Diversity Convocation welcomes activist Jamal Joseph

For the 17th annual Diversity Convocation, the college invited Jamal Joseph to be the keynote speaker. An energetic and lively speaker, Joseph engaged the large crowd that filled Sharp Theater.

Joseph is a writer, producer, activist and poet. Most notably, he is a former member of the Black Panther Party and spoke at length about the group and his experiences with them during the civil rights movement. He is also the co-founder of Impact Repertory Theater in Harlem, New York, a nonprofit youth performance company, and he has been a professor at Columbia University’s School of Arts for 25 years. His most recent work is as an executive producer on the upcoming FX docuseries “Dear Mama,” which explores the lives of Tupac Shakur and his mother Afeni Shakur, a former Black Panther and close friend of Joseph.

Before he talked about his story and experiences, he mentioned the motto that each board meeting for the Impact Repertory Theater starts with, which is important to him.

“We always say ‘Love each other, respect one another, watch each other’s back.’ But above all, ‘Keep a positive thought because a positive thought cannot be denied,’” Joseph said. Keeping positive thoughts was a key idea of his discussion, and he said it is especially important when facing tough odds like he did during the civil rights movement.

“When we’re talking about the majority of people, of white people, of brown people, of people of color, no one has power. People are struggling to eat.”

– Jamal Joseph

Joseph joined the Black Panther Party at age 15 and said the memories he has of growing up and his involvement with the Black Panthers were filled with joy. The work meant something on a personal level to himself and the other members. Even before joining the Black Panther Party, Joseph said he remembers how his church and community would stand in solidarity with those fighting for civil rights, doing things like marching in protests or donating books to the Freedom Riders. He remembers growing up watching Black civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and H. Rap Brown on television.

He recounted the story of how he decided to become a Black militant and join the Black Panthers. It was during the aftermath of King’s assassination and he remembered how people only felt two emotions during that time: sadness and anger. He had been walking to the subway to head home to his grandmother’s house when he came across a rebellion on 125th Street. The police were there and people were angry, breaking down store windows and setting trash cans on fire.

The police believed Joseph was involved in the chaos and an officer pushed him up against the wall then threw him to the ground. When the officer was focused on people rocking over a police car, Joseph ran and the cops chased after him. He ran until he bumped into a group of militant men wearing dashikis and leather coats. The men stood in front of him, protecting him from the police. When police caught up to them, the militants said they were there to protect innocent people from getting killed that night and the officers backed away.

Another important aspect of the discussion was about the importance of grassroots activism and some of the work the Black Panthers have done for their communities. He also stressed the idea of “all power to the people.”

“When we’re talking about the majority of people, of white people, of brown people, of people of color, no one has power. People are struggling to eat,” Joseph said. He gave the work of activist Fred Hampton as an example. Through grassroots organization, Hampton would help people like poor whites living in Chicago or aid a Latino street gang in starting a free breakfast program for their community. That, Joseph said, is what real solidarity is based on.

As for the work the Black Panthers have done, the image of members as gun-wielding militants may come to mind. The members would form armed street patrols, but they would also fight legal injustice by reading people their rights if they were denied. They were also known for setting up free healthcare clinics made up of volunteer doctors and starting a free breakfast program, feeding around 50,000 children nationwide each morning at the peak of the program.

“Let’s remember the love along with the activism. Let’s remember the joy along with the anger. We may be indignant, but let’s be joyful in the world,” Joseph said to conclude the conversation.



Featured photo by Matthew Wikfors