Jonathan Pope wants to help Black queer writers and readers feel seen

The teacher and part-time bookseller launched a YouTube book review channel in June 2020, introducing a needed voice into the larger literary conversation

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Jonathan Pope

When Jonathan Pope was in third grade at Riverside School in Cleveland, his teacher would read to the class from the Roald Dahl novel The Witches, adopting different voices for each of the characters, which helped pull Pope into a literary world in which he was soon blissfully lost.

“She would read a chapter every Friday, and it literally made me want to pick up books, to figure out how these different characters would sound, and what these worlds were like,” said Pope, a teacher and part-time bookseller at Prologue Bookshop in the Short North. “So I think that was probably the first book I really fell in love with, and I’ve read it maybe 20 to 25 times.”

Unlike many students, Pope never cringed when assigned book reports, realizing from a young age that he loved analyzing and discussing literature as much as he did exploring these worlds as a reader, which is part of what led him to a career in teaching. Even now, he fills the pages of every book he reads with highlighted passages, handwritten annotations and scribbled thoughts inspired by the works, processing each page carefully, he said, in the hopes of increasing his understanding of his greater surroundings.

“When I was growing up, reading served more as an escape. Now I read with a lot more intention, and with the goal of learning and discovering more about the world,” said Pope, who has started to share these discoveries via a series of reviews recorded and posted to YouTube, which are collected here on his website. “Reading for escape is great, but at the same time books hold so much power to change how people think, how people perceive things.”

Pope said he started to awaken to this reality as a child when his mother read him Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keates, struck by his own resemblance to the story’s main character. “I was little, and my brother had just been born, and my mother used to read that book to me, because it was about this boy who just had a little sister and he didn’t want to share with her,” Pope said. “And I saw myself in that character, and ultimately I was able to learn things about life through that character.

“That’s a really big moment, when you pick up a book and you’re just like, ‘Oh, these characters feel what I feel. These characters are going through some of the things I’m going through.’ It’s almost like you’re finding yourself, like you’re really being seen.”

This is a sensation Pope has catalogued repeatedly in his reviews, which heavily center Black and queer authors, beginning with his deep dive into How We Fight for Our Lives, a memoir penned by Columbus poet and writer Saeed Jones.

“Unfortunately, fighting seems to be a ever-constant theme in the life of us Black queer folk,” Pope wrote (some early reviews were also written out longform, with Pope eventually gravitating exclusively toward video to increase accessibility). “Fighting for our lives from the moment we’re born. Fighting for a place in the world, fighting for love, fighting for acceptance, fighting for the right to live.”

More:The survival of Saeed Jones

Pope said he was further inspired to record and post these reviews to YouTube by the paucity of Black voices occupying the space — a glaring omission he first noticed while attempting to track down reviews of reads suggested in the wake of last year’s reignited Black lives matter movement.

“When I went into the YouTube book review space to see what people were saying about these books, there were a limited number of Black book-tubers, especially those who were talking about these books written by Black authors,” Pope said. “People really weren’t talking about Black queer authors, or authors writing about Black queer identity, or struggles, or even just stories.”

At the time, Pope had just finished reading How We Fight for Our Lives, a book to which he felt a natural connection. So he sat down, pressed record on his iPhone and filmed a review that he posted to YouTube in June 2020. In the months since, Pope has recorded roughly a half-dozen more reviews, presenting compellingly personal reflections on books such as Heavy by Kiese Laymon, In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow and Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, among others.

While Pope’s YouTube audience had grown steadily, he said his ambitions for the review channel remain the same: continuing to shine a light on authors who are sometimes overlooked in the larger literary discourse.

“I’m still coming from the same place, and I’m trying not to change what I’m reading or who I’m trying to reach,” he said. “I want to maintain that same goal of helping people feel a little more seen, and to show them that there are other people like them out there.”