Review by: 

Philisa Stanford

University of Texas at Arlington

[email protected]


Psychologists have long debated the nature vs. nurture aspect of human development—arguing the issue of whether people are influenced more by their DNA or by life experiences and environment. Panther Baby, through the eyes of Jamal Joseph, shows us why there is validity in the argument for both sides. Jamal Joseph, an honor roll student whose biological parents were both college educated (pursuing graduate degrees) went from living in a loving, two-parent household to serving time in the infamous Riker’s Island jail and Leavenworth maximum-security prison.

A very compelling part of Panther Baby is the transformation that took place in a young fifteen year-old boy from the Bronx who was indoctrinated into the Black Panther Party. Jamal gives us insight into the challenges of growing up black in the late 1960s when this revolutionary organization was at its pinnacle. The choices Jamal made as a young man, the consequences he experienced as a result, and the in-depth personal search for the meaning of his life, ultimately led him to a path of healing and understanding that was needed to provide him with peace and a sense of direction.

Jamal’s fateful decision to become part of the Black Panther movement eventually led to his arrest at age sixteen, charged with “conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit arson, and attempted murder” (Joseph, 2012, pp. 79). An interesting point about Jamal’s journey was the fact that this life-altering situation did not scare him away from the movement; it only fueled his resolve to fight harder for and with “the people.” He was aware of “the Panther offices being raided, Panthers being arrested, and Panthers being killed” (Joseph, 2012, pp. 115).

Jamal’s first stint in jail was important because it showed his persuasiveness as a leader. In spite of the dangers he faced in Riker’s Island, he was able to organize and teach political education (PE) classes to other inmates and instruct martial arts workouts. After Jamal was released from jail, he chose to focus even more time and effort on the Panther movement. Later, he was arrested and “convicted by the FBI of being an accessory after the fact for hiding fugitives” (Joseph, 2012, pp. 235). The most fascinating part of Jamal’s incarceration at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary was that it proved to be a pivotal point in his life. He was able to transform his pain into progress through the arts and education. While serving time in prison, Jamal graduated with honors from the University of Kansas—earning two degrees in psychology and sociology. He is now a professor at Columbia University and has earned many accolades for his work as an artist, to include being nominated for an Academy Award.

Panther Baby is an excellent book that I would recommend for other advisors. It gives a perspective of the everyday struggles that people of color face and the impact that their environment or circumstances has on their decision-making process. Panther Baby also reinforces the important role that education plays regardless of a person’s background or experiences. Advisors can use Jamal’s autobiography to learn how to empathize, encourage, and guide this new generation of students through a more holistic advising approach. Transcripts do not always tell the whole story, but advisors play a critical role of learning it.


Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion & Reinvention. 2012 Jamal Joseph Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 280 pp. $14.95 (paper back) ISBN 978-1-61620-129-6

Posted in: 2016 Book Reviews
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