Jamal Joseph

Jamal Joseph: 'It was a place where we realized that anything was possible'

Our local library kind of fits into the warm memories of my life along with grandma's Thanksgiving dinners and playing softball in the vacant lot across the street

Librarians were very important to me growing up.

I grew up in the Bronx during the fifties and sixties. It was a place that we would go to on Sundays after school, but a lot during the summer.

First of all, it was a cool little red building in our neighborhood that just felt like home.

And the librarians were very welcoming. You
could stay as long as you want, read all of the great books and then decide what you were going to take home.

And so friends would come and we would sometimes compete over the same book. Or if you reached your limit or if your friend reached their limit, you'd try to encourage them to take out a book that you wanted to read.

And the sense of how important was to get the books back on time or to come and check them out again.

And we'd spend time reading. We'd kind of like finish the day's play or maybe at lunch time and we sit around on the steps of each others building or go to the rooms and read books.

It was a great thing.

We got that encouragement from our teachers. You had to have a library card in the school that I went to.  It was kind of like a requirement that you had a  library card.

So it was a place where we realized that anything was possible, where we could be explorers, where we could
be astronauts, where we could be firemen, where we could be teachers, where we could of go back in time, and in history.

It was a portal for all of those things.

To know that there was a safe environment but real important, a community, where you would
go there and you would see other kids from your neighborhood and other kids from school that were
reading there, that were hanging out in the library made it really cool.

I think the idea of doing things in a community, in doing things where there is a safe space and where there are
events going on really created a special place for me, in my world of growing up, so that our local library kind of fits into the warm memories of my life along with grandma's Thanksgiving dinners and playing softball in the vacant lot across the street.

That library, on two twenty ninth street in the Bronx fits
right in there with the childhood memories that are my favorite.

There was a Mrs. Johnson who was the librarian at
the Williamsbridge Branch and there was a school librarian named Mrs. Turner who was also great
woman and fostered a real love of reading and
books.

And I spent time in prison and one of
the things that's an important memory in prison was that prison library.

And I worked in a prison library,and how we would try to get other prisoners in to read and also my early days of being in orientation and seeing and older prisoner named
Mr. Cody who pushed the library caught around, who had books from the library that he'd bring around to the guys in orientation.  He would ask if you wanted a book.

Sometimes people would say yes, sometimes people say no, and he gave his great speech.

He would say, "You know, you're here whether you want to be here or not and you've got a little time to do. The key thing is, you could let this time serve you, you can serve this time, or you can let
this time serve you.

And behind that advice, if anything registered about that advice, came a book. And you understood that part of letting that time serve me was to read as much as you can and take advantage of that prison library.

Well I use my library for research. I'm a professor at Columbia University, so there are libraries on campus,
but there is still a joy in going to those local libraries, the libraries in Harlem where I'll go to do some research, where I took my children when they were younger, and where I go now to to give talks and poetry workshops with young people.

Still very, very important part my life and I think a very important part of the Harlem community where I live.

I have a strong opinion about it [library budget cuts]. I think that, you know, it's interesting that in tough times that the first cuts come to places like schools and libraries.

This idea of safe space. This idea of reading being cool.
This idea of being in a community of reading and a community of learning is vital. It's vital to the educational and cultural health of all communities.

And we have to fight for that, that's important. You know we talk about health care, we have to talk about education care and reading care as part of the wholeness
of a human being in the development of our children and the health of our community. You know one of the things
that libraries and reading helps one do is to think of the world in bold in different ways.

The students who are in there reading books are our leaders of tomorrow. They are the educators, the doctors,
the lawyers, the policy makers and they need the full range of what is going on. So banning books is like banning part of the brain. You know, it's telling people
that censorship is more important than critical thinking.

We need people to think critically. We need people that understand tolerance and we need people with imagination.

And that comes when the mind is allowed to explore wherever it can go.

Well, I'm on tour with my book, "Panther Baby," and I'm also writing a screenplay and starting to think of ideas for the next book.

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Book Title: 

Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention.

Library Name: 

Williamsbridge Branch, New York City