'Panther Baby,' From Prisoner To Professor

Jamal Joseph was a 15-year-old honor student when joining the Black Panther Party. He later faced a 12-year sentence in Leavenworth Penitentiary for helping fugitive Panther members. Behind bars, he taught a theater group, and now he teaches the arts at Columbia University. His new book is part of Tell Me More's Black History Month memoir series. Advisory: This conversation may not be comfortable for some listeners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a new museum is opening in Washington, D.C. I visited the inaugural exhibition and I'll tell you what it sparked for me. That's my Can I Just Tell You commentary and that's next.

But, first, as we continue to observe Black History Month, we decided to acknowledge it this year by digging into recent memoirs by African-Americans. Among African-Americans, memoirs date as far back as the journals set down by former slaves. But we've noticed that now there seems to be a fresh zeal to log family history or tell a compelling personal story.

Today, we focus on a new memoir by Jamal Joseph. He is a writer and director whose work has appeared on HBO, Fox and A&E. He's also a film professor at Columbia University. And this is worth mentioning, in part because this is the very school he encouraged students to burn down as a former Black Panther, a group he joined when he was just 15 years old.

As a teenager, he faced a prison sentence of more than 300 years as part of the so-called Panther 21. It was a group of Black Panthers in New York who were arrested for conspiracy to commit arson and murder police officers, among other charges.

Jamal Joseph was eventually exonerated, but years later, he was sentenced to a dozen years in Leavenworth Penitentiary for his role in helping fugitive Panther members. Along the way, he became a poet, a playwright and director, and now he's the author of "Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention."

And Jamal Joseph joins us now. And I do want to mention that we will talk about prison life at some point and all that that entails, so please be advised if you don't consider this appropriate for you right now.

That being said, Jamal Joseph, welcome.

JAMAL JOSEPH: Oh, absolutely. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: I've been asking all of the authors we visited with this month, why did they want to write a memoir, and why now?

JOSEPH: Well, I have to say that, for at least 20 years, friends would always be encouraging me to write the book, but it's my work with young people in IMPACT Repertory Theatre in New York and when I travel and speak at high schools and colleges. Students would ask this question: What was it like? And they asked it with a kind of fire and query in the eyes that were like, what was - you know, if someone had played basketball at Madison Square Garden, what did that moment feel like?

And I realized that this needed to be the voice of the book, from the eyes of a 15-year-old man-child looking forward.

MARTIN: You discovered rather late in the game your interesting roots. Can you just tell a little bit about that? Born to a Cuban mother who came to New York to give birth to you and gave you up.

JOSEPH: And then I was raised by adoptive grandparents who were really loving and their older brothers and sisters and parents had been slaves, so I heard stories about Jim Crow and segregation and the Ku Klux Klan and lynching, first person accounts of the south where you had to not look a white person in the eye. Friends and family who had gotten lynched. They were Garveyites and then they became active in the NAACP. And so I was, again, this Afro-Cuban raised in this black Southern tradition.

MARTIN: You had mentioned that you were raised by these foster grandparents who really loved you, but really were kind of grooming you for kind of a middle-class life. I mean, you were a top student. You had thoughts about being a lawyer, certainly going to college. You know, your grandma made sure you had a starched white shirt to wear...

JOSEPH: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...to school. Why the Black Panther party?

JOSEPH: Well, Grandpa died a few years earlier, so it was just her and I. So there was the issues of a kid who was doing good in school and singing in the choir, but was trying to figure out how to be a man. So I'm hanging out with guys on the corner, trying to figure that piece out.

And then Dr. King was killed and around his assassination was this movement of black militancy. And I went to school that next day and announced to my friends that I'm going to be a black militant. I decided I had to find the most militant group on the scene and then there were the Panthers.

And we went out to the Panther office in Brooklyn, still not quite sure what I'm getting into.

MARTIN: And they really had an office. It's almost like the way that the U.S. military have recruiting offices. They really had an office that you just actually presented yourself to.

JOSEPH: Right, exactly. But we thought this was the secret headquarters of the Panthers and we also thought we had to prove ourselves and probably had to kill a white dude to be a Panther.

So we walk into the office and I'm the youngest one. I have the most to prove. And the gentleman who was running the meeting was explaining the Panther 10 point program. We want freedom. We want the power to determine the destiny of our community, full employment for our people, decent housing fit for shelter for human beings, better education.

Nothing in there about killing a white dude, but I jump up. I'm not hearing him. And I said, choose me, brother. Arm me. I'll kill a white dude right now. Whole meeting gets quiet. The gentleman calls me up front, reaches in the bottom drawer. My heart's pounding. I was like, oh, he's going to give me a big gun, like with the Panther logo on the bottom. And he hands me a stack of books.

MARTIN: A stack of books?

JOSEPH: A stack of books. "Autobiography of Malcolm X," "The Wretched of the Earth" by Frantz Fanon, "Soul On Ice" by Eldridge Cleaver. So now I think this must be a test. You know, he's trying to check me out to see if I really want to be down, you know, with the Panthers.

I said, excuse me, brother. I thought you were going arm me. He said, young brother, I just did.

MARTIN: That really caused you to rethink. It wasn't about race.

JOSEPH: Yeah. And...

MARTIN: It was about what?

JOSEPH: Yeah. It was about well, as I was walking back to my seat he said, wait. He said wait, I'm not done with you yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOSEPH: He said you came in here to talk about why you want to kill white folk. He said, of all of the police that are brutalizing people, locking them up, shooting them down, he said if they were black and the people being brutalized were white would that make things correct? And this time I answered with a part of my brain instead of my now bruised, you know, adolescent ego. I said well, no, sir. It seems like it would be wrong. He said, that's right. This is a class struggle for human rights, not just a race struggle. Study those books, you understand what the revolution is about.

MARTIN: You know, you talk about - and if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the memoir "Panther Baby," with its author Jamal Joseph. He's also a professor at Columbia University. It tells his story of going from honor student to Black Panther Party member and the lessons he learned along the way.

Just to remind, we'll be digging into a memoir every week during Black History Month. This is the latest.

Talk about prison, if you would. I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that you were facing a 300-year plus prison sentence as part of the Panther 21. You alternately served what, about a year on that charge. But then you went back. On the one hand, you're very frank. There's some very gritty details about, you know, fending off sexual attacks and also the racial divisions in prison. And you talk a little bit about what that experience was. I mean, on the one hand, you were prepared for it.

JOSEPH: Yeah. In a way you're prepared for it but in a way you're not because I always had the strength of other Panthers around me. And I think the real internal strength of what it was to be a young Black Panther happened when I was at Rikers Island, alone, and had to fend off the sexual attacks, try to organize, and then eventually had to take on the guy who was the toughest kid in the prison - who was an extorter, who was a bully, who was all of these things. And the other guys said look, this is how it goes in here. You know, you got to beat the dude down. You got to stab this dude. And then while he's bleeding you got to yell, yeah, I'm a man, right? I'm no...

MARTIN: Well, he was actually the one where you got - the title of the book came from that, it didn't? I mean...

JOSEPH: Yeah. A lot of people think that the book is about being the youngest member of the Black Panther Party in New York and the youngest member of the Panther 21. But it was actually him insisting on calling me baby.

MARTIN: In prison.

JOSEPH: In prison.

MARTIN: Calling you baby, baby or...

JOSEPH: Calling me...

MARTIN: ...Panther baby because...

JOSEPH: Yeah. And he said you're just a sweet little 'ole panther baby. On the...

MARTIN: And that was a problem because then he was kind of setting you up for victimization.

JOSEPH: He was...

MARTIN: If you didn't fight back, then...

JOSEPH: Right. Exactly. And I had resisted it. But without thinking, I was walking by, I had a full tray and I just swung this tray, hit him again, and again, and again until he was out. And then as the guys who told me - I got locked up, I was in the hole. They took him away. And when I came back out I said OK, I have to be at war with him and everybody in the house gang. And the guys in prison came to me and said well, what do you want to do? 'Cause you beat this guy down - you're in charge now. And I said well, the first thing I want to do is, like, make it be so that we have a collective in charge. And let's have political education classes and let's pool our resources so that this, you know, the three for one. You know, you go to the commissary and somebody would give you a pack of cookies but you had to give them three back so that we're not loan-sharking, extorting and raping people. And it was amazing how the energy of that prison changed.

MARTIN: But how then, did you make the transition to who you are today, to becoming a poet, a playwright, a director, a professor, started a theater company? That started in prison.

JOSEPH: That started in Leavenworth prison and it started with an older convict reiterating the advice that you could serve this time or you could let this time serve you.

MARTIN: The University of Kansas had a wonderful program, where they came in and you could earn full honors and several degree programs. They had dedicated professors who came in every night so you could go full-time at night. So I took advantage of that. Took advantage of those college courses. And the other thing that happened was kind of funny. I was sitting and I had done some theater through the Black Arts Movement, and I'm sitting in the yard and one of the older prisoners comes to me and he says, you did plays and stuff out there. And I was like how did he know that, you know? Rest of my life was kind of, you know, pretty well-known. And I said, yes. He said do something for Black History Month, and I worked it out with the warden.

JOSEPH: So I wrote a play. And the same person who was very influential got two guys who really didn't want to be actors, you know, to come to the rehearsal. So I'm teaching them acting through improv. Well, in the middle of rehearsal, I think our second rehearsal, comes the two leaders of the Latino gang. They were doing life. These guys had killed a couple of guys since they were in prison, really tough guys. And they sit down and we're thinking OK, who are they here to kill? And I'm watching out the corner of my eye and Raphael, the leader, he's getting upset. After about 10 minutes, he jumps up and he says as says: Ese, could I speak to you a minute? And I said, sure. He says, that guy you're working with, that guy that F-ing guy, yo ese, he's not feeling his character.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOSEPH: True story. So I said Raphael, why don't you come in? So he started working, now the white prisoners get worried, right? The blacks and Latinos are sneaking off to this space. What are they doing? They're send their toughest guy, his name is Reb - short for Rebel. They sent him up to the rehearsal, he comes back down and the surround him - bikers, bank robbers, white supremacists - and they go Reb, you went up there with the blacks and Mexicans? He said yup. Well, what are they doing? A play. What did you do about it, Reb? Well, they give me a part.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOSEPH: And we transformed the culture. We got our own section of the yard - where guys were in this theater company and then the musicians who could play showed up and volunteered to do music. All of a sudden the play had a soundtrack. And I began to understand at that moment, the power of arts and social change for transformation. And I decided at that moment this is what I wanted to do.

MARTIN: Looking back on all this - and nobody wants to look back and think that his or her life was a mistake. But looking back on it, what do you think it all was about? Was it a mistake?

JOSEPH: I don't think anything in my life has been a mistake. As in all things...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. I do also want to mention, you're married. You're a father. Your children are doing well.

JOSEPH: Yeah.

MARTIN: Your children are all in Ivy League schools, if you don't mind I mention that.

JOSEPH: Yeah. My children are all in Ivy League - yeah, thank you. No, I don't think so. I think it all has equipped me with the sensitivity, the wisdom, the connection to speak to a lot of different audiences and to mentor a lot of different people. Because they know when they hear these stories, they're coming from a very, very real place.

I think that along the way, you know, in the Panther Party certain movements in prison - they're mistakes. They are days that you make mistakes. But in general, dare I say, I feel like I've had a blessed life because it's help me wind up in a position to see things and do things that many, many people haven't, and to reach young people - especially in a unique way.

MARTIN: What do you hope people will draw from your book?

JOSEPH: This idea of revolutionary love. This idea of understanding that we, we're motivated by our love for the people and what you can do through service and sacrifice for the community.

Bobby Seals said that when the Black Panther Party started, that he and Huey Newton - Bobby was the cofounder and chairman of the Black Panther Party - patrol the streets of Oakland, California with shotguns and law books. Because, given the landscape of America, the personality of America, those were the dynamic weapons of social change. Bobby says if they were starting the Black Panther Party today, Panthers would still be on the streets every day, but they'd be carrying video cameras and laptop computers, because these are the dynamic weapons.

But at the bottom of all of that, and again I say if you ask any Panther why we did what we did, what we were taught above all of the books we studied, and the 10 point program, and the ideology of the Black Panther Party - they will say to you we were taught to love the people and to serve the people - mind, body and soul.

MARTIN: Jamal Joseph is a professor in Columbia University's School of the Arts, Film division. He's actually its former chair of the film division. He is the founder of the Impact Repertory Theatre Company in Harlem. His memoir is titled "Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention," and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D. C. studios.

Jamal Joseph, Prof. Joseph, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JOSEPH: Oh, thank you. It was great being here.

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