Jamal Joseph is a rare character. Yes, he’s a proud former member of the Black Panther Party, a professor at an Ivy League institution, co-founder of the Harlem based organizations, New Heritage Films and Impact, and now author of acclaimed memoir Panther Baby. But none of those things led me to that conclusion. I say it because even after a life lived – even after prison and depression. Even after the beatings and the betrayal. Even after the drug use and the pain of loss – Jamal still believes in a life dedicated to social change. An oddity when I sit in classrooms semester after semester listening to 18 to 22 year olds discuss how utterly hopeless the world is and how utterly transfixed we all are in that hopelessness. Yet in just under an hour, Jamal met all of my skepticism with optimism, as we discussed everything from fatherhood, to law enforcement, to the women in the Black Panther Party and most importantly, how we move forward.
EBONY: Why did you write this book? Why did you think it was the right time for Panther Baby?
Jamal Joseph: People have been urging me to write about my life for a number of years and as I travel the country and talk to younger audiences, they would always ask, what was it like? And they would ask it with a kind of enthusiasm and twinkle in their eyes. And for a generation that I think needs hope and needs examples of people who struggle for liberation and people who pursue their dreams against all the odds, I thought that the time was right for this story.
The other thing that I figured out is that I needed to write it from the voice of a 15 year old man-child trying to figure out how to be a man and that path to manhood led him to the struggle for liberation, led him to education, led him to the creative arts, led him to understand that the greatest power that we have as a people is our love of self, love of community and love of the world.
EBONY: You spoke a little bit about the younger generation and I think a lot of us struggle with direction and questions of why generations before us didn’t leave us the guidebook. And we look up to organizations like the Black Panthers. What do you think is a healthy relationship to have with these iconic figures of the past? And is there value in trying to recreate organizations like the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army?
I wish I could say that there’s a point on the (Ten Point) Program that has been fully realized, but all of those things still need to be addressed. Some things are better. Some things are worse.
JJ: I have to remind people how young we were. If you look at the men and women who were apart of the civil right movement, they were high school students, college students, or people who were recent college grads so you’re talking about the real foot soldiers of the struggle being people in their teens and in their twenties. I joined the Black Panther Party when I was 15 years old. I looked up to the older brothers and sisters as my role models, but people like Afeni Shakur were 20 or 21 when I joined the Panthers. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who founded the Panther movement, were 26 and 28 respectively so they were very young.
We were also involved in the movement all the time. It was 24/7 for us. It wasn’t community service on weekends or after school. And you really felt like you were in battle for a struggle for liberation [and] that we were going to win in the not too distant future. There was no time for us to reflect in that way and to really say, “Should the struggle continue for the next generation?” And then when we realized that we weren’t going see victory; we were being killed. We were going to jail. We were underground. We were dealing with survival, prison, death, and the depression and post trauma that came from not winning this struggle that we thought we were going to win. So it wasn’t a conscious thing not to think about the next generation and not to leave the blueprint. I think now we understand (those from my generation) how important legacy building is and how important it is to communicate to young people.
EBONY: So do you think there’s value in resurrecting and recreating organizations movements?
JJ: Yeah. In the Panther Party, we understood that we stood on the shoulders of brothers and sisters in the Civil Rights Movement and that previous to that, they stood on the shoulders of people who were apart of the labor movement and people who were apart of the abolitionist, anti-slavery movement. That spirit of resistance and that spirit of love are very important to keep in line. The mistake that the elders make is