By Jamal Joseph
I walked into a Panther office in Brooklyn in September 1968. Dr. King had been assassinated in April of that year. I’d gone down to 125th Street in Harlem that night, where protesters swarmed the streets, setting trash can fires and hurling bricks at white-owned businesses. Some ran into the stores and started taking clothes, appliances, and whatever else they could carry.
Not everyone looted, but it was enough for the police to start making arrests. A cop grabbed me and threw me against the wall, but before he could handcuff me, a group of rioters across the street turned a police car over. The cop told me to stay put and ran toward the rioters.
I was scared, but I wasn’t stupid. My heart pounded as I ran into a clothing store and found a back door that led to an alley. When I came up against a wooden fence, the cops caught up with me. “Halt,” they yelled. In my mind I froze and put my hands in the air, but my body kept hauling ass. I grabbed the fence and scurried over the top. Two shots rang out. One splintered the wood on the fence. This gave me the adrenaline push I needed to flip over the fence, pick myself up off the ground, and scramble out of the alley.
“You have guns?” the cop asked, a tinge of fear in his voice.
When I turned out on the street, I almost collided with a group of 20 or so black men in leather coats and army fatigue jackets, wearing Afros and berets, standing on the corner in a military-like formation. “Stop running, young brother,” one of the men with a beard and tinted glasses said. “Don’t give these pigs an excuse to gun you down.” I doubled over, trying to catch my breath. I didn’t know this man, but his voice sounded like a life raft of confidence in a sea of chaos.
Moments later, two cops ran around the corner. They stopped in their tracks when they saw the militant men. The men closed ranks around me. “What are you doing here?” one of the cops demanded. “Move aside.”
“You have guns?” the cop asked, a tinge of fear in his voice.
“That’s what you said,” the man with tinted glasses replied. “I said we’re exercising our constitutional rights.” The cops took in the size and discipline of the group for a moment and walked away.
By this time, I’d caught my breath, but I was speechless from what I had just seen: black men standing down white cops. “Go straight home, young brother,” the man with the tinted glasses said. “The pigs are looking for any excuse to murder black folks tonight.”
When I entered the apartment, my grandmother, Noonie, was sitting on the couch watching images of Dr. King on TV. Tears fell from her eyes. Noonie had been born in 1898 in a poor and segregated section of North Carolina. She told me how white men in sheets lynched people they considered to be “uppity niggers.” One such uppity nigger was Noonie’s favorite uncle, who’d been beaten, lynched, and burned for striking a white man who had spit tobacco in his face. Despite all this, Noonie was a follower of Dr. King and believed that love and peaceful protest were the tools for equality. I sat next to her and put my arm around her, and we watched the TV reports of the assassination and the riots.
By July 1968, the country was still smoldering, but in the hills of Camp Minisink, in upstate New York, kids and teens from Harlem were just happy to enjoy swimming in a lake, miles from the melting asphalt of their home. Camp Minisink was the oldest African American camp in New York State. I had a job there as a junior counselor. That summer, I hung out with two older boys from my neighborhood, James, 19, and Eric, 17. When they weren’t on duty as counselors, James and Eric swapped their camp T-shirts for African dashikis and played Miles Davis and Malcolm X records. A red lightbulb that gave their cabin the feel of being a black militant speakeasy in the woods.
At the end of the summer, H. Rap Brown came to speak at a youth conference at Camp Minisink. He was often in the news as a militant leader who dismissed integration and stood for black nationalism. I was blown away by his whole style: the ‘fro; the shades; the finger that jabbed the air like a Zulu spear when he spoke, slicing up white America. Wow, man, Rap could rap.
“You wear white to weddings, black to funerals. Angel food cake is white cake. Devil’s food cake is black. White magic is good. Black magic is evil. In cowboy movies the good guys wear the white hats and the bad guys wear black. Even Santa Claus. I mean, tell me how in the hell a fat, camel-breath redneck honkie can slide down a black chimney and still come out white? I’m telling you, you been brainwashed.” The crowd of three hundred high school and college students attending the conference cheered Rap Brown like a rock star.
One night back home, while sitting on the couch watching Noonie’s old black-and-white TV, I saw a news report on the Black Panther Party. California was about to make it illegal to carry firearms, and the Panthers burst into the California State Legislature, calling the politicians racist. The old white men I saw on the TV screen looked scared to death. Since the guns were legal, the only thing the police could do was eject the Panthers from the legislative chambers.
Look at those dudes, I thought. They’re crazy. They got black leather coats and berets, carrying guns, scaring white people, reading communist books. They’re crazy. I immediately wanted to join. Now all I had to do was find out where the Black Panthers were in New York.
Like a plantation slave seeking passage to freedom on the Underground Railroad, I put out the word that I was looking to hook up with the Panthers. You didn’t choose the Panthers, I was told in hushed tones. They chose you. So I walked around acting extra cool and extra militant, hoping that some Panther secret agent would tap me on the shoulder.
One Saturday, James and Eric eased up next to me in the park while I was waiting my turn to play basketball.
“Dude’s sayin’ you runnin’ around lookin’ for the Panthers,” Eric said.
“Yeah, man,” I replied.
“Well, first of all be cool with that shit. You can’t let everybody know your business.” Then he leaned closer. “The Panthers have an office in Brooklyn. We’re rollin’ out there tomorrow. Are you down?”
“I’m down,” I replied too loudly.
That night I could barely sleep imagining what it would be like to walk into the Panther headquarters. Would I be blindfolded and taken to some secret chamber to be initiated? Maybe I’d get put on a small airplane and be parachuted into a hidden training camp somewhere in Africa.
“Boy, you better get up. Do you know what time it is?”
I opened my eyes and saw Noonie standing over me. I had overslept. “Sorry, ma’am,” I said while running to the bathroom.
Noonie was sitting at the kitchen table reading her Bible in the morning sunlight. “Where you going?” she asked.
“To school,” I answered.
“Just like that? Without saying good-bye?” I walked over to Noonie and kissed her on the cheek. As I pulled the apartment door shut behind me, I heard Noonie’s footsteps. Would she yank the door open and call me back? I paused, then heard her lock the door. I’d made it!
James and Eric flanked me as we sat on the subway train. Brooklyn was an hour’s ride from our stop in the Bronx, plenty of time for doubt and apprehension to build.
“You sure you ready for this?” James grilled. “Panthers don’t play.”
“I’m ready,” I replied.
“You still use your slave name, ‘Eddie.’ My name is Rhaheem now.”
Eric nodded. “And my name is Sabu. What’s your black name?”
“I don’t have one,” I said, feeling like a total sap. “Can you give me one?”
“Let me see,” James said, closing his eyes in deep meditation. “Yeah. We’re going to call you Unbutu Usa Jamal. It means he who comes together in the spirit of blackness.”
I would find out later that James was pulling syllables and meanings out of the air, but at that moment, I had been reborn and renamed. I smiled to myself as we rode. I was almost a Panther — and we hadn’t even gotten to headquarters yet.
Jamal Joseph’s memoir Panther Baby is published this week by Algonquin Books