Panther Baby, slip some radical literature under the tree, for me.

pantherbaby

Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion & Reinvention

Jamal Joseph

Algonquin Books, 2012

review by Tessa

Characters

Jamal Joseph –
Cuban-American orphan growing up in late 60s NYC with revolution in his family tree (though he doesn’t know it)

Noonie Baltimore –

The strong-willed woman who ends up raising Jamal and showing him love, discipline, and self-respect

The Panther 21 –

Black Panther members from NYC who are arrested in 1969 on trumped-up charges of conspiracy and kept in jail without bail.

Hook

Worldview

Jamal Joseph was born out of wedlock to a Cuban woman who decided to move to New York City and get an education. To do this, she gave Jamal (then called Eddie) up for foster care.  His foster parents got sick, and Jamal was then raised by Noonie and Pa Baltimore. Noonie was the housekeeper for Jamal’s foster parents. They made sure he went to school, respected his elders, and in Pa Baltimore’s case, learned a bunch of fun swear words from cursing out the TV news.

Jamal is very aware of the political situation in the US as far as the fight for civil rights is concerned. So when Martin Luther King Jr is assassinated, he goes out to the streets to protest. Shop windows are broken and the police show up, indiscriminately chasing anyone around, shooting at them, and claiming they’re “looters”. Jamal is running from the police for this reason when he runs into a phalanx of 20 or so men in fatigues and berets, calmly walking the streets. They surround him and tell the policemen that they’re exercising their constitutional right to free assembly. The police leave them alone. Then they tell Jamal to run home so he doesn’t get killed. These are the Black Panthers. Jamal, duly impressed, goes to a meeting as soon as he can. He’s 15 years old.

By the time he’s 16 he’s risen in the ranks of the Panthers, spoken out at school against the way that history is being taught, and clashed with Noonie about his new, radical afterschool activities. Then he becomes part of the Panther 21 – accused of planning to bomb buildings.  Sure, he was taught to clean and put together an M-16, but the conspiracy charges are simply not true.  It doesn’t matter. He’s in jail.

And that’s just the beginning of Jamal Joseph’s journey.

Jamal Joseph speaking about the Black Panther 21 case on the green at the University of Vermont - Burlington, Vermont - 1971 photograph by Roz Payne http://www.newsreel.us/panthers/index.htm

Jamal Joseph speaking about the Black Panther 21 case on the green at the University of Vermont – Burlington, Vermont – 1971 photograph by Roz Payne http://www.newsreel.us/panthers/index.htm

What is the book’s intention and is it achieved?

Panther Baby is Jamal Joseph’s story, told from his point of view and with his biases, and that’s how I like it. It leaves the door wide open for further reading about the Black Panthers and the even more militant Black Liberation Army that Joseph was a part of later, in the 70s/80s.

Joseph doesn’t try to hide the parts of being a radical that weren’t so great, but he doesn’t apologize for his politics either, and that’s admirable. He shows the good he did, the prejudice he was up against, and the benefit of having pride and taking power back from a society that tried its hardest not to allow certain people to have any.

Much of Joseph’s story is about navigating codes and roles. He talks about being a man and what that means, which is different from being a black man, which is different from the variations on being a black man representing toughness on the streets. And then he goes into the codes of behavior in prison, and how he successfully and unsuccessfully tries to navigate that world without using violence and without being taken advantage of.

Apart from being a thrilling life story, there’s a lot here to think about and discuss. His personality shines through, and I can guess that even now Joseph hasn’t given up the thought-provoking life.  He’s a questioner and he’s an activist.

Unlike many memoirs, Panther Baby doesn’t waste time dithering around. Joseph cuts to the chase and his story packs a punch. To mix metaphors. I could even see a reader wanting more.

Readalikes

rockandriver

The Rock and the River / Kekla Magoon

The Time: 1968 The Place: Chicago  For thirteen-year-old Sam it’s not easy being the son of known civil rights activist Roland Childs. Especially when his older (and best friend), Stick, begins to drift away from him for no apparent reason. And then it happens: Sam finds something that changes everything forever.  Sam has always had faith in his father, but when he finds literature about the Black Panthers under Stick’s bed, he’s not sure who to believe: his father or his best friend. Suddenly, nothing feels certain anymore.” – from the publisher site.

OCS

One Crazy Summer / Rita Williams-Garcia

I know from Jumped that Williams-Garcia is a master of voice, so I expect that all the praise heaped on this title is well-founded.  From the NY Times review by Monica Edinger: “Mothers. Can’t live with them. Can’t live without them. Yet 11-year-old Delphine and her younger sisters Vonetta and Fern have done just fine without theirs. Cecile, a poet, walked out on them just after Fern was born. Now, in the summer of 1968, their father, with the reluctant agreement of their grandmother, has decided that the three girls need to leave their Brooklyn home to spend a few weeks with their mother in Oakland, Calif., to get to know her. …Cecile brusquely takes them to her sparsely furnished stucco house; sends them to pick up a Chinese take-out dinner, which they eat on the floor; and then pretty much ignores them. The next day, wanting them out of her way, she directs them to the Black Panther People’s Center.”

colvin

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice / Phillip Hoose

Colvin was a teenager who was part of an earlier fight for civil rights – she refused to give up her seat on a bus just like Rosa Parks, but was deemed too unstable to base a landmark case on.

mapofireland

Map of Ireland / Stephanie Grant“In 1974, when Ann Ahern begins her junior year of high school, South Boston is in crisis — Catholic mothers are blockading buses to keep Black children from the public schools, and teenagers are raising havoc in the streets. Ann, an outsider in her own Irish-American community, is infatuated with her beautiful French teacher, Mademoiselle Eugenie, who hails from Paris but is of African descent. Spurred by her adoration for Eugenie, Ann embarks on a journey that leads her beyond South Boston, through the fringes of the Black Power movement, toward love, and ultimately to the truth about herself.” – from Goodreads description

If anyone has any good non-fiction recommendations about the Black Panthers, lemme know!

 

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4 Comments

  1. Nope, but I saw it at the library and was intrigued.

  2. I’m so glad you reviewed this!

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