MIAMI — Few people can claim the kind of life Jamal Joseph has led. At 15, he was one of the youngest members of the Black Panther Party in Harlem, N.Y., and a prison inmate at New York’s Riker’s Island as one of the Panther 21.
Back then, Jamal spoke to many youths in New York — usually on 125th Street near the local Panther office — spreading a revolutionary message of empowering people of all colors and walks of life. He once influenced a crowd of students to burn Columbia University down in protest of oppression and compartmentalization.
Yet he begins the latest chapter in his life working as a screenwriting teacher at the university.
In his book Panther Baby, which is in development as a film from Focus Features, and being featured Nov. 17 at the 28th annual Miami Book Fair International that runs Nov. 11-18 at Miami Dade College, Joseph gives voice to his journey as a young revolutionary.
Other notable authors and editors include Colin Channer, whose Kingston Noir takes readers to the dark side of Jamaica’s capital city, and who appears Nov. 18 at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. For more information visit miamibookfair.com
Joseph’s Panther Baby showcases the writing talent he honed while an inmate at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, a maximum security prison for the most hardened criminals. He even briefly discusses his godson, rapper Tupac Shakur, and his sibling-like relationship with Shakur’s mother, Afeni.
“If you ask any Panther what really motivated us, they would tell you it was love of the people,” said Joseph, husband of Joyce and father to Jamal Jr., Jad, and Jindai.
The book weaves together the story of his life — from being left in “temporary care” by his Cuban mother Gladys, who could not marry Jamal’s father Alipio Zorilla because the latter wanted to fight with a pre-revolution Fidel Castro and Che Guevara — to Joseph’s passage from Panther Baby to Ivy League professor.
Joseph also addresses his post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by years of defending himself and his community from crooked cops and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), a series of covert and at times illegal efforts designed to infiltrate, discredit and/or disrupt domestic organizations and individuals ranging from the original Nation of Islam of Elijah Muhammad to the civil-rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr.
“We lost a lot of Panthers during the movement. But the surviving Panthers are doing amazing work as university professors, teachers, doing social work, and some who are attorneys and practicing medicine,” said the writer of several plays while at Leavenworth that have been performed or given readings throughout New York City.
“We were expected to excel in these fields because we were bright young minds who questioned what was going on in our community, in America, and in the world.”
Despite being a baby himself, Joseph managed to counsel youth as well as unite prison inmates of different walks of life under one goal, which isn’t easy when the people are murderers, robbers, rapists and members of organized crime.
He also managed to earn two bachelors degrees while in Leavenworth, in Psychology and Sociology, graduating summa cum laude, and organized an event that saw inmates donate $2,000 of their commissary money to aid African famine relief.
“You have to organize people around their needs,” said the screenwriter whose last film, Knights of the South Bronx, starred Ted Danson. “The basic need in the community was people needed food, shelter, and clothing. So (the Panthers) addressed those needs with programs, giving away food and clothing and helping people repair their homes.”
Jamal and the Panthers addressed those needs in Harlem while educating the people on how to organize themselves to make a better community and better people. Hoover’s COINTELPRO was successful in prejudicing Americans’ minds against the Panthers — the goal being to make the Panthers look like a group bent on violence and anger toward white people — and was a catalyst in the demise of the party.
Despite the hurt and the pain of his life, Joseph says he always kept the main goal of the Black Panther Party at heart: Love each other, and empower yourselves to fight for your community no matter your race or ethnicity. It’s a message he intends to keep spreading to the youth of America.
“You start with the minds of young people with hopes, values, and aspirations that are people-centered and career-centered, instead of profit-centered,” said Joseph, a founding member of IMPACT Repertory Theatre in Harlem, an organization that helps young people learn to express themselves in positive ways.
“We can’t wait for funding or permission to save our own young people. Take a young person under your wing. Give them outlets to understand that their lives matter. Their thoughts matter. Their future matters.”