Introducing the New Editor of the Oxford American: Danielle A. Jackson
“I like stories that trouble borders and boundaries we have all taken for granted for too long.”
You may have seen the history-making news: in March 2021, the nonprofit quarterly Oxford American announced a transition in leadership roles.
In January, the publication’s headquarters relocated from downtown Little Rock to the campus of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. The OA’s Executive Editor, Sara A. Lewis, was promoted to Executive Director. Lewis has been spearheading the OA’s digital initiatives for the past three years. And some readers may be quite familiar with her voice: Lewis is the host and co-producer of the OA podcast, Point South, which recently earned a significant grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Lewis, who has a PhD from the University of Southern Mississippi and teaches an OA-focused publishing practicum at UCA, is the first queer and first female Executive Director in the OA’s 29-year history.
Ryan Harris, who was previously the publication’s Executive Director, is now the organization’s Finance Director.
Eliza Borné, who was named Editor in 2015, stepped down from her role to join the Central Arkansas Library System as the Director of Development. In the meantime, Memphis native Danielle A. Jackson, who joined the OA as Managing Editor in February 2020, was appointed Interim Editor in March, then officially became the magazine’s editor in mid-May. In a statement shared on the OA’s website, Jackson said, “The Oxford American is the pinnacle of literary publishing and a definitive voice of our region that I looked to for years as a student of writing long before I imagined myself as part of the institution.”
Jackson led the magazine’s music issue project in 2020 and has edited stories by Bryan Washington, Harmony Holiday, Patterson Hood, Jamey Hatley, and others. Prior to her appointment at OA, she was an associate editor at Longreads. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Vulture, Bookforum, the Criterion Collection, and other outlets. Jackson is the first Black editor-in-chief in the OA’s 29-year history.
I spoke to Jackson about the significance of her new title, her identity as a writer and editor, her love of music, and her future plans for the OA.
Vanessa Willoughby: In your Editor’s Letter for Oxford American’s Issue 113, Summer 2021, you note that your appointment as interim editor “means that, for the first time in its twenty-nine-year history… [the magazine] is helmed by a person of color, a Black woman.” What does this distinction mean to you?
Danielle Jackson: It means everything and also nothing at all. At its best it’s another step of progression symbolically for a publication rooted in Southern values and aesthetics that hasn’t always had as many people of color as contributors or on its staff as being of the region might warrant. The American South is still home to more than half of all the Black people in the United States; it’s my ancestral homeland, for all the generations that I know anything about, my family has lived here. My four-time great-grandparents were born in Virginia and Georgia in the late 18th century. People indigenous to the region still live here. Whole swaths of the region—some of our most important cities commercially, actually—are majority Black. I’ll say the magazine has always given time, space, and credence to creations and cultures of a multi-ethnic South.
The OA started in the early 90s, during a kind of height of multiculturalism, and really got into the swing of things during the Clinton era (which we all thought was more progressive than it was—at least I did, then—I was a child.) I would also say the magazine has at times, in the past, participated in a kind of coverage that has been anthropological, stereotypical, and less than precise about nuances of identity. One wonderful intern told me last year, in combing through our (delightful and extensive) archive, she found many stories about Latinx people, but far fewer written by them. Changing the frame just a little, I think, can provide different kinds of stories.
If you’re keeping count of diversity or inclusion metrics, or thinking about the ways publishing works more broadly, it is a significant event. That announcement also came at the same time news of my colleague Sara A. Lewis’s promotion. She’s the first out queer person to run the nonprofit that supports us. Where I now live, the state legislature passed a ban on gender confirming surgery, overriding the governor’s veto. There has never been a Black person representing Arkansas in Congress; not even during Reconstruction. It’s one of about two dozen states or territories to hold that distinction. For multiple reasons, we have not had the political power our numbers suggest we should. In that context, it’s meaningful for me to have a voice in this way, and I feel a responsibility to do something meaningful with it for however long or short I am able.
At the same time, I’m just another person with another point of view. It’s difficult and incredibly lonely to be the first in any endeavor. I try to remember that really, I’m just another person taking a new job in an effort to make decisions and think well, with some of the pressure off.
VW: Your hometown is Memphis, TN, which you moved back to after more than 20 years away. In what ways has your identity or idea of what it means to be a “Southerner” influenced your worldview and in turn, your identity as a writer and editor?
DJ: I love this question, and I have written about this before, but I truly did not realize I was a Southerner until going to college in Washington, DC. It’s like when Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Basically, meeting Black people from around the world taught me a lot about my own specific positionality but also so much about the joy and kinship and honestly, the sensual pleasures of diaspora. I detest the word minority and find it inaccurate in describing me—most of the world is actually brown or some variation therein. Having grown up in magnet schools in the Memphis City School system, which were created in response to white flight, it was shocking to realize this and to feel so much belonging in my body with people who looked like me and with whom I felt some recognition, but who were different.
So being a Southerner means a specific set of cultural markers—how I like my food cooked and seasoned a certain way and the rhythms I use to tell a story or the way I dance like my aunts. I am a little belligerent; I love sweat and hard work—all of that is very Memphis. But it is for me also connected to a global South, to a diaspora of people with whom I share a kinship.
As an editor, I like stories that revel in that kinship or wrestle with its impossibility. I like stories that trouble borders and boundaries we have all taken for granted for too long. As a writer, I want my words to feel alive, have texture, and thrum as much as my favorite songs.
VW: While you were at Longreads, you launched Hive, “a digital series, anthology, or zine of women and femme people writing about music.” How does your love of music shape your approach to storytelling and editing?
DJ: I was hired by the OA to work on its annual music issue right before Hive launched, so it was really fresh for me—I’d spent several months planning it, conceiving it, brainstorming dream contributors, and editing its first stories. I do believe at the core of who I am as a writer and editor is in that series in its most essential form. Rigorous, critical thinkers discussing art objects using multiple methods, including the portals of memory and the body, as tools for analysis. Formally, those are all the methods I hope to learn to utilize seamlessly as a writer, and pieces that unfold through those various lenses are the types of stories I most love to pursue as an editor.
I think as a Southerner or as a Black woman who came of age at a certain point in history—the 90s, which was very rich musically as far as Black pop—sound is just an important part of my days. It helps orient and soothe my nervous system and allows me to access feelings that are hard for me in other ways. I played piano and baritone horn and sang as a kid; my siblings played instruments and sang; my mom was in a doo-wop group when she was a teenager. Music was always everywhere, in really mundane ways, so even if something I write is not about songs or sounds directly, it usually is in some indirect way.
VW: A lot of writers have rituals or habits they perform when sitting down to create. As an editor, do you have any rituals or practices that you employ every time you edit? How has that changed from the beginning of your editing career to your current role at OA?
DJ: I still and always have really relied a lot, possibly too much, on paper—printing things out to understand structures and shapes of a story. I make a big pile of pages and drafts on the floor. I have a real need to be tactile with written text. The only thing that has changed is the volume of drafts I receive and work on, so I will probably need to get a handle on that soon.
VW: What is your vision for the future of the OA? Is there something you want to accomplish that the magazine has not yet undertaken?
DJ: When people asked me this in the first couple of weeks into our transition, I was always pretty befuddled—but I joined the team as managing editor and had clear goals I’d brought with me into that role, back to the South. Maybe my ambitions are larger in scale now in a sense? Because I have learned more about the organization and the region as an adult. I have a stronger sense of what’s possible… at least I’m starting to get a clear grip on what the magazine has achieved over the past 29 years. It is an award-winning, well-regarded quarterly magazine and has published some of the most significant writers of our time, early in their careers. It has shaped and defined a certain kind of music journalism; it has published stunning visual art alongside poetry and rigorous feature writing. I’d be foolish to want to fiddle too much with that.
We can do more of it, we can go deeper into it, we can let more people in, meet them where they’re at. We can make sure we’re covering communities from the inside; we can help more artists from different backgrounds emerge and innovate and help us bring more beauty to our audiences. We can connect ourselves to our cosmopolitanism, to all the nations and creeds and foodways within our DNA (mine alone has connections to people who are Nigerian, Senegalese, Gambian, Ghanaian, and Jamaican.) We can trouble borders, connect the American South to the global South more blatantly and boldly. We can get really specific and publish a series of stories on Orange Mound, one of the oldest Black neighborhoods in the South, or on the hallows of Milton, WV, which we are in our forthcoming issue.
More tangibly, I’d like us to publish more visual art—as photo essays in the magazine and on the web. We want to create more films and make every form of media as immersive and indelible as the print product. We’ve done a film issue in the past. I’d love to do one again, and perhaps something on the fiber arts. The South’s history is so intertwined with the textile industry. What does that look like today? I’m interested in going farther into our expressive culture as much as I can, in multiple, prismatic ways.