cover image Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention

Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention

Jamal Joseph. Algonquin, $23.95. (272p) ISBN 978-1-56512-950-4

This spirited, well-honed account of cutting his teeth as a member of the Black Panthers brings Joseph back to his youth, a painful time in late-1960s America. Abandoned by his unwed Cuban mother and brought up by an elderly Southern black couple in the North Bronx, Joseph (born “Eddie”) grew up to be light-skinned, conscientious, and an accelerated student who learned early on the deprivations of blacks in white society. From becoming radicalized at the African-American Camp Minisink, in New York State, in the summer of 1968, Joseph gravitated toward the militancy of the Black Panthers, founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, activists impatient with the stalled civil rights movement and ready to grasp freedom and economic destiny for poor black communities in a more compelling manner. Immersed in grassroots community-action programs, to the detriment of his high school studies, Joseph, now renamed Jamal, was steeped in the political education of the Panthers. This included weapons training for armed struggle; being arrested as part of the netted Panther 21 for allegedly planning to “go to war with the government” (Lumumba and Afeni Shakur were leaders, and they were defended by William Kunstler), and serving 11 months among hardened criminals at the age of 16. Joseph’s memoir focuses on this intensely compressed period, when hopes were high for “revolution in our lifetime” and a reckless, street-fueled violence smoldered, yet the schism in Panther leadership undermined the cause. Joseph’s clear-eyed casting back reveals the streamlined, fluid quality of a fine storyteller. (Feb.)