Jennifer Calderon’s panelist bio at the recent National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, N.Y., said she was “a white woman, an author, activist, and social entrepreneur”—not your usual conference introduction. But Calderon, better known to the hip-hop community as JLove, uses her race as well as her books to challenge white supremacy and racism and to mobilize a multicultural audience around issues of social justice.
After publishing two books with conventional publishers and self-publishing two others, Calderon is about to self-publish her latest book, Occupying White Privilege: Conversations on Love, Race & Liberation, an anthology focused on demystifying white privilege, through Amazon CreateSpace. The book features 30 artists and others—among them poet Sonia Sanchez, hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang, hip-hop artist Talib Kweli, and many others—addressing white privilege and racism and what to do about it. One hundred percent of the book’s proceeds will go to six nonprofit multicultural organizations that fight for racial justice.
Calderon’s not your average antiracist activist. She grew up in Denver, Colo., in the 1980s and fell under the sway of hip-hop—rapping, DJ-ing, graffiti-ing, and break dancing—but also the darker side of the urban scene: gangs, guns, and drug dealing. She loved the thrill of hanging with gangbangers and, despite her race, was able to gain the trust of the Rolling 30’s, a local version of the Crips—she was the first female graffiti writer in Denver—only to find herself caught between the worlds of her white middle-class family and her black gang friends.
It may sound like a movie—more on that later—but it’s a true story that began its literary life as a novel, That White Girl, published by Atria in 2007, essentially a fictionalized version of Calderon’s life story. Eventually she graduated cum laude from San Diego State University with a degree in Africana studies and a passion to fight for social justice. Since that time she’s worked as a counselor in teen shelters, taught and lectured at colleges around the country, and appeared on stage with a host of celebrated rappers and hip-hop artists.
“I was transformed because of my white privilege,” she says in a phone interview about her escape to college. Enrolling in African-American studies, she “learned about white supremacy. I began to understand my whole life; hip-hop, graffiti, gangs and why they exist, and the insidious impact of white supremacy on life and how it impacts the poor and black people.”
Calderon said, “I gave up a life of partying and sef-destruction to stand up for my friends and family. Hip-hop became my vehicle.” The result is a hip-hip-driven life focused on social activism and activist publishing.
Calderon has written or co-written four books, beginning with her novel, which was originally intended to be a memoir. “Atria asked me to change it to a novel,” she said. “I wanted a book deal, so I did it.” The book has sold about 15,000 copies, but it is being developed into a feature film, coproduced by Calderon and to be directed by Heidi Miami Marshall. The filmmakers visited Denver to interview the real people behind the fictional characters. Calderon said, “It’s going to be about a year in my life. It’s a coming of age story and it’s not meant to glamorize gang life.”
Among her other books are We Got Issues: A Young Woman’s Guide to a Bold, Corageous and Empowered Life, co-edited with writer RHA Goddess (New World, 2006), a collection of “rants” by a wide range of women on social problems they face; the self-published Conscious Women Rock the Page: Using Hip Hop Fiction to Incite Social Change (2008), a book of lesson plans designed to integrate hip hop-influenced fiction into the curriculum, created by JLove and three collaborators; and Race, Love and Liberation: til the White Day is Done, an antiracism curriculum guide produced in collaboration with another education/activist, Marcella Runell Hall, also self-published, via Lulu.com.
On stage at the National Black Writers Conference, JLove spoke to audience about her new book, Occupying Privilege, and said the book was a “roller-coaster ride.” Calderon said the book was initally planned to go to a traditional publisher but she clashed with her agent over the book’s “vision,” so she decided to self-publish. “It took longer to finish, but it’s my book, I didn’t have to compromise, and I get a better royalty," she said.
“We want to raise money for groups that are doing what’s right,” she told PW. “The book is a tool for racial justice. It’s an experiment, but it feels right with my heart and with my politics.”