Jeannine A. Cook is a writer, strategist, and entrepreneur who the city of Philadelphia has been lucky to call a resident for the better part of two decades. On this episode of the HearTOGETHER Podcast, Cook shares some of the challenges and triumphs of opening her brick-and-mortar store, Harriett's Bookshop, how she became a master strategist, and why she doesn't let herself get sidetracked by unsolicited advice.
[Performers; Ohad Bar-David, Cello; Ajibola Rivers, Cello; Angela Zator Nelson, Percussion]
Hosted by Tori Marchiony. Mixed by Teng Chen.
Welcome back to the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. I’m Tori Marchiony, and this a space to hear from artists and activists working hard to improve our world. Before we dive in, heads up that there are couple of intrusive sounds from our beautiful city on this episode- unfortunately, in COVID times, these things can’t always be avoided. Hopefully, it’s not too distracting! Because you’ll want to hear every word our guest has to say.
Today, we’re joined by Jeannine A. Cook- the author, organizer, and entrepreneur behind Harriett’s Bookshop, in Fishtown, Philadelphia. It’s a beautiful, welcoming space that a few Philadelphia Orchestra members were lucky enough to experience for themselves just a few weeks ago when they dropped by to play a few tunes as part of the Our City, Your Orchestra series. Excerpts from that program will be sprinkled throughout this episode, and titles and links will be listed in the description section.
Now, back to our guest.
It’s a little funny to think that when Jeannine Cook first opened the doors at Harriet’s back in February, she expected it to be a quiet sanctuary and writing studio. Little about this year has turned out to be quiet. In March, Jeannine was forced to close up shop, sell digitally. In May, she published a compilation of short stories called Conversations with Harriett. In June, Jeannine armed protestors with free books about leaders like Malcolm X. By the end of July, the bookshop’s following exploded, gaining more than 30,000 Instagram followers overnight.
In August, she and some friends from the custom furniture company, Beve Unlimited were hatching a plan to bring her bookshop to the sidewalk. Then in September, Jeannine and several other Black business owners in the area received a slew of racist, violent, threat-laden emails. She didn’t cower. Nor did she call the cops.
Instead, in October, Jeannine co-organized a modern-day sit-in, inviting community together- to share music, poetry, and strategy- exploring how to “protect and serve” one another. A good idea any time, but especially in an age when it’s so easy to feel isolated.
Jeannine Cook: Yeah, the community is, it might not be what you want, but it's what you need. And especially right now, right. And one of the things that we've, you know, I put out something today and it says, um, it talks about leaning in and leaning, leaning on and allowing somebody to lean on you. And that, that that's what community does. And if you, if especially, um, especially when you hear reports that lives like yours, don't seem to matter. And when you hear that, you know, there are people who are dying, um, and being murdered for completely, no reason, um, and nothing is being done about it. In those moments we need each other more than ever before. So we can start planning and strategizing how to move forward.
Host: You’re also working on a pamphlet now, too, right? What’s the plan with that?
Jeannine Cook: Uh, so I have this thought of, um, it sounds like it's similar to what I imagined Thomas Paine must've been doing, but it's just like some things like, I call it more conversations with Harriet. Some things that I think people need to be thinking about as we, um, move closer and closer to time that feel uncertain and, or more uncertain than even the time that we live in now. And some things that I think that people might want to be prepared for and be thinking about. Uh, one thing I recognize is that sometimes we feel a lot of pity for people who were enslaved and don't recognize some of the strengths that they had, that we don't. Um, and so one of those things is just like for instance, one section is about knowing the land and really getting to a place where we understand what the, you know, we understand the, the landscape of where we live and if we have to navigate it by foot, at some point we can. And if we have to navigate without the internet and without GPS, we can, and that we know what the trees are that are around us and that we know what the plants are that are growing around us. And we know the waterways and that we begin to understand how to use the stars to navigate, um, in the ways that our folks used to once upon a time. And so those are just an example of one of the sections. Yeah. So it's in the works. I have to, I have to get it done.
Host: Well I can’t wait to read it! And I actually want to ask you about another thing you’ve written. Ah, your email signature, which is “everything is unfolding in perfect order”. As we were setting this interview up, I was really taken aback- in a good way- by seeing that in a business context, and I enjoyed observing how it changed the interaction for- for me me. Where did that mantra come from?
Jeannine Cook: So it’s funny because it's something my sister once said to me that has stuck with me for a long time. And once I, when I was working for a company, I used to use it in my, in my signature. You're like, cause it's been my signature for years. Um, and the lady from the company was like, I need you to remove that from your signature. I was just like why? And she was just like, I “it's confusing to people”. And I said, “confusing in what way? Right. And like, this is, this is classic Jeannine is like to ask a question, always. I have a million questions, especially when people confront me with things that I perceive as not making sense or being rooted in something way deeper than they're trying to make it about. And so “confusing. In what way?” “Oh, well, I, I thought that you were trying to start a conversation with that signature” and I was like, “well, then let's have the conversation”. “Oh, well, I don't know if people will understand that”. “Well, no one else has had any problems with it”. You know? Uh, it speaks volumes, um, in very few words and especially in times where things don't feel like they're unfolding in perfect order, you know, we've all been witness to moments where, um, something seemingly problematic has happened only for us to reflect later on and say, yup, that's exactly how that needed to happen for me to get to this point right here. Um, you know, and just to jump right in, there were years ago, I thought I was going to have a store up further on Girard. And what ended up happening was, uh, that store caught fire. And again, that's a perfect example of when a mantra like this comes completely in handy because it's like, okay, take a breath. This is not how I intended this to go. This doesn't make any sense to me. And it feels like […] there must be something wrong. And then we tend to go straight to what, something wrong with me? It’s just something that I did. And it's like, well, maybe it's a lot bigger than you. And maybe you belong on the East side of Girard in Fishtown and maybe that'll be where you actually do way better. And maybe you need three more years to cultivate this idea and maybe, and so all of those things, um, come into play when it, when it comes to that particular mantra for me. Yes.
Host: Hearing about the first location burning down- like, if someone was writing a book where the character had to have a lot of heart and really get over something, we would burn her store down. Like, that would be the obstacle to see if and see if that could knock her out of the game.
Jeannine Cook: I mean, and then after they burned your store down, what they would do when you opened your new store is six weeks later, they’d say, "there’s this, uh, virus that has taken over the entire world and you now need to shut down six weeks later” and, that character would then have to figure out ways to overcome yet another, um, you know, unfortunate circumstance.
Host: Mhm. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but both of your parents were in ministry right?
Jeannine Cook: They both were. Yep. They both were. And they both were also, um, uh, handicapped. […] My mother, my mother went blind when I was about 11 and my father was diagnosed with terminal, kidney failure. Um, the same, that same year, it happened all like at the same time. […] but yeah, they, they, they both were in the, in ministry and, you know, I tell people all the time I come from a long line of preachers and teachers. And so yes, my, my father, but then my father's mother I think is probably the best speaker that I've ever witnessed, um, with no, no formal education […] but just someone who knows how to connect with people through words,
Host: And you were never interested in ministry yourself, right?
Jeannine: Oh no.
Host: But between your activism and your artistic practice, and the way you blend those, that sounds very vocational.
Jeannine Cook: Yeah. You know, I think, and that wasn't, that- I've been a teacher since I was, since I came to Philly, I was, I was, um, you know, I started this thing called positive minds when we would go out and teach kids how to use cameras and how to, you know, how to tell stories directly on their blocks. Um, and to me, that work was so, so amazing and it required that I get to know people and that I can, I learned how to connect quickly. It required that we understood community […]a lot of those are skills that I did definitely learn, um, in the church, right. It required that we, we, we, we think about being connected and I never experienced, I never thought that Jeannine would be, you know, I thought this was going to be a very quiet bookstore that nobody was going to ever come to that I was going to sit in here and write all day and that, that was going to be my experience. And I think had I known that it was going to do what it's done, I probably would have been too afraid to move forward.
Host: I always feel like people who are reluctant leaders are the best ones, because there’s no ego reach for, “oh I want to have 30,000 followers” it’s that like-
Jeannine Cook: Oh hell no, I would've. I would, I I'm shy. I keep telling people that and they're like, Oh yeah, right. And I'm like, no, “I'm shy”. Like I like, I am quiet and I am shy. And people are like, “no, there's no way”. And I'm just like, I mean, I'm doing this because this is what needs to be done. And what I, in many ways for called to do and feel like, you know, there, there is a void that has been, um, in the society of somebody who's given some sort of like clarity to some of the things that we see happening. Um, and I'm just using books. All I'm pulling from is books that we all have access to. It's not like I'm like, you know, in some […] that's all I'm using is the same books that I'm selling and, and hoping for people to purchase and sometimes giving away for completely free. Um, so that people can have the access to the information.
Host: Yeah, and to your point, there’s so much wisdom in books we just forget to open.
Jeannine Cook: Yeah. And that's not a coincidence. I don't think that's an accident. I think that there's an onslaught on our attention spans. Right. That makes it difficult for us to read the way that we know that we would like to right? But where -I can talk, I can talk to Harriet Tubman by picking up that book. I can talk to, you know, I keep talking about Thomas Paine. I can get talk. I can talk to Thomas, but, and people like Janine, you're talking about Thomas Paine and you're, you're, you know, you're you got the black book, black woman bookshop. And I'm like, yeah, but he had those pamphlets and he was out on the street. And to me, that's just so powerful. I cannot wait to finish my little pamphlet books so I can get it out on the street too. He inspires me. Um, and I can talk to him through his books, you know, and I can talk to Malcolm or whoever else I want to talk to.
We can talk to them through, through these books. Um, and then at the same time, we can also talk to the, at least in my mind, we can talk to the future in some ways, when we make a decision to write down, uh, what it is that we're experiencing now, what we hope to see soon, what we w w with things we want to put into place for them, what the dreams and desires we have for them. Um, you know, just imagine your grandchildren and finding your, your journals, imagine them finding your diaries, like how powerful of an experience that will be, how impactful that will be for them. And I I'm encouraging you Tori and everybody, anybody like leave, leave something for, for them because they will need it.
NELSON, Percussion Improvisation
Host: It seems like you have a really acute awareness of yourself as being one point on a very long continuum. That you have this real sense of responsibility to a legacy that is bigger than you. Where did you, where did you learn that, and sort of, how do you think about your own life in the larger context?
Jeannine Cook: my great, great, great grandchildren mean a whole lot to me. And I am the great great-granddaughter of someone who I have no idea who they were. to, to be in connection with my lineage in both directions, gives me so many tools and so much strategy. And so, so many opportunities. I think that, you know, I was talking to the interns today and I was like, you know,” there are things that have to stop now, have to stop. Now. We can not let your grandchildren be thinking about the police running up in their house and killing them in their sleep and being in there being no accountability for that.” We can not that cannot continue. I am sorry that you're even experiencing it in your lifetime, but no more. Right. Cause when I read about Harriet, when I read about her, these are the same conversations that she was having with herself. Then in the 18 hundreds that we're having with ourselves now in 2020, like that is that's, that's that's wrong. It's wrong. And what does it mean? It means that there is a huge responsibility for us to do some things now that make a preparation for later. And that's just, that's just what strategy does he say, okay, what is our strap? What do we want? Cause that's what I ask people. What do you want? Right. I hear a lot of people telling me, Oh, well I don't want, I don't want this. And I don't want that. And I don't want, I don't want this and I don't want that in my society. What do you want? Oh, crickets. Okay. So once we know what we do want, right? Oh, I want a bookstore. Okay. You want a bookstore? Now you have a desire. Now you have a thing. What are the steps that it's going to take for you to get to that? That's homework now it's homework time. So go sit down, do that homework until you got some steps in place and now, and then come back. Cause then you probably need some support. But if we plan on actually doing something about the situation that our children and that we are dealing with right now, we have to get really clear about what it is that we want. We have to start seeing that in our mind's eye. And I know, and I, and I apologize in advance to the people cause it's hard. It's not easy work to do, right. It's not easy work to say I'm in this moment. And I, and I also need to think about the future and I also need to think about the past, but that's what has to happen. It has to.
Host: Mhm. Absolutely. So, so, right now you’re working on your MFA at Drexel. The bookstore is thriving. Everything seems to be coming together pretty naturally. Did you always know that your art and activism would be good partners?
Jeannine Cook: Good question. Yeah. You know, some years ago I was dating a guy and he told me two things that I, that ended up being completely untrue. Uh, probably many other things that I don't know about yet, but the, one of the things he told me was that I wasn't a writer. And he was like, “you're not a writer”. I was like, “Oh, but, well I really love writing. And you know, I have this story and that story, and I've been, I got published once-” and he's like, “nah, you're not, you're not really serious about it, you're not a writer”. Okay. Um, and then the other thing he told me was that I was attempting to do too many things at once. And he was like, “you, you're always trying. That's why you're not getting things done. Cause you try and do too much at once” and you know, no diss to him, you know, I think he was coming from the place that he was coming from at the time that he was coming from that place. Um, and I think that those two pieces of his advice, right. And this is what I've been telling a lot of folks to think about is like, you know, advice is so funny, especially unwarranted advice. I didn't ask him this. Right. And it then becomes an opportunity for me to decide for myself whether I agree or disagree. And in that moment I had to just disagree. Like I, I disagree. I think that we are multifaceted human beings with all types of access, to all types of abilities and that we don't have to, um, we don't have to just be one thing, right. Like I don't have to just be an activist. I don't have to just be an artist. I don't have to just be a writer. I don't have to just be a business person. I don't have to just be a, you know, like, uh, you know, there is no, there is no box on who I get to be. And every time someone tries to put me into one, um, I work very hard at making the decision about what I, who I want to be and who I get to be in this world, as opposed to like who people told me I get to be. And, um, I'm all of those things. I'm all of those things and I don't have to separate them. And it just so happens that, you know, come this moment in time. Those things actually really work well together.
RIVERS, Rumba from Suite No.2
Host: Did somebody give you permission to be this way? So confident and self-assured?
Jeannine Cook: You know, I would say it's a few things. I think that, um, having parents that were disabled, my sisters and I have been talking about this a lot lately. And like, what does it do to you to have parents that are disabled at very, at a very young age? And one thing that I think that it does do is it gives you, um, access to what it means to be in service. Right.[…] And you know, and so for me, being in service has meant like, how do you bring these, whatever you have access to? How do you bring that to the table so that you can, you know, support other people […] You know, we've, my mother didn't have a cane for many years. She was so proud and refused to walk with a cane. And so we'd, we'd walk with her beside us. And we created all these strategies for how to move throughout the world with her and her blindness, um, leading her and often like having to figure out how to navigate the world while also supporting her. Right? There were times know where I remember being 14 and having to take the car to the grocery store to go get groceries. My mother, my mother couldn't do it anymore. Somebody had to do it. We had to do it, you know? And so you get into this mode of like, […] how do I use what I have to be of service? And that's what we do here. Like, it's like, “how do we use this space? How do we use these books? How do we use this art? How do we use all of this to be in service to our community?” Um, especially a community that hasn’t been served. Right, you’re talking about a community, especially um when I think about women and black women, have been in service for so long- right like, who’s serving us? And I'm like, well, I can, like we can, right? and then we can start this, this practice of serving one another and see what happens and see if that helps and see if that heals and see if that, if that is it's a, it's an experiment and we'll see what happens. We'll see if it works.
Host: Well you’re so amazing, and you’re doing such amazing stuff and it’s been such a pleasure to talk to you, thank you so much for making time I really appreciate it.
Jeannine Cook: Of course, yeah. When I was in Nairobi, one thing that I was taught is something called [inaudible], which means I am because you are a, and you are because I am. And so I am because you are a Tori and you are because I am so thank you.
And there you have it, a little more time spent HearTOGETHER. I hope you enjoyed it, and that you’ll like, subscribe, rate, share, comment, and join us next month. I leave you with an excerpt of Jeannine Cook’s wonderful fiction, topped off with Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of the spiritual “Down By The Riverside”.
Jeannine A. Cook reading an excerpt of her story, Down By The Riverside from her book, Conversations with Harriett:
She was as close to God as they could get. “Miss! Miss!” They whispered down her hallway. They knew to ring the bell that only they knew existed. They'd come with their differences, but couldn't help being the same.
“I changed my mind.” “They say, I will die.” “This baby is sick.” “I don't know the father.” “I started to show.” “My father. He raped me.” “My grandfather,” “my uncle,” “my brother,” “my neighbor,” “my nephew,” “my friend”. “He raped me”.
So she’d do it. Her clear eyes made her feel invisible to them and she couldn't see them either. As a formality, she'd run her fingers across their foreheads, over their eyebrows, down their noses and their lips. The only thing she ever remembered where their voices. She could recall the slightest tremors from aisles away in the marketplace. There goes flat face or bumpy face, or wrinkled face. Pretending not to know me. Babies don't come from nowhere, but she didn't ask questions. If they wanted to share she'd listen.
“He climbed me again and again.” “I've tried to get rid of it.” “I punched my belly.” “I drunk cleaning spray.” “I stuck a hunger up there.” “My mom said, come see you.” “My grandmother,” “my aunt,” “my sister,” and “my neighbor said, come see you”.
It didn't take much to prepare. The recipe had been handed down to other people with clear eyes, “nothing to see here,” her cousin would say to onlookers, half-joking and half-serious. She kept a mixture of mouse dung, honey, Egyptian salt, wild colocynth, and resin on her kitchen counter. She always started her ritual with salt sprinkled about the floor, Frankincense burning in the corner, and a song. I'm going to lay down my burdens down by the riverside, down by the riverside, down by the riverside, I'm going to lay down my burdens down by the riverside. I'm going to study the war no more….