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?
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 that we preach, instead of teach. And that we scare instead of share. The mistake that the younger generation makes is that they dismiss instead of witness. It’s a part of growing up. It’s recognizing legacy. It’s building upon legacy. And it’s that intergenerational communication and appreciation of what we all bring that’s going to lead to liberation.
EBONY: I was struck by something you said at a book signing I went to in Harlem. You said: “You have to meet the people at their needs.” Can you explain what you meant by that and the context behind that statement?
JJ: What the Panthers learned from the grassroots organizers of the Civil Rights movement –– many of them coming from the Black church –– was the need for dealing with food, clothing, shelter in the community. And the breakfast program is one of the greatest examples of that. You come into the community and you’re talking to people who are struggling to pay their rent, to put food on the table and you’re talking about liberation and capitalism. BUT liberation to someone who is hungry is a meal. Liberation to someone who is sick is medicine.
A movement that says that it loves the people figures out how to take care of the people. So the breakfast program came out of us hearing that Black kids are disruptive and they’re not as smart and they’re not paying attention but how can you expect a kid in kindergarten or first grade to listen and learn that 3 apples + 2 apples = 5 apples and his stomach is growling. So there were practical ways to organize folks and then to get folks to think about working together and then comes the bigger questions of liberation.
And also when the community had continuance vigils around brother Ramarley Graham in the Bronx, who was shot and murdered in his home, that was effective. It forced the police and the district attorney to look at the case and really come with an indictment to realize that was murder. And there was an amazing silent march that happened for the Stop and Frisk in Harlem on Father’s Day weekend. These things are great and important to do. They’re only one aspect to the struggle. It can’t be that we’re just reacting to an atrocity and tragedy. We have to be proactive.
EBONY: We do. But when we look at what’s going on today with online petitions and social media, do you think it’s an effective way of mobilizing? In the book you say if Bobby Seale and Huey Newton started the Black Panthers today, they would be “patrolling the streets with video cameras and laptop computers, because those are the relevant weapons of change for today.” So I’m curious to know how effective you think those tools have been in recent history.
JJ: The key part of that example is that the panthers would also be in the community patrolling. Not in chat rooms. Or in Google groups. But in the community actually patrolling, and still doing breakfast programs and doing health clinics. So it’s really about engagement. And to all of the people who are struggling from the Occupy movement to the Black Student Groups, the thing that I would be passionate about and a bit old-fashioned about is that need for us to be on the street together, in those meetings together, in the room together, giving service together because there’s no way to know a person like there is when you’re in contact with them and struggling together and winning together and losing together and crying together and hugging together.
EBONY: So we get to the part of Panther Baby where the party starts to unravel. And I think those of us who are students of that time period don’t like to focus on what went wrong. We like the image on our wall to remain strong and iconic, but I think it’s important for us to learn from that painful period. What do you think we can learn?
JJ: What the government did that was very vicious in terms of the effect –– and very strategic and clever on their part –– was to figure out the counter intelligence program (COINTELPRO) designed by J. Edgar Hoover. The program was designed to create tension and division and distrust between people who were a part of the same organizations.
But we have to understand, that this idea of gossip and slander and mistrust and climbing to the top by stepping on somebody’s back has become so (much) a part of what they teach us as apart of the American fabric. However, in the corridors of power, if you’re talking about government, military and business, they practice solidarity. They practice communication. They practice sharing that information. They practice watching each others' back in the name of achieving their goals.
EBONY: What’s your relationship to police officers and law enforcement today?
JJ: I think that my attitude and, by the way, it was our attitude in the Black Panther Party, is vigilance and engagement. Just because you work for the city doesn’t make you an oppressor. It’s your attitude about it.
EBONY: In the book, you mention a lot of women who shaped you. From your grandmother Noonie to Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur. I think in our community, when women are raising boys alone, we tend to focus on all the ways in which they fall short instead of the ways in which they excel. Can you talk to us about the way that women have shaped your life?
JJ: I’m always proud to say that the brothers in the Panther Party taught me how to fight and the women in the Panther Party taught me how to be a man. They taught me responsibility. They taught me how to make breakfast for kids who were hungry. They taught me how to change diapers. They taught me how to keep my word. There was a Black woman who was a teacher who came in and asked me, to come speak to her class. The day came and went and I just completely didn’t do it. I had gotten into the car with the brothers to do something cool and macho and Afeni said, you gave her your word. They depended upon you and you let them down and nothing is more powerful than your word – and it was a life changing moment for me. But that lesson came from a woman in the Black Panther party, not from a man.
So you know its true: you hear that it’s hard for a woman to raise a man alone but I would say that it’s hard for a man to raise a son alone. Because there’s a part of manhood that needs to deal with respect and sensitivity and love and being consistent. And women will teach you about that consistency. She’s mom all the time.
The other thing is that because of the arrests and the police raids and the people who got killed, the women outnumbered the men in the Black Panther Party and those powerful, magnificent, strong Black women would not let those offices close. They would not let those breakfast programs stop feeding the kids. They would not let those health clinics stop giving out medicine. They were there. History doesn’t give enough credit to the women in the Black Panther Party from the well known women like Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown and Afeni Shakur to sisters in New York like Wanda Jones and Claudia Williams and all those sisters who were there on a day-to-day basis.
EBONY: You’re a father now and you’ve been a mentor and a godfather to many young men, including the late Tupac Shakur (What?! He’s his godfather?!). What has that role of father taught you? What do you know now, as a parent that you didn’t know before?
JJ: There’s two major lessons that fatherhood has taught me. One is to be as strong as you can and be strong enough to let go. Give them the foundation and then allow them to try it and allow them to fail as well as succeed. And the other lesson about fatherhood that I try to focus, again comes from a Black woman. I was in prison and there was a corrections officer and his name was Abdul Karim. He would leave the TV on and wheel it onto the tier and we would be in our cells and Maya Angelou was being interviewed by Ellis B. Haizlip – an amazing guy who had a talk show on called Soul on PBS. And Dr. Angelou was talking about being a parent and she says here’s what I learned about motherhood: You don’t have to be perfect but you have to be available. I was in prison and I was 17 years old. But those words struck me as powerful and as the foundation of what it is to be a parent.
EBONY: A lot of Panther Baby takes place in Harlem. Sometimes I hear the sentiment that “Harlem is nowhere,” and that if you come looking for that energy and that community of the past, that you wont find it. Do you feel that way?
JJ: No, I don’t feel that. In the same way that I don’t feel like the movement has been lost. All throughout Harlem in the summer, there are block parties and community celebrations and there are film festivals and there are people keeping the spirit alive. The fact that I can walk into a grade school and someone can introduce me as someone who is member of the Black Panther Party and the kids will sit up and go, "You were a Black Panther?" means that we are keeping legacy alive.
EBONY: So the Ten Points Program. What does that look like today, in 2012?
JJ: Sadly, the Ten Point Program looks the same as it did 45 years ago. I wish I could say that there’s a point on the program that has been fully realized but all of those things still need to be addressed. Some things are better. Some things are worse. We want the power to determine the destiny of our community – we still don’t have that. (Program point) number two, we want full employment for all of our people. They talk about the national unemployment rate hovering around 9 percent. Our rate is always double that. Sometimes triple in some communities. Don’t have that! We want decent housing fit for shelter for human beings. We don’t have that. Point number 7: We want an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of Black people. Don’t have that. So sadly that’s a document that still we can look at and go, "Wow! The Panthers wrote this in 1966. We still have work to do."
EBONY: You’re a professor at Columbia University, an institution that you once exhorted students to burn down. How has being a professor changed you?
JJ: I’m lucky that I teach in the School of the Arts and artists question the world a little bit more than everyone else. I have found that what I do in terms of perspective and conversation have been welcome. And when I’m in the room, I try not to go in with an agenda. I try not to go in thinking at the end of the course that everyone is going to be radicalized. I try to think that I give them the tools to really investigate their craft and along the way share some of my stories and some of my ideas but not too much because the main thing is for them to find voice. I was surprised because I thought I was coming here to teach one course for one semester and here I am 14 years later as a full professor and the former chair of the department.
EBONY: So I hear that you wrote the screenplay for this book?
JJ: I did. I wrote a screenplay for Panther Baby and looking for support so that we can do it in Harlem and independently as a film hopefully next year.