By Dwight Hobbes
Donald “DJ” Hooker, Jr. is a refreshing change of pace from the all-too-pervasive images of young Black males constantly recurring in the mainstream media. You know: the very picture of rabid recklessness with little sense of community and less regard for human life. The lost-cause character Larenz Tate portrayed in Menace II Society, “O-Dog,” for instance.
Tate, it turns out, played a greatly different, sweetly coming-of-age character, the nice kid “Drew” in The Inkwell, which, of course, though just as well made and brilliantly acted as Menace II Society, never drew nearly as much attention. Real life examples on the order of Drew don’t make your typical news coverage.
Which is exactly why Donald “DJ” Hooker, Jr. made the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.
At 18, the handsome, personable, six-foot fount of bustling energy is a national chess champion, community activist and mentor. He’s introduced to me one Friday at the weekly Amen Corner open mic in South Minneapolis’ Peavey Park by his uncle VJ Smith of MAD DADS (“President Smith extends MAD DADS’ outreach,” MSR, July 5).
Cheerfully chatting away at breakneck speed, DJ thinks he’s found a mark, blithely asking, “Do you know how to play chess?” I tell him I know the basics.
“That’s all you need,” he says. “You know the rules, I know the rules. We’ll be even.”
“Don’t con me.” With that, I find my next writing assignment. Refusing to get rope-a-doped into a thrashing at the chess board, I get instead this cheerfully babbling brook to tell me about himself as we sit down in the park with his famous uncle, community notable Dee Henry Williams, and others holding forth in the background.
This past spring, at the U.S. Chess Federation, DJ swept what’s called the U1600 Section, with a perfect record of 7-0. Yes, I’m certain DJ and I would’ve been a perfectly even match, especially since I haven’t sat down at a board in ages and wasn’t all that good back then.
“The section I won,” he admits, “is [comprised of] some of the strongest players in the world,” he says with bright-eyed candor. No brag, just fact. And to be clear, this was not other high-schoolers young Hooker squared off against. Competition ranged in age from age eight to 80, ranked beneath only international grandmasters.
Not too shabby. His school’s team from Southwest High in Minneapolis took second in the Unrated Section.
The apple fell directly at the foot of the tree. Donald Hooker, Sr., as well as instructing his son from pre-school age, has been there as a constant role model. There’s a warm, casual air to their interactions. In fact, listening to them kid each other about computer games (Donald senior is a computer wiz, Donald junior a savvy enthusiast) and, of course, discuss chess, they sound like buddies.
Dad quietly, proudly reflects, “He’s been real disciplined, stayin’ out of trouble. Doin’ his thing, but staying with the boundaries of what’s right.”
He adds, “We play chess together. We bowl together.” The dad and son team teach chess in Minneapolis at North Regional Library Saturdays and Franklin Avenue Library on Wednesdays.
“I’m really lucky,” says DJ. “People have to pay for advice from a grandmaster. My dad is one, so all I have to do is ask him.”
Among other accomplishments, Lt. Governor Yvonne Prettner Salon presented DJ this year’s Red Wagon Award for teenagers with outstanding civil and academic engagement. This includes the time he spends volunteering at the Amen Corner and the Gay Straight Alliance at school.
“I love to just try to really give back to my community,” says DJ. “And I think people my age should get it that they need to give back to their community without needing to be asked to. Or needing to get paid to do it.”
Through Saturday mornings spent interning for producer-host Dee Henry Williams of KFAI’s “Great Blend of Watercolors” program, young Hooker was recruited to pitch in at the Amen Corner and, coincidentally, work with Uncle VJ. As for college, he has come up with a practical approach: Save money by enrolling at Minneapolis Community and Technical College for the basic required courses, then shop around for somewhere to pursue a major course of study. It helps that he’s received a Power of You grant to attend MCTC.
Also at home is Linda Hooker, DJ’s mother, along with younger brother Darnell, who he describes as “the quiet one. I used to be quiet.” Not anymore.
Saxophonists use circular breathing so they can play and breathe at the same time. They have little on DJ Hooker, who seems to have mastered that technique for talking. His enthusiasm for life itself comes across no matter what he’s discussing.
Speaking about Mom, the words pour out, as they do on every other subject, in an excited rush. “She’s real patient. She cares about me. Takes us on vacation at least once a year.” In addition to being a wife and mother, Linda Hooker is a working professional in a field that happens to benefit DJ quite nicely.
“She’s really a good writer and builds résumés for clients and is helping me build a chess résumé up to get a job. Writes poetry, likes to write stories. She is an amazing woman.”
No, one need not be a chess champion to disprove the O-Dog stereotype. There are plenty of decent young Black men who get overshadowed by a sensationalist media glare. Donald “DJ” Hooker, Jr. happens to be one.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.