Newsmaker: Jamal Joseph

One educator’s odyssey from the streets of Harlem to the halls of Columbia

February 22, 2012


In 1970, Jamal Joseph exhorted students at Columbia University to burn their campus to the ground. Today, he is chair of Columbia’s School of the Arts film division in New York City. His personal odyssey—from the streets of Harlem to Rikers Island, Leavenworth penitentiary, and the halls of Columbia—is detailed in Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention (Algonquin, 2012). Charged with conspiracy as one of the youngest members of the Panther 21, Joseph was twice sent to prison. While incarcerated, he earned two college degrees and wrote five plays and two volumes of poetry. He sat down with American Libraries Associate Editor Pamela Goodes—before delivering the Arthur Curley Lecture at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in Dallas—to discuss his book and about growing up with the Black Panthers. Watch the full interview at the bottom of the page.

AMERICAN LIBRARIES: Your book offers so many lessons, especially for today’s youth. Is that why you decided to tell your story?

JAMAL JOSEPH: It actually is. I work with young people in New York and travel the country speaking to high school and college students. The book is written through the curious eyes and passionate heart of a 15‑year‑old who was trying to figure out the path to manhood as much as trying to be involved in the social activism of the late 1960s.

How did you begin working with the Black Panthers and why?

I was raised by a wonderful adoptive grandmother, Jessie Mae (“Noonie”) Baltimore, who made sure I was active in the church and in the NAACP Youth Council. Through dinner-table conversations about what was going on in the black community and what was going on in the world, I had that sense of purpose that our lives mattered more than just what was going on personally with the family. Then, when Dr. [Martin Luther] King was killed, there was was an outrage in the community. But there was also an attraction to what we had been seeing and hearing on television, in the streets, and on college campuses, from the Black Power movement and from people like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown.

One day I’m watching TV and I see the Panthers storm the state capitol of Sacramento in their Panther uniforms with guns and making this articulate and passionate bold defense of why black people should have the right to bear arms. I wanted to be that. It was the coolness and the badness of the Panthers that first attracted me, combined with that rage that Dr. King had been assassinated.

Once I arrived at the Panther office, I quickly learned that very day, that very moment, that the first weapon I would be given would not be a gun but a book and that the emotion of hatred and anger had to be replaced by a feeling of love for the community and a willingness to work hard for the struggle.

How important was reading in your development?

Reading was very important in my development. The value placed on education by Noonie, my grandmother, was paramount. She made sure that I read. This is a woman who herself had only a 6th‑grade education and came from the South, who worked very, very hard and was a domestic but understood the value of education in terms of the community improving itself and her grandson achieving his dreams.

She made sure I read. She made sure I did my homework. She would make me show her homework and would make me read and explain what she didn’t understand. I grew up going to honors classes and being a “smart kid”—a smart kid who hung out with the bad kids after school. I was kind of a puzzle to my family.

The Panthers were tough; they weren’t afraid. You studied. We saw these kinds of books in the Panther office: The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver; Before the Mayflower by Lerone Bennett Jr.; and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks and Wretched of the Earth—tough books to read and get through.

You saw people who thought they understood what was going on in terms of social activism, world power, and geopolitics come to grips with a deeper understanding by having to study and really work hard. Then we saw people who could not read when they walked into the Black Panther office but who later learned to read and write because Panthers would tutor them. The first lesson would be the Panther 10-Point Program. You would see people turning into brilliant writers and public speakers after coming in knowing they somehow wanted to be involved.

You don’t hear much about the Panthers’ focus on education.

It was primary, and it was the first thing you encountered when you came into the Panther office. The second thing you encountered was community service. First I got a stack of books, and the second thing I got, literally, was a pancake spatula because the Panthers had a free breakfast program. They also had free health clinics. A day in the Black Panther office was a day of service and work in the community. You’d spend 95% of your work studying and doing community service and maybe 5% on guard duty at the office because by then the offices were being raided each night. It was more of a protective posture. It’s easier for the media to get headlines if they’re writing about that 5% of people who dared stand up against the system.

It’s also easier for the government to attack you if it criminalizes your movement. It’s interesting that when you look at the FBI memos, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were more concerned with the breakfast program and about the free books than they were about the guns. Truth be told, the period of history where the Panthers carried guns was actually a very short one because the Panthers carried guns in Oakland, California, where it was legal to carry guns. Those gun laws were quickly changed.

In most Panther cities, the Panthers patrolled the streets. They were unarmed. There were guns in the homes or in the offices. We had incidents like when Fred Hampton was murdered in his sleep and the Panther offices were blown up. In Philadelphia, for example, men were stripped naked in the street at one o’clock in the morning, exposed to the elements and indignities by the Philadelphia Police Department.

Is there a particular library or librarian that aided your growth, that provided any particular guidance as you grew up in this movement?

I have a friend who grew up with me in New York, who now lives in Dallas. We talked about those days when it was a great trip to go to our local library up in the Bronx, the Wakefield Library on 229th Street. It was such joy. That was the way that you got your videos. They would let us stay and read. They would let us check out books, and that honor system of returning the books was an amazing part of it. It was also school librarians, like Mrs. Johnson, who made us feel at home in the library. Then there were those books I read early that made me understand about the struggle for identity. There was that thing of understanding what books and literature had done for young black men who struggled with identity in search of their manhood, in search of their purpose in life.

You went from a public school environment to what might be considered a private education at Harlem Preparatory School. How did that affect you?

Harlem Prep was one of the schools that opened in response to the lack of education that was happening in the community. A group of educators came around to talk about community schools, or what we now call charter schools. There was this idea of community schooling—what the Panther Party called the Liberation School Program—that first started along with the breakfast program, where we would give out books and talk with kids in school about black history. Then it became a Saturday program and then an afterschool program. During the teachers’ strike in 1968, it became a program where parents brought their kids because parents felt like, “Well, maybe the teachers are on strike, but our children are not going to strike. They need to learn.”

Number five in the Panther 10-Point Program was about education. It points to “an education that teaches us our true history and our place in American society.” We take that for granted now, in the age of [President Barack] Obama, where there is a black president and where we have people who have made great achievements in politics and in education and sports. We take for granted that this is part of the ongoing curriculum. Not so long ago, it was as if black people had made no contributions to American history. We’re not just talking about contributions to black history but to American history. If you came up through the education system, you came up thinking only white people had made a contribution to what was going on. So what did this do to your image if you dared to dream of becoming a doctor, a lawyer, or a college professor, especially when you had no role models? Children often were not getting that encouragement in the classroom. People were saying, “You tested really well and you might be a good mechanic.” That’s what a teacher told me early on: “In that vocation, you tested really well. You should go to a trade school because you might be very good with mechanics.” The truth is that I’m now a college professor. I’m a writer. I’m a director. I’m a filmmaker. I do all of these things fairly well. I’m a terrible mechanic.

It appears that one of the turning points in your life was your involvement with the Actors’ Playhouse ensemble.

Because I love to tell stories and joke, people had always told me, “Oh, you should be an actor.” Then one day I was walking by a theater in Greenwich Village called the Actors’ Playhouse. It had a sign that read “Learn acting on stage.” I walked in, and Jack Ross, who ran the theater, was there. I told him I was interested, and he gave me a monologue on the spot to read. After the read, Ross nodded and said, “That was a very intelligent and sensitive reading. I’m going to let you enter the class.” Later I learned that if a German Shepherd came in and barked those lines, he would say the same thing.

Although Ross was trying to fill his class, the education I got was wonderful. I did learn acting on stage with the other actors. It actually planted a seed of a creative life that didn’t come to full fruition until later. I was a member of the ensemble, did a few plays, and learned a lot about theater. I didn’t know if I was going to be a full-time actor, but I knew I enjoyed theater.

While in federal prison, some of the guys had heard I had done some acting at some theater outside, although this wasn’t on my prison résumé. They knew I was a Black Panther leader, and a couple of them talked about me knowing karate, having been a black belt and performing in a couple tournaments. “You did theater?” they asked. I responded, “How did you know that?” I got a little worried and asked myself, Is that cool? Maybe I’m going to lose my cred. That’s not part of the convict code. They said, “No, man. We heard.” They looked real intense, and I thought I was going to get beaten up because I did some plays. “You need to do something for Black History Month,” they said.

I got a job in the prison library and, while there, went to the theater section because I had been charged with doing this play. There was only one black play in the theater section, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Truth be told, there were only two plays in the whole plays section—A Raisin in the Sun and Romeo and Juliet. After reading A Raisin in the Sun, I went back to the guys and said, “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“What’s the problem?” they responded.

“This is a great play, but there are a lot of women in this play,” I said.

“Well, yeah. That’s not a problem. Look around the yard, pick out who you want, and we’ll put a dress on him,” they said.

So I wrote a play. This is how I became a writer. We started rehearsing. Prison is a dangerous and segregated place. There are sections of the yard, the mess hall, and every place you went where people just stayed together according to their groups. The Latino prisoners, the black prisoners, the white prisoners. And within those groups are these really strong gangs. They never leave unless it’s to do battle; or maybe there’s some business, such as gambling or something else. Here I am rehearsing with two guys, and into our rehearsal come two of the toughest Latino prisoners. These guys had killed a few guys since they were in prison. I thought, I’m doing life already. I’ll take more time. Do you want my license too?

They came in and now everybody’s nervous, and we’re looking over our shoulders. We’re trying to be cool. We’re trying to continue with our rehearsal because we’re thinking that these guys left this section of the yard and came all the way over here to the room. Who are they here to kill? Sure enough, as I’m looking over my shoulder, one of the leaders, Rafael, is looking very upset. I’m thinking, ;He’s working himself to really hurt somebody, to kill somebody.

After about 10 minutes, he jumps and points at me and says, “I got to talk to you, man.” I knew this was a bad idea and thought, Just talk to him man to man tomorrow and just stand your ground. See what he says.

“I’ve been here for about 10 minutes, and I’ve been watching you, homes, and I really got to let you know something,” he said. “The guy you’re working with, that ’effin guy. He’s not feeling his character.”

I responded, “Why don’t you get in and do it?” He got in and he was brilliant. I rewrote the play. The blacks and Mexicans started working together. The white prisoners were drawn in, including a member of one of those Aryan organizations. Through the power of art, we created the only integrated part of the yard. It happened through art, through literature, and writing plays. The guys got interested in that and started reading plays and doing other work. It became something that became the discovery of my creative soul in prison. I found that you can use the creative arts, writing, theater, and film, not just to bring about social awareness but to also help bring about social appeal.

What message are you going to leave librarians with here at the Midwinter Meeting?

The power and the importance of using art, education, and mentorship as a weapon, and how important the work is that they’re doing. While in prison, prisoners who were in their 60s and 70s who had been in for 20, 30, or 40 years would come around with the book cart. They would say, “Hey, young brother, you want to read this book?”

“No, I don’t want to read a book,” I’d respond.

“Let me tell you something: You’re here whether you like it or not, so you can serve this time or you can let this time serve you.”

If you paid attention, the thing that came behind that advice wasn’t membership in a gang. It wasn’t a little marijuana joint or anything else. It was a book—that very important weapon. When people talk about budget cuts, the first to go are schools and libraries. Prisons are opening up. In this country we have state‑of‑the‑art prisons and middle‑aged schools. Librarians, educators, and mentors need to understand that this is important work; this is frontline work. They can’t give up. They have to fight even harder.




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