Your life changed significantly when you had to go back to prison.
The time I spent in Leavenworth was transformational. They had a wonderful college program from the University of Kansas, and professors that came in and taught the same curriculum, and made us do all of the same work and research. It was amazing to see how hard the guys in the college program worked, and how scared they were of the professors. These guys weren’t scared of the guards, they weren’t scared of other prisoners, but you could see a guy in the yard almost with tears in his eyes, someone who was 250 pounds of muscles doing life in prison, you’d go up and you’d go, “Hey bro, what’s wrong?” He was, like, “Naw. I don’t want to talk about it.” “What happened — parole board? Wife leave you?” “No, it’s not that, man. Professor Johnson, she gave me a C, and messed up my grade point.” And Professor Johnson, we’re talking about an older white lady in her 60s, who came in with love and hard work. People respond to that.
Do you think things have changed now that Obama is President?
Things changed, in the sense that we have a black President, and that people were able to rally together to make that happen. But when you have any leader who is presiding over a broken system, there is still a lot of work to be done. Yes, we have a black president, but the system is still broken. People are struggling; things are hard each and every day.
I still live in Harlem. It’s interesting, because of the contrast of the coops and the condo buildings. We have more white neighbors. But when I walk through those streets and those projects — I have kids in my youth program who are homeless, or who are struggling to make ends meet, whose best meal of the day is the one that we given them at Impact (the arts program that he founded and leads). That reminds me of when I was a Panther, and the best meal of the day was for the kids we fed in the breakfast program. I don’t feel this glorious change. The country is more polarized. You have a lot of Americans saying, we don’t want him because he’s black. How far have we come really?
You were on the front lines of the protests at Columbia University, long before you were teaching there.
Columbia was a hotbed for radical activity. As a young Panther, and especially as someone who was one of the Panther 21, I’d get to speak at the rallies. Usually they’d bring the Panthers on last, you know, the closers, right? (Laughs.) “The Panthers are here!”
I knew my job was just to get this crowd going. There would two, three, four thousand students, and community folks out there, and I’d give my talk. We’d be right in front of Low Library: “If Columbia University doesn’t recognize that the war in Viet Nam is a war of capitalist exploitation, and if the United States fascist pig military occupies Viet Nam the way the fascist New York police pig department is occupying Harlem, and trying to occupy Columbia, then brothers and sisters, we have to do more today than take this university over. We have to burn the damn place down!” Of course, guaranteed cheers for that.
What would you have thought if you could have seen the future that you would be Columbia University at some point?
In some ways, I could have imagined that, and in other ways, it kind of blows my mind. The little joke that closes the book, and the story I like to tell is me walking past that statue [in the middle of campus], and she looks down at me and goes, “Oh, it’s PROFESSOR Joseph now, is it?” (Laughs.)