Jamal Joseph: Keynote Speaker

Introductory Remarks from Dean Judith Babbitts

Judith BabbittsIt is my great honor this afternoon to introduce our speaker, Jamal Joseph. Mr. Joseph is a professor at the Columbia University School of the Arts film program. That is his current profession. As I put together this introduction, however, I learned that he has other identities.

Among them: Orphan, activist, subversive, urban guerrilla, the FBI’s most wanted fugitive, Black Panther, drug addict, drug counselor, convict, writer, poet, filmmaker, youth advocate, and Oscar nominee.

He is also the founder and artistic director of New Heritage Theater and IMPACT Repertory Youth Theatre of Harlem, and the executive director of New Heritage Films, a not-for-profit organization that provides training and opportunities for minority filmmakers. And he is a husband and father.

All of these identities I imagine have shaped the person who will speak to us today.

In 1968, Jamal was an honor student headed for college when he joined the Harlem chapter of the Black Panther Party. He was 15 years old, but as he has said, he probably looked more like 12 or 13. He went to Rikers Island charged with conspiracy as part of the New York Panther 21. He was released, became one of the leaders of the Panthers revolutionary underground, and eventually was arrested again and sentenced to 12 years in Leavenworth, of which he served 5 ½ years.

While in Leavenworth, he wrote five plays and two volumes of poetry and earned two college degrees—his BA summa cum laude—from the University of Kansas.

At Leavenworth, he founded a theater company. He has described prison in the 1970s as having deep racial divisions among the prisoners. The plays he wrote and produced at Leavenworth helped break down those divisions when he included blacks, whites, and Latinos as cast members.

After his release from prison, his first teaching position was at Touro College in East Harlem. There he created the first historic graduation ceremonies at the Apollo Theatre, with a graduation address by Ossie Davis. The commencement ceremony began with an astonishing Graduation Procession down the middle of 125th Street.

Joseph went on to receive a fellowship from the Sundance Film Institute, became a poet, continue writing plays, and earned an Oscar nomination for his song “Raise It Up” for the film August Rush.

In 2012, he published a memoir of his days as the youngest Panther called, Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention. Earlier, in 2006, he had written a biography of the rap/hip-hop artist, Tupac Shakur, called Tupac Shakur Legacy. The book is interactive with removable reproductions of Tupac’s handwritten lyrics, notebook pages, personal memorabilia, and a CD featuring rare interviews—a theater production in a book.

Jamal Joseph’s work has appeared on HBO, Fox, New Line Cinema, Warner Brothers, and A&E. He wrote and directed Drive By: A Love Story, Da Zone, and the docudrama Hughes’ Dream Harlem. His film Chapter & Verse, a story about prison and second chances, was released in 2017 to critical acclaim. He is also the author of several screenplays, including Ali: An American Hero, New York Undercover, Knights of the South Bronx, and The Many Trials of Tammy B.

Cornel West, the historian, has called Jamal Joseph a long-distance freedom fighter who never lost his soul and integrity despite the ugly underside of America.

Please join me in welcoming Jamal Joseph.