What can a middle-class kid from rural Ohio framing the values of his life learn from a former Black Panther leader and Tupac Shakur?
After reading Panther Baby earlier this year, I now know the answer is much more than I expected.
Author Jamal Joseph, a Professor at the Columbia University School of the Arts, uses this memoir to describe his life of activism as a young revolutionary for the Black Panthers—a life that includes conspiracy charges as a member of the notorious Panther 21 and imprisonment in Leavenworth. After serving over ten years in prison, Joseph (among numerous other accomplishments) has since founded creative arts programs designed to support his neighborhood of Harlem. Throughout the book, Joseph details his quest for knowledge, the seductive sway Panther ideologies held over him, his radicalization, and the lengths he willingly pushed himself to while fighting for his cause.
Putting politics aside (and understanding that I’m running the risk of oversimplifying this captivating memoir by doing so), I found important messages lurking on each page. Joseph found faith in a cause/mission, had the willingness to fight versus scrutiny and scorn for the sake of his beliefs, and understood the importance of sacrifice and commitment necessary to make achieving his hopes possible. At their core, these lessons can play an important role in reaching any goal or objective.
Despite the messages mentioned above, the final chapter titled “Making an Impact” left the greatest imprint on me. In this chapter, Joseph details a conversation he had with his godson, Tupac Shakur, while Tupac served a sentence for sexual misconduct. Sitting next to his godfather, Tupac recounted a meeting he had had recently with a nineteen-year-old fellow prisoner. This young prisoner called Tupac his hero because Tupac was “gettin’ all the money…gettin’ all the bitches…and shootin’ at the police.” In response to this comment, Tupac gave his admirer a simple quote: “If that’s why I’m your hero, then I don’t need to be anybody’s hero.”
According to Joseph, Tupac said in that instant he realized thug life was dead and began to see a greater purpose for using his fame to “create youth centers around the country where kids could get free training in creative arts and leadership.” Although Tupac never had this chance, Jamal Joseph used this conversation as part of his motivation to launch the IMPACT Repertory Theatre, which uses “performing arts and the dynamics of leadership training to develop and empower youth.” Another example of someone using tragedy, loss, and his or her experiences to create a brighter future for those within their reach.
Now, nothing in my life compares remotely to the experiences of either Jamal Joseph or Tupac Shakur. I don’t have fame; I’ve never been a victim of social or racial injustice; Hell, I’m just an average kid from Ohio who once crashed his parent’s car into a gas station and whose closest brush with the law is the one night I spent in a Maryland holding cell for some typical college missteps. Still, I often find myself contemplating the exchange between Joseph and his godson.
I might not have the same platform, but I share the goal (or in Tupac’s case the hope) of delivering an encouraging message with hopes to make a lasting, positive impact. Whenever I read this part of Panther Baby, I find added motivation to continue working on my message:
- Each person has a story to tell and inspiration can come from unexpected places if we’re willing to listen
- Giving is better than receiving, caring is better than not caring, and shared vulnerability can go a long way to building better relationships
- Sometimes failure is the only path to growth
Very few of us have the celebrity of Tupac or the sensational story of reinvention and accomplishment of Jamal Joseph to attract an audience. What we do have, though, is a choice in the message we deliver.
I’ve shared mine. If you feel compelled to do so, please share yours with me.