, and he was struggling with a massive wooden box he held cautiously in both of his hands. The box had a clear plexiglass top with holes in it, and on the side, there were some strange looking levers. He placed the box on the black-topped high school science lab-inspired table in front of him and, with a flat look in his eyes, he spoke:
“This is Psychology 101, right?”
We all nodded. This was the teacher. Or should I say, This was the teacher?
“I’m Yusef Harris.”
His first lecture was on the box in front of him: a Skinner Box. Developed by the psychologist B.F. Skinner, it is an apparatus that is used in both operant and classical conditioning. Subjects—in this case, animals—could be studied to see how they responded to both reward and punishment.
Thus began my interaction with this outlier; this—at that time—PhD student in Psychology; this eventual community visionary, mentor, friend, and yes, classic conditioner.
Outside of the classroom, there was a rumor spreading that this same adjunct professor sold Black-themed books on the street corner at 28th and Jefferson Street, just across the entryway to the campus. Young, consciously awakening minds could not resist the chance to observe this unique subject in what was, obviously, his natural habitat.
True enough, he was set up in the parking lot of what was an old gas station; a solid enough cinder block building, it was nothing special to behold. The real show was watching Mr. Harris unload books, incense, and other wares from his van onto folding tables, greeting passers-by with waves, soul shakes, and gratifying nods. When you stepped onto the lot, he would always call you “Brother” or “Sister,” and ask if you had heard of the latest book.
As I grew deeper in my understanding of self, and I began to travel to various conferences and special events that were all about people of African descent, I was surprised to stumble upon Mr. Harris in the vendor areas, with the same set up he had on the street corners, only now with signs that read “Alkebu-lan Images Bookstore.” I don’t know if it was the NAACP, The National Black Child Development Institute, The Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations, or the Legislative Black Caucus Retreat, but I remember reminding him that I knew him from class, Mr. Harris.
“Call me Yusef,” he said. “I’m Brother Yusef.”
Yes, Indeed, he was.
I was one of the many fortunate young Black men who had the privilege of knowing Brother Yusef, and watching him do what many others were afraid to do: Build his own institution.
From the time he was braving the elements on the corner, he told everyone that—one day—he was going to gut and renovate that old gas station and turn it into a true brick-and-mortar bookstore; a place where people could find everything from cassette tapes (showing my age here) of Dr. John Henrik Clarke or Dr. Yosef A. A. ben-Jochannan, to the latest works by Dr. Frances Cress-Welsing, Dr. Maya Angelou and more—books, at the time, you couldn’t find anywhere else in Nashville. When Yusef looked at that building, he didn’t see it at it was. He saw the possibility of what it could be.
And he pushed, pulled, and dragged that vision into manifest reality.
Alkebu-lan Images would grow to become the hub for African-American culture in Nashville, living up to its name. Brother Yusef would explain gladly to all who asked that Alkebu-lan (“Mother of Mankind” in some translations) was one of the original names for the continent of Africa. It was his goal to showcase the brilliance, excellence, diversity, and beauty found through the study of the continent, its people, and its resources. Considering the mental conditioning many people of African descent have been assailed with over the last four centuries, it would only make sense that this square little bookstore would come to represent a new kind of psychological experimental tool:
Yusef Harris’ Alkebu-lan Box.
In this box of a few hundred square feet, we were all conditioned to find something about ourselves that we loved, and to govern ourselves accordingly.
In this box, a warm greeting awaited you from the moment you opened the door and smelled the sweet scents of sandalwood or Egyptian musk, until the time you emerged, loaded down with Shea butter, volumes of children’s books, posters, and even alkaline water.
In this box, you found friends, even when Ms. Celeste (Rest In Power) or Yusef were not around, because everyone over the years had some colleague, acquaintance or relative that at some point worked for Yusef at Alkebu-lan.
In this box, Yusef hired scores of people who had a burning desire to start businesses themselves and needed mentoring; Others he hired were artists and creatives, who he granted a flexible schedule to so that they could live their dreams as well.
In this box, the rewards that flowed out into the surrounding community were immeasurable: Internationally known authors showed up there to sign their books first, before heading to the big box stores, as a badge of credibility and solidarity; topical and organizational meetings were held there, with chairs crammed together and bodies jammed standing room only in the bookshelf aisles.
It is not as if Yusef didn’t have a few solid inspirational role models, albeit on a national scale, including the late legendary Lewis H. Michaux of New York. Ironically nicknamed, “The Professor,” Michaux founded and ran the African National Memorial Bookstore in Harlem, NY for 44 years.
Yusef Harris nearly caught Michaux, with over 35 years on the books before his recent physical transition into the space of Life After Life. If there is any historical consolation, it is that Alkebu-Lan Images lives on in the legacy of his son, Jordan, a young entrepreneur with the skills, vision, and background to truly carry a profound Vision into the future.
There was only one feeling of punishment that ever emanated from this box on the corner of Jefferson Street after 35 years: Those times you stopped by and Yusef was on the road at a conference, or somewhere helping someone in need. That feeling may arise again, now that his physical earth suit is no longer animated by his eternal spirit and energy.
The only greater feeling I can reflect on is what it was like to literally grow from teenager to grown man with human beings like Yusef as cornerstone elders of my community. When my young colleagues and I started The Third Eye Community Newspaper, Yusef bought an ad in every edition; When I wrote my first book, “Black Stuff: Poetry and Essays on The African American Experience,” Yusef stocked the book and hosted my first ever book signing; When I founded the Amun Ra Theatre, Yusef saved space in the store window for the posters of the shows, and sold CDs for both my one-man show, “How Blak Kin Eye Bee?” and my children’s play, “Before The People Came.”
When the world came full circle, and Amun Ra launched a vision to renovate an old cinder block building around the corner from Alkebu-lan into the first African-American owned theatre facility in 103 years in Nashville, Yusef granted sage advice, and even showed up to the first production. He liked the color of the building so much, he asked for the paint number, and subsequently painted Alkebu-lan the same goldenrod yellow, in solidarity.
I will miss this man, this father, this social scientist, this visionary and leader. I laugh, in hindsight, at my personal reference of him being anything like Jerry Lewis’ famous movie character. I suppose it is true that you cannot judge any book by its cover. I came to know that his blank look was one he wore while listening—like any good teacher or psychoanalyst would—so that he could truly comprehend what he was taking in.
The reward for resonating as truth with him was a smile that lit up the room.
This smile lives on in the memories of all who hold dear the moments and momentum Brother Yusef Harris, truly our Community Professor, inspired in our lives.
Rest with The Ancestors, Yusef. Know that your greatest gift to us all was granting us permission, by your example, to birth our dreams into reality—for the benefit of the larger world, beyond our individual boxes.