Jamal Joseph’s Path From Black Panther to Professor
Jamal Joseph’s life has all the makings of a great book. A Black Panther at only 15, he was in jail at 16 and later served time in federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., where he got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. After his release, he founded a theater group, became a filmmaker and today is a Columbia professor. Yet he avoided writing an autobiography.
“When you’re living in your own skin, even though people are telling you your life is really interesting, you kind of resist that,” he said. “And the storyteller in me didn’t know quite how to tell the story.”
Joseph, now 59, is the founder of Impact Repertory Theatre, a Harlem performing arts group for teenagers and young adults, and does a lot of public speaking to youth groups. Their curiosity about his early life helped him overcome his writer’s block. The key, he realized, was to tell his story not from the perspective of an older man looking back, “but as this wide-eyed 15-year-old kid trying to figure out what life was about.”
The result is Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion & Reinvention, published Feb. 15 by Algonquin Books. Written for young adults, the book chronicles Joseph’s formative years as a Black Panther, concentrating primarily on the period between the ages of 15 and 20, a time he calls a “hyper life” because so much was happening around him and to him.
“It was energizing, it was exhilarating, it was frightening, it was all of those emotions that can charge a young person in a positive way,” Joseph says. “It was full of accomplishments and difficulties and more than most people get in far more years.”
When writing, Joseph was mindful of the literary efforts of fellow Black Panthers, some of whom tried to write books for years. “They would always get stuck because they felt a duty to the politics, to what they know now … and that stopped it from being a good read,” Joseph says.
He hoped to write it in such a way that young people would read it much as he had read Manchild in the Promised Land, Down These Mean Streets and The Autobiography of Malcolm X—three coming-of-age stories from the ’60s by black and Latino writers—when he was a teenager. “The prose of those books was just so powerful and theatrical and alive,” he says.
Joseph’s unmarried mother moved to New York City from Cuba while pregnant with him. He never met his father. He was raised in foster care until the age of 4 and after that by Noonie Baltimore, the loving, Bible-reading housekeeper of his foster parents, who adopted him.
Joseph was a church-going honor student until the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., when he became an angry young man and joined the Panthers. “I got to the Panthers thinking that it was going to be all about anger and violence and revolution, and what it was really all about was service, the breakfast program and the free health clinic,” he said. “In fact, you held a pancake spatula and a diaper much more [than a gun] in the Black Panther Party.”
Nonetheless, Joseph participated in the student takeover of Columbia in 1968 and later became a spokesman for the party in New York City. At age 16, he was among 21 Panthers arrested and charged with conspiracy to blow up department stores, a police station, railroad tracks and the Bronx Botanical Garden. Unable to raise the $100,000 bail, he spent a year on Riker’s Island before his case was severed from those of his co-defendants because of his age. They were later acquitted.
Once out of prison, Joseph stayed active in the Panthers but eventually went underground, making ends meet with odd jobs that included teaching karate and driving a cab. He married, began acting and participated “in the struggle,” as he puts it, by helping movement people get false papers or find places to stay.
In 1981 he was convicted for harboring a fugitive, someone who had taken part in the robbery of a Brink’s armored car in Rockland County. Sentenced to 12 years in prison, he served 5½ years, during which he earned degrees from Kansas State University and began writing and acting in the prison theater company, skills he would put to good use when he founded Impact Theater in 1997. That, in turn, led to his being hired as an adjunct professor at Columbia’s School of the Arts, where he is now a full professor of professional practice.
Joseph is well aware of the irony inherent in him being part of an institution where he once led protests. “Sometimes I walk across campus and I just get giddy,” he says. “And I think the lesson there is that anything in life is possible.”