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Audio version

2012 Midwinter Meeting HIGHLIGHTS—Dallas Cognotes • Page 7

Jamal Joseph Pays Tribute to Libraries, Education and Mentors

By Frederick J. Augustyn, Jr.
The Library of Congress

John Berry introduced writer, director, producer, activist, poet, and educator Jamal Joseph (author of Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention) who delivered the 13th iteration of the Arthur Curley lecture on Saturday, January 21.

Full professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts film division, former Black Panther Party member, and holder of two college degrees earned from the University of Kansas while he was incarcerated for alleged conspiracy, “in the Southern tradition of storytelling,” Joseph began with a story about Mother Johnson in Mississippi who never had a bad word to say about anyone, including the Devil (who, she observed, “keeps busy”). More seriously, he reminded his audience that not too long ago as history is concerned, it was a crime for African Americans to learn how to read and write. For that reason, the noted 19th-century civil rights leader Frederick Douglass knew that the first thing that he needed to do when he became free was to become literate and to pass that precious gift on to others.

The Bronx New Yorker Joseph himself soon grew to appreciate the power of the written word when he joined the NAACP Youth Council at age 13. One of his first assignments was to collect books to send down south for the Freedom Riders. He also recalled that “one of the first places to go in our community was the library.” Outraged by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Joseph “researched the most militant organization he could join as others do colleges.” His choice was the Panther Party, which in 1966 had first patrolled the streets in California with both guns and law books, which both served as methods of defense. When he saw the Panthers on television occupying the state capitol in Sacramento in 1969 in protest against the legislature’s change in gun laws, he went to Brooklyn to join up at age 16. He was surprised to learn that the Panthers’ Ten Point Program addressed topics such as community power and learning the history of one’s own people “with nothing there about killing.” Handed the “secret weapon” of the organization, a collection of books, Joseph told an elder that he thought that he was going to arm Joseph. This elicited the reply “brother, I just did.”

Despite the party’s poor image in the mainstream press, Joseph maintained that it was engaged in a class, not a racial, struggle and its free breakfast program for children was emblematic of its community service outreach. He acknowledged that his attraction to the Panthers was in part a search for positive role models although their infiltration by the police made that problematic. Sentenced for a second time, that time for over 300 years, the arrest of the Panther 21 group of leaders met resistance by a coalition of social movement groups. Once out on bail, he became a speaker.

He recalled that on his first day in prison he was told by a man with a cart of library books that “you can serve your time or you can let it serve you.” While in prison he spent his time productively – earning two academic degrees (assisted by toughminded professors who visited the penitentiary) and honing his theatrical skills. Since the only two plays in the prison’s library required female roles in an all-male environment, he decided to write his own, the first of different ethnic backgrounds became interested in performing he “came to understand the healing power of culture.” Plays could be used for social change.

Out of prison, he carried on his work in theater with IMPACT, a Harlem-based youth company. Joseph closed by lauding “the safe spaces of libraries…where dreams can live” and pointed out that “we have state-of-theart prisons and crumbing schools.” In a short question and answer session before he signed books outside the auditorium, Joseph suggested that one way to change the hearts and minds of the country is for “service, work, and protest to become viral” through social media.

Activist and author Jamal Joseph praises the power of literacy during the Arthur Curley Memorial Lecture on Saturday, January 21.



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“Reading cannot be multi-tasked,” it requires one’s full attention. Green rhapsodized that a reader often engages in the act of co-creation with an author demanding one’s full attention, while viewing a video does not.

Librarians, carrying on their historic role of organizing information, share “well-curated” information which YouTube and other sources, despite their valuable roles, do not. According to Green, librarians guide patrons to necessary knowledge so that “we can choose how to make our lives better.”

Green indicated that he and his brother Hank are starting two new classes on YouTube: the SCI Show on science and Crash Course, a collection of free study supplements on subjects such as world history.

Green also stated that he enjoys writing for young people who are facing life experiences for the first time, and noted many teenagers use Tumbler more than Twitter, making this a better way to reach them.

Green believes that SOPA and HIPA would be disastrous for creativity on the Internet and that the current “smart regulations” making piracy illegal are good enough to safeguard artists’ rights.


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