- Faith & Family
Eddie Joseph was a 15-year-old lanky foster child and honor student living in the Bronx when he was first introduced to the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. Like most young men his age, his focus was on becoming a man. He says that’s why he was drawn to the Black Panthers and their leaders.
“The ghetto had a ranking system when it came to manhood,” he said. “You could be a punk, hard, bad or crazy. This manhood ranking system was connected to the idea of protecting your property — 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.”
Joseph, now 59, has since changed his name to Jamal, done several stints in prison — his first time being when he was just 16 for allegedly being part of the infamous Panther 21, earned two degrees while behind bars and has transformed himself into a youth mentor and college professor. In some respects he has risen from the ashes like the fabled phoenix. He will be in Miami this week, on Thursday, March 8, to talk about his memoirs, “Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion & Reinvention.”
“I speak to young people all over the country and in many of my speeches, I reference my youth when I first joined the Black Panther Party,” he said. “Many of the kids ask me to tell more stories. I think they find them interesting not from an historical viewpoint but from an emotional one. They want to know what it was like to be a Black teenager in the 1960s. I wrote the book in my voice back then — a skinny orphan trying to figure out how to become a man. It’s my coming of age story. My life journey helped me discover who I am and because of my experiences with the Black Panthers, I have evolved. I have become a mentor, teacher, artist and father. While I was in jail, I discovered that I had a poet’s voice too and formed a theater company while I was in prison. Today my wife and I have made Impact Repertory Theater in the spirit of the Black Panthers.”
Mentoring youth is his new calling
Joseph says that when he and his wife, Joyce, along with their friend Boza Rivers, started the youth program, they did it in the midst of budget cuts in New York City and a rise in youth violence.
“After a young boy was murdered in Harlem, we knew we had to get things going right away — we started with nine children,” he said. “It’s grown to over 1,000 children. We use arts and education and stress the importance of leadership and involvement in our community. The kids tell their own stories and use poetry, dance and song to talk about their lives and how they see the world.”
Joseph likes to talk about the Black Panthers and says that many of the notions formed about them were wrong.
“We [the Panthers] never hated whites — Fred Hampton even created the term Rainbow Coalition,” he said. “Power to the people meant power to all people. We were not about violence but about strengthening self-defense and working to exhaustion in community outreach programs.
As for the Panther Party, if you ask any former member what we were taught to believe, they’ll tell you that our top mandate was ‘to love and serve the people — mind, body and soul.’”
by D. Kevin McNeir