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