The book jacket for Panther Baby reads: “Activist, Urban Guerilla, Drug Addict, Poet, Convict, Filmmaker, Professor, Youth Advocate, Oscar Nominee.” Is there any life experience you haven’t had?
I’m not a very good cook, except for breakfast, and that’s because the Black Panthers had a free breakfast program that I worked in. I should probably take a cooking course with Chef Ramsey.
What is the biggest misconception about the Black Panther Party?
That the Panthers were racist and hated white people. In fact, the Panthers believed in class struggle and created the slogan “All Power to the People,” which meant Black power to Black people, White power to White people, Brown power to Brown people, Red power to Red people, and Yellow power to Yellow people.
I went into the Panther office as a fifteen-year-old thinking they would give me a gun and send me out to kill a white guy. Instead they gave me a stack of books and told me to study and to report for duty the next morning serving breakfast to schoolchildren.
Why did you join the Panthers?
I joined the NAACP Youth Council when I was thirteen years old. I was fifteen when Dr. King was killed and was furious that a white racist killed our Prince of Peace. The Panthers were the most militant group around, so two of my older friends and I found the location of a Panther office and went there without knowing what the organization was really about.
I also grew up without a father and was seeking the path to manhood. The Panthers were brave, strong, and “super bad,” all qualities that appeal to young men searching for identity. Kids join gangs, sports teams, and the military for the same reason — the search for belonging and identity.
How did you become a writer?
I spent nine-and-a-half years in prison. When I first arrived at Leavenworth Federal Prison an old convict told me, “Young blood, you can serve this time, or you can let this time serve you.” His advice became my daily mantra. I earned two college degrees, started a theater company, and wrote volumes of plays, poetry and essays. When I was released from prison, I studied film, and received a fellowship to the Sundance Film Institute. That was the beginning of my career as a screenwriter and filmmaker. I also kept writing and directing plays.
Why did you write Panther Baby?
Partially because friends and family kept pushing me to write a memoir, but mainly because the teenagers whom I mentor through my youth program IMPACT, and teens and students whom I speak to when I travel around the country always ask the question: “What was it like?”
So I tried to tell a story through the curious eyes and passionate heart of a fifteen-year-old manchild trying to find his place in the world during the Civil Rights/Black Power era. It’s a story that I hope will resonate with all of us who have a dream and with all young people who are trying to make their way to the mountaintop.
*Listen to Jamal Joseph in conversation with TNB founding editor Brad Listi on the Other People with Brad Listi podcast.