The Path to Manhood

“Good. Now do it blindfolded.”

I looked down at the gleaming M16 assault rifle I was holding and then up at the three Black Panther officers standing over me. I was fifteen years old, sitting in the middle of the floor in a Panther safe house. A .45-caliber pistol, a 12-gauge shotgun and an M1 carbine were laid out in front of me. My mouth was dry, and nervous sweat ran down my back. The Panthers had told me that my life and the life of my fellow Panthers were on the line. Error equals death. I looked up at Yedwa, my weapons instructor, and I spaced out. He had a shoulder holster with a .357 Magnum, a black beret, goatee, muscular physique, and a mad gleam in his eye that denoted he was a crazy brother, more commonly known as a crazy nigger (a wild-assed black man who would say anything, do anything, and who courted death with a smile).

The ghetto had a ranking system when it came to manhood. You could be a punk, hard, bad, or crazy. Being a soft dude meant that you were a goody-goody who was scared to fight. Punk dudes got no respect and often got their “ass shook and their lunch money took.” Hard dudes were fighters, but not like bad niggers, who would be swinging, cutting, and shooting while the hard dudes would be in heightened stages of argument. The bad niggers got all the respect. But to truly be a legend, you had to be a crazy nigger, meaning you had to give up on the possibility of a normal future and accept that any moment, any place, was a good time to die.

This manhood ranking system was connected to the idea of protecting your property, which was referred to as “mine” or “yours” as in, “I’ve got to protect mine” or “You gotta get yours.” This was part of the code of honor we learned from the older guys. Since we were all poor, “mine” or “yours” didn’t mean real estate, bank accounts, or stocks. It was more like a bike, sneakers, a girl, your mother’s honor, or a couple of square feet on a street corner. What you claimed and how far you would go to protect “mine” or “yours” determined your manhood ranking.

In 1968 nobody was badder than the Panthers. They took the manhood rating to another level. Not only were they willing to fight and die for “theirs,” they were also willing to lay down their lives for every man, woman, and child in the black community whether they knew them personally or not. Plus there were no boundaries to their craziness. They were willing to take on the police, the army, the government, every-damn-body.

And here I was, an orphan, a church boy, and an honor student with an M16 on my lap, pursuing the path to manhood.

“Brother, did you hear me?” Yedwa barked. “I said do it blindfolded.”

I snapped out of my daze, pulled a bandanna out of my jean pocket, and tied it around my eyes. Katara, an eighteen-year-old Panther, helped me adjust the blindfold so I couldn’t see. Then I began to disassemble the M16 by touch, laying the pieces in a line so I could grope for them when it was time to put the rifle back together.

I could hear Yedwa’s voice through my personal darkness. “If the pigs attack at night, they ain’t waitin’ for you to turn on a light to get your shit together. In fact, if you turn on a light, they’re going to use it to lock and unload on your ass.”

“Right on, brother,” said another Panther voice. I dropped the gun bolt on the floor. It clattered loudly.

“Concentrate, young brother,” Yedwa ordered. “Concentrate.”

Five minutes later I had put the M16 back together. I pulled the bandanna from my eyes. It was soaked with sweat. Yedwa took the rifle from me and with the precision of a combat veteran ejected the clip, cleared the chamber, and checked the weapon. Then he passed it around to the other Panthers. Finally he motioned for me to stand. “You took four minutes and thirty seconds. That means your ass would have been dead three and a half minutes ago. Practice so you can get your speed up.” With that he turned and put the rifle and the other weapons in a duffel bag. Then he put the duffel bag in a closet.

Katara put a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a bottle of wine on the coffee table. Yedwa put a John Coltrane album on the stereo. Sadik, the other Panther, grabbed one of the large pillows near the window and pulled it over to the table. I sat on the couch next to Yedwa. We all grabbed some chicken and started greasin’ and sippin’ wine from paper cups. The brothers talked about jazz, revolutionary lovemaking (that’s where the man and woman scream, “Power to the people” instead of “Give it to me”), and bourgeois Negroes who have to be “offed” before the revolution comes.

Mainly, I listened. I had only been a Panther for about three months and I hadn’t really found my place or my groove yet. Besides, I didn’t want to say the wrong thing or make the wrong joke and be thought of as a counterrevolutionary. That was far worse than being called a punk, and I heard that the consequences were much more severe. It was safer to eat my chicken and nod my head profoundly, as if I were “a deep brother.”

Sadik asked if we were off duty. Yedwa answered, “Yeah,” and headed into the bedroom.

Sadik smiled and said, “Well, it’s time to talk to Brother Roogie.” That was his code name for reefer. He produced a joint and lit it, then passed it to me. I took a hit and started coughing my lungs out.

Yedwa came back in the room and took the joint away. “Watch it, brother,” he said. “In fact, you shouldn’t even be doing that shit. What are you, fifteen?”

“Sixteen and a half,” I lied, trying to keep a straight face. By then I was floating, buzzed from the weed.

Yedwa turned on the black-and-white TV and adjusted the rabbit ears. The wine and the weed had my head feeling light, and my attention drifted from the conversation to the TV and to the posters of Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and Eldridge Cleaver that were taped to the wall. Che’s eyes seemed to be looking right at me, following me as I reached for another piece of chicken. Was he trying to send me a secret revolutionary message from the beyond? I tried to play it cool as I shifted positions to see if Che was still checking me out. He was.

Suddenly Yedwa began cursing out the television. Richard Nixon was on the screen talking about the war in Vietnam.

“Quit oinking,” Yedwa shouted. “You’re a lying fucking pig.”

The rest of us started laughing, but Yedwa was incensed. He reached under the cushion of the couch, pulled out a .38, aimed at the television, and pulled the trigger. The shot sounded like a large gun cap, not like the boom you hear in the movies. My ears started ringing as I stared at the gaping hole in the Zenith picture tube.

“Damn, Yedwa. You blasted the tube,” Sadik observed as he jumped to his feet.

“Motherfucking propaganda box,” Yedwa replied with a snarl that turned into a laugh. We all started to laugh until Sadik saw a flashing light pass by the window of the third-floor apartment.

“The pigs!” he yelled as he double-checked by peeking through the curtain.

“Must have heard the shot,” Katara said.

Yedwa retrieved the duffel bag and passed out the weapons.

I wound up with the same M16 I had been trained with. We tipped over the couch. Yedwa motioned for Katara and me to duck behind it and to take aim at the front door. Yedwa and Sadik took up posts by the front window. No one talked. The only sounds were John Coltrane’s sax and our hearts pounding at the anticipation of the police raid. Stress flared in my body. I wondered what it would be like to take a life, how it would feel to have bullets rip through my body. My stomach pitched like it was being brushed from the inside with the hot, molten wings of butterflies flapping. My bowels churned like I was going to shit in my pants. But I couldn’t go out like that, not in front of these brothers. I took a deep breath to calm myself and looked over at Che. He was looking at the door too.

All right then, this was it. I would go out like a revolutionary, surrounded by chicken bones, a wounded TV, and a possessed poster of Che. I gripped the M16 tighter and waited for a battering ram or a tank to blow the door off the hinges. Then there were footsteps, a pause, and the jingling of keys as someone entered the next apartment. Time passed. Three minutes. Ten? Finally Yedwa turned from the window. “They split,” he said, “Guess they were messing with someone in another building.” We tried to act cocky as we put the apartment back together, but I wondered if everyone was secretly as glad as I was that we didn’t have to shoot it out.

Yedwa came over and patted me on the back. “You moved like you were ready, young brother,” he said, smiling. “You got a lotta heart.”

I beamed for a moment, then pulled my revolutionary composure together. “Thank you, brother,” I replied, trying to drop my adolescent voice an octave. But I did feel good inside. I had been near battle and I had made a good impression on a Panther officer, the crazy nigger Yedwa. His hand on my shoulder felt like the wing of an eagle about to guide his favorite offspring into flight. Yedwa invited me to sit for some more wine and a store-bought apple pie. I nodded my thanks but instead reached for my coat, saying I had to check on Noonie, my adoptive grandmother. The truth was I was dangerously close to pushing my eight o’clock curfew. It was, after all, a school night.

 

*Listen to Jamal Joseph in conversation with TNB founding editor Brad Listi on the Other People with Brad Listi podcast.

 

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.