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‘Panther Baby’: The Journey of Jamal Joseph

October 4, 2012


Joseph, Jamal, Baby Panther: A Life of Reinvention & Rebellion. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2012.

If one is high school age in America, the story of the Black Panther Party, one of the most significant Black radical organizations of the mid-20th century, is virtually unknown.

Few teachers dare to teach it, burdened as they are by the repressive, politically driven testing frenzy that ensures teachers stick only to the tests, amid fears of the consequences of failure.

If some rare teacher wants to teach this powerful period, they need look no further than Jamal Joseph’s new autobiography, Panther Baby.

Jamal Joseph was a member of the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party, but a member with a difference. At 15, he was still in high school, and thus the youngest member in the state.

Thankfully, he writes with the head of a teenager, explaining his choices as they are presented to him — often based on his rampaging emotions at the time. Why did he join the Party? Why not other such groups?

What did his foster grandparents, who though they were old Garveyites [named after Marcus M. Garvey, the founder of an early 20th century nationalist group], really think of his joining?

That story is as funny as it is tender, for these parents ­— though not of his blood – loved him intensely, and worried about a boy his age running around with Black Panthers, people frankly regarded as crazy.

Jamal’s story is one of a social movement, that, at the height, lifts all to new levels of possibility. But like a wave, it can wash away, leaving the once-high steeped in mud.

Throughout this often heart-rending cycle of love and betrayal, Joseph finds his best self and arises from the mud to find a life of service and reconciliation.

Panther Baby is a touching, beautiful and transformative document. May it reach as many young people as possible.

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