ONElkebu-Lan Images, a cornerstone of the North Nashville community for more than 35 years, lost its founder early last week. Yusef Harris – teacher, mentor, climber of Kilimanjaro – died on Monday January 3rd. He was 66 years old.
Harris opened Alkebu-Lan in 1986 while doing a PhD in psychology from Vanderbilt University and teaching part-time at Tennessee State University. The Jefferson Street property was up for sale and he made a $ 15,000 down payment on a loan from the Metro Development and Housing Agency. Since then, the store has grown into a cultural mecca selling books, art, clothing and other goods that reflect and celebrate African culture.
“Yusef knew that blacks needed to see pictures of themselves that were uplifting.” wrote scene Contributor M. Simone Boyd in March. “He saw a way to do this through books.”
It’s hard to meet a black man who grew up in Nashville and hasn’t felt the influence of Harris in any way. He has served and advised hundreds of black business owners, his son and business partner Jordan Harris told Boyd. United Street Tours owner Chakita Patterson describes Harris’s impact on her business in a Facebook post. “He was one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met,” writes Patterson. “Not intrusive. Not in an “I’m smarter than you” way. But in a loving way. … He gave me the knowledge I needed to take my first group on tour. “
Countless poets and spoken word artists found their voices at Harris’ Open Mic Nights, and the place was a place where aspiring black writers were sure to find support. In a social media post, poet Stephanie Pruitt Gaines calls the store “a soft landing pad,” where Harris greeted local black writers. “He went on to advise me on the book business and traveling for readings and lectures, and how to keep a book signing alive and meaningful for the audience, booksellers, and me,” writes Gaines. “He took me to literary events all over the country and showed me how to read the room and stay true to me and my mission.”
Elsewhere in town, when Gaines lamented the morning stories that were difficult for working parents to attend, Harris opened his doors to an evening story lesson that Gaines held and attended with her daughter for years.
In an interview with the 2015 scene, Harris said his goal was “to teach and improve a person’s self-concept”.
“I recognize that people need to read more and be more aware of their culture, heritage and history – especially African Americans,” said Harris in order to help people develop positive self-esteem and self-concept.
Harris traveled abroad his entire life, including Kenya, Ethiopia, Senegal and Jamaica, according to his lifelong friend Donald Keene. “Over the years,” Keene writes on Facebook, “Yusef has been a leader and innovator in promoting the empowerment and education of black communities in Nashville and the United States. He was a voice and an instrument of black pride. “
“I met him when I was in seventh grade trying to buy an African leather medallion that they wore in all the hip-hop videos in the late 80s,” writes James Beard, Tennessee State University alum. “He asked me to tell him what the locket meant. I didn’t know, of course. I just wanted to wear what Grand Puba from Brand Nubian is wearing. He took the time to explain to me what red, gold, green and red, black and green mean. This was my first attempt to realize that there was another story in me that I didn’t know about. ”
In a tweet, TSU professor and historian from North Nashville, Dr. Learotha Williams referred to the famous bookstore in Harlem, the African National Memorial Bookstore: “Yusef was our Lewis Michaux and Alkebu-Lan Images with his texts and images celebrating African life and culture became #northnashville’s House of Common Sense and home to the right propaganda. “
In December 2020, Harris and his son bought a building on Buchanan Street and expanded Alkebu-Lan. “If you want to be stationary, you have to be able to control your country,” Harris told the scene‘s Boyd.
“This principle,” wrote Boyd, “has allowed Alkebu-Lan to define success outside of capitalism and to create an environment that helps other companies grow.”