review: Panther Baby A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention

“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.” Publishers Weekly

title: Panther Baby
author: Jamal Joseph
date: Algonquin Books; February, 2012
reading level: 6.0

Honestly, I didn’t want to read Panther Baby when Doret first suggested it. But since I trust her judgment of books, I read the book and I’m so glad I did! I’ve wanted to put Panther Baby into the hands of every young man and every teacher of young men that I’ve seen since finishing it.

In Panther Baby, Jamal Joseph (born Eddie Joseph) relates personal and historic reasons that brought him to join the Black Panther Party. Quickly tracing developments from the Jim Crow era to the Civil Rights movement through the history of the family with whom he is living, we see how revolutionaries of the sixties were almost a natural development from previous generations. Joseph was an intelligent, keenly aware and angry  young Black man who through a series of circumstances decided to join the Black Panther Party.  In his anger, he sees the Panthers as a militant organization that will allow him to fight any and every person who crosses his purposeful path. He quickly learned  however, that the Panthers were more about doing right than being right; that their struggle was more a class struggle than a race struggle and that their aim was to overthrow the capitalist system that perpetuated inequality and injustice. Readers soon learn that Panthers were not anti-White. They were anti-establishment and anti-government.

Joseph details many community programs run by the Panthers as well as their training with firearms. When he ends up in prison the first time, I think I as a reader began to really see Jamal’s deep commitment to the organization. He never seemed to question how he was betrayed. Rather, he took what he had learned from the Panthers and used it to empower his fellow prisoners. He learned the ways of prison life just as he learned the ways of the street and the ways of the Panthers, all of this being a code of decency which when maneuvered correctly allowed one to give and receive respect through proper treatment of others. While interactions with women were somewhat limited in the book, Joseph even learned how to give proper respect to women through both implicit and explicit lessons.

Joseph managed to write a complex story in a voice that rings clear and true. Make no mistake: Joseph’s story is a controversial piece of history told from one perspective. While part of me wondered what the story would look like told from another perspective, this is Joseph’s story and as a biography, its merit is on the author’s ability to express his life’s story with honesty and integrity to that others will want

I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not so desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. ~Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 1849

to read it.  I wanted to finish this book because of the story Joseph was telling about fighting for humanity.

Part of me wants to excuse myself for not knowing about this piece of history because I was in elementary school when much of it happened. However, Jamal Joseph was all of 15 when he first joined the Black Panthers. His activism began early and did nothing but grow from that point. I think Doret wanted me to read this book because much of it occurs during Joseph’s young adult years and we’re with him as he acquires important life lessons.

Although released as an adult book, Panther Baby belongs in every high school and public library collection.

I would suggest reading Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience prior to reading Panther Baby. I think reading this early American Revolutionary will accentuate the Panther’s cause and enhance the message.

“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Joseph could have said this as easily as Thoreau.

 American Libraries interview with Jamal Joseph

edited 29 March 2016