A Revolutionary Life

In a new book, a former Black Panther looks back at how a movement shaped his destiny

“Panther Baby” author Jamal Joseph, photographed in the late ’60s.

When 15-year-old Eddie Joseph joined the Black Panthers in 1968, he expected to receive a gun and orders to start the revolution. Martin Luther King Jr. had recently been assassinated, and Joseph’s Harlem neighborhood was in turmoil. However, at his first Panthers meeting, the teenager was issued a stack of books and a spatula. He was ordered to serve the community. Serve them pancakes, specifically.

“When I came to the Panthers, I found out my days were going to be filled with stuff like working the free breakfast program,” says Joseph, who changed his first name to Jamal upon joining the party. “We learned that you organized people around their needs. J. Edgar Hoover [said] the most dangerous program the Black Panther Party had was the breakfast program, because it was reaching so many people.”

In his new memoir, “Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention,” Joseph emphasizes the Panthers’ community service and social activism. His primary duties included working at a free clinic, organizing clothing drives and busting up dope houses.

But the harsh reality of revolutionary life also comes through. In April 1969, Joseph was arrested as one of the “Panther 21” on charges of conspiracy and spent a year in jail. Later, he was charged with harboring fugitives and spent six years in prison at Leavenworth, Kan.

There he earned two college degrees; wrote poems and plays; and organized acting workshops. “I realized how art and education can bring people together,” he says. “If you could do it in this desperate setting, then maybe this was a way you could continue the struggle.”

He took those lessons back into his old Harlem neighborhood, which he still calls home. Today, Joseph heads the Impact Repertory Theater, where teenagers address social issues through dance, drama, music and writing.

Joseph is also a film professor and archivist at Columbia University — which he acknowledges is ironic, considering he once urged students and radicals to burn the campus down. He is currently on sabbatical promoting “Panther Baby” and hopes to start production on a film adaptation later this year, with himself in the director’s chair.

The film, he says, will focus on the book’s coming-of-age story. “Joining the Panthers was as much about the search for manhood — how to be a man in the turbulent 1960s — as it was about the ideology of the party.”

Spotlight: Jamal Joseph’s long list of awards and accomplishments includes an Academy Award nomination. He received the nod in 2008 for co-writing the original song “Raise It Up” for the film “August Rush.” He performed the number with students from his New York City-based Impact Repertory Theater at the awards ceremony — though the song lost to “Falling Slowly,” by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Thu., 7 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness) 

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Marc Silver · February 15, 2012