Danielle Jackson: On loving life & literature

Danielle Jackson.

It’s hard to imagine that here in 2022, one of the ongoing news stories in this country is the effort to ban books. All across the USA, schools and libraries are under threat and under siege. But one article I read made a salient and hopeful point, and it points to one fact: books are still deeply powerful things. One person who knows that is Danielle Jackson. Known as “The Hoodbrarian,” Jackson distributes books throughout Camden in an effort to foster learning and the love of books in a city that has closed down almost all of its public libraries. A lifelong reader, poet, and writer, Jackson is a one woman operation, collecting books and sharing them at workshops and events throughout the year. 

I understand that you’re a Jersey girl.

Yes, born and raised in Camden. 

Tell me about the block you grew up on.

It wasn’t just one, I had multiple blocks. My mom was a single parent and a young mom and so whatever she could make work, she did. And that entailed moving quite a bit. I’ve been to 9 schools in Camden. But growing up in Camden was what was normal to me. The city has a stigma and we’re labeled one of the most dangerous cities in America, but to us it was just home. I’m not sure if it was actually normal, or if we were desensitized, but it was great growing up there in my eyes. We played in the fire hydrant, we played Double Dutch in the street, there was freeze tag until dark. You were lucky if you had a Gameboy or Sega or one of those “luxury” items, so we mostly played outside. I loved it. 

What were you like as a kid?

I’ve always been into books and literacy and poetry. I’ve always been a writer. To me, our neighborhood looked like poetry in motion growing up. Everything was poetic to me. I’m big on romanticizing my life, and I’ve done that since I was a little girl. I found beauty in everything around me. 

I think when you’re in it, it’s a different story. I remember my father, who was from Harlem, lived in Narberth his last years and used to warn me: “Be careful! It’s dangerous in Philadelphia, they hide under your cars and cut your ankles and attack you!” I was like, “What the what? Dad, I live there, and yes things happen, but I can tell you that’s not part of our daily existence.” I realized that he did nothing but watch the local news, which was nothing but reports of fires, muggings and murder.    

Right? It can skew your view. 

So you said, “we moved.” Who is we?

I’m the oldest of 3, so I have a sister and a brother and my mother

How were you as a big sister?

I was very no nonsense. I’ve always been big on propriety and discipline… I don’t know, I never wanted to be what they labeled a Camdonite to be. And so I designed my life, [chuckles] and the lives of everyone around me, to counteract that. I’ve alway been a little pushy, a little bossy! It was not so much about caring what people think, it was more about having self respect for me. I didn’t want to be what people assumed that I was and I didn’t want my brother and sister to be that either. And since my mom was a working single mom, a lot of it fell on me. If I felt something was a no go, it was a no go. They respected me for it and still hold that high regard for me to this day, so I’d like to think I did something right.  

I understand. My father’s family had the first black symphony in Chicago and the kids were all taught to be proper, which trickled down to us. My father’s mantra was “If the queen of England wouldn’t do it, then you shouldn’t either.” So, I couldn’t just walk down the street eating a hoagie in public!

No, no, no! You’ve got to represent. Black excellence!

What were you like as a kid? I know that you said that you were into poetry and books.

Actually, I was into anything dealing with the arts. I had a family who cultivated that in me, they nourished that side of me so I did everything from dancing to singing, I acted. In fact, I was the only elementary school student who was in the high school plays. At Camden high in 1999, I was 10 and my mom taught at the school. I would watch the rehearsals and learn all the materials, so I got to perform with everybody. I’ve always been an artist and always knew that it would be something that I would do. 

Where did you go to school?

I went to a performing arts high school and I was a dance major. 

What did your mom teach?

Everything! She was a woman who wore many hats. She was an English instructional assistant back then, but she’s also a certified cosmetology teacher, and she is currently in nursing school. My mom is a career student! She was always about bettering herself and learning new things. A grab life by the balls kind of woman, not afraid to start over which is why I have the tenacity that I have. I’ve seen my mother start over a thousand times and she comes at it with 1000% every single time. If she can do it then I can!

Did you go into college, or right into working?

I went to college for a minute and then I got pregnant with my son shortly after and that put things on hold. I was doing a dual degree program, I got accepted into Rutgers but had to do 2 years at Camden County before transferring to complete the degree at Rutgers. But during that tricky 2 years there, life happened and I became a mother. He is going to be turning 13 this year! 

What? You look too young!

Thank you, I’m 32, about to turn 33 this year, so we’re 20 years apart. 

What was the best thing about having your boy?

Everything. Everything. It’s a beauty and a love that’s like no other. He is perfection in my eyes and I am perfection in his eyes. He’s a person that I made! You know what I mean? He’s a human that I’m responsible for, and I have to say, I did damn good. [Laughing] I did really well with him. His dad did amazing as well, but I did darn good. 

Is he artsy as well?

My son is more of a techie. He’s not creative as far as drawing or music is concerned but when it comes to technology? The boy’s a robot! He speaks a language that I can’t speak, he’s a TikTok whiz, he’s alway editing some type of movie clips and things like that. He has a small YouTube channel that mom monitors to make sure things are on the up and up, but he’s a great kid. 

Speaking of family, I understand that your grandmother was a big influence. 

Absolutely, my grandmother is where I learned how to romanticize life. She’s one of those people who, having that morning cup of coffee, will be having it on the beach with the sun beaming down and sand all around, even if it’s only in her head. She always taught us to take in your surroundings, to absorb everything. My love of reading, and my zest and zeal for life in general all came from her appreciation for life. 

I often tell this story which exemplifies her. In our family, as they come of age, my grandmother takes everyone to their inaugural Barnes and Noble Book trip. It’s the first bookstore trip and you get to pick out your first book. She makes you stop at the door and you have to take in the sights and sounds, you have to close your eyes and breathe it all in and describe to her what you feel, all of those things that really opened your imagination before you even stepped inside. She unlocked something in you that taught you how to absorb things, not just there but in all of life. She’s amazing; we do a morning prayer line at 7 a.m. and we’re all dragging but she’s up and doing a morning walk around the neighborhood. She’s a lovely woman and I love her to death. 

Was there a particular book that she read to you as a child?

I don’t remember a special book, there were too many. The house was like a library, you could walk in and there were literally books everywhere! I call her my first librarian. 

What’s your favorite part of having an actual book in hand?

I love all of it! I love the binding, I love the smell, I love the sound when the spine cracks open with a brand new book. That is my favorite sound ever! I love the smell of the pages, I’m so strange! They just make me so happy! I even love watching films about books. Right now, I’m watching “Discovery of Witches” and it’s so stinking good and the story line is them looking for a 400 year old book. 

What was the impetus to start the Hoodbrary? Was there an article or a specific branch closing?

No, it just seemed like one day I looked up and all the libraries were shut down. I think there was an announcement that they were going to be shutting down some libraries in certain locations, some were being combined. There was a sweet little library around the corner from me and I would push my son there in a stroller when he was small. It was the cutest little house in a quaint little neighborhood here in Camden and it was shut down too. It was around the time the state had taken over and there were layoffs for police officers and firefighters, and everything did a big switcheroo. 

When did you first start to think that someone should do something, and then decide that the person should be you?

I already had an outreach program. My church let me use the basement for free. It was a youth empowerment program for young ladies, but it seemed like there were a ton of other people doing the same thing. I wanted something different for myself, so I looked around and said, what do I like to do and what is there a need for? One of my mentors co-authored a book and I wrote a nice review of it, and something clicked and I thought, “Books! That’s my passion!” I wanted to work on literacy in Camden; I wanted to work with kids and books, actual books, not just digital reading. I felt like we were missing so much content, so much information without books. One of my day jobs is as a writing teacher for a non-profit that deals with literacy issues as well, so this is a passion of mine. 

How do you distribute the books?

I go to different school and community events and distribute the books for free. On occasion I go to events where I vend and sell books and use the money to help fund getting the books out there. I have a truck that I load up with books and people can find me all over the place. I like the idea of not being stuck inside. I have a library with no walls and we go from the park to back-to-school nights, community events, etc. I try to partner with organizations all over the city, to think out of the box. 

I saw a lot of interesting things on your website.

Yes, I’m also a published poet and a writing teacher, so I host a lot of workshops, everything from spoken word to college prep. We have a book of the month that we feature. On February 23 we’ll do storytime with guest author Chante Douglas, on the 25th we’re going to be part of a Black History program, and on March 7th,  we have a fun program, a virtual “Black Women’s Wax Museum Experience.” It’s a poetry event with an organization called, “I Dare 2 Care” along with another group, “Conversations with our young sisters,” both excellent programs. There will be several young women portraying different women in history however they want. The only rules are that they can’t buy anything. 

Is it mostly virtual?

At this time, though since I’m fully vaccinated, I’m not opposed to doing in-person events. I participate in the Boss Mentoring program, which is in person, in part because my son goes there. It’s good for him to have that positive male role model, and the excursion is a good way for us to bond outside of the house! 

And you also have a little merch on the website. I loved the “Books over Boys” tee shirts.

Thank you! We have a few things but hopefully will add more soon. 

Favorite book as a kid?

I am a nerd through and through, so sci-fi, fantasy, all of that was my life. The Harry Potter books were everything. I’ve always been a Disneyholic, mermaids, fairies, I’m into all of that. My students tease me for listening to the Disney radio channel but they have the BEST music! All the great soundtracks! Also, anything by Maya Angelou; we have the same birthday and I tried to model myself after her. But, this is funny: as I said, we were avid readers at home and there were books everywhere. My grandmother kept her more adult books on a top shelf in her room, but my mom was a young mom and she wasn’t as careful, so if she wasn’t home, I could find the good stuff! So I had no business reading them, but I would find her Zane books at 12 and they were my secret pleasure! The Sex Chronicles, The Other Side of the Pillow, all that stuff.

If you were a superhero, what would your name and your costume be? 

[Laughing] I already am a superhero, Suzi, I’m “The Hoodbrarian!” But my costume? Hmmm, something sexy, a one piece with calligraphy on it, and a cape made from a book page. I think that would be dope.  

If you had to give up one food you really love for the rest of your life, what would you pick?

Oh my God, NOTHING SUZI!! I am the worst, I live by the 3 P’s: pasta, potatoes and pastry! That’s so hard; food is my guilty pleasure! [Laughing] I’d give up shoes before I gave up food. Wait, would this have to be sacrificial, giving up something I like, or can I pick something I dislike? Is there anything I dislike? Okay, I think I’m going too deep. 

[Laughing] Can you cook?

Yes, my father is a chef. Italian dishes are my favorite things to make, that and breakfast. 

Nice, I don’t cook, so I won’t make you choose if you save me some leftovers. 

No! We can’t have that! I’ll come cook something for you Suzi. 

[Laughing] Deal! I love this column. Let’s wrap up with a favorite saying.

Books have saved my life. When I was little we moved around a lot but we rarely traveled. One of my favorite sayings is “Books allow us to travel when circumstances don’t.” They were my safe haven, they allowed me to go places I only dreamed of.