Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Incredible Journey: Ghetto Brother: Warrior To Peacemaker

The NBM-published Ghetto Brother: From Warrior To Peacemaker, is a slightly fictionalized biography of former Bronx gang leader Benjy Melendez. Set in the late sixties and early seventies, the book describes the human cost of gentrification and the ways in which a community can fall to pieces when abandoned by government support. That's especially true when the only ones remaining tend to be people of color. In situations like this, it's not unusual for gangs to arise, but the Bronx at this time was a special case, as over a hundred gangs were active, each covering a small piece of turf. Melendez, whom the authors spoke to extensively and even walked with him to his old haunts, proves to be the perfect subject for telling not only his story, but the story of a community.

Melendez compares the Bronx in the 1970s to the German city Dresden after the Allies firebombed it out of existence. The buildings were ramshackle and looked like bombs had hit them. For those who remained, for those who had no choice but to stay, their sheer willpower and resourcefulness created communities. Joining a gang was a matter of simple survival, but it also offered more than that. It provided structure for those where were abjected from mainstream white society, those who were abandoned, forgotten and left to rot. It was a way of creating a new identity that wasn't quite American (colonial) but also wasn't quite the ethnicity of their origin--which, in Benjy's case, was Puerto Rican.

The expressive, illustrative pencil wash style creates an atmospheric sense of decay but also life continuing to spring up amidst the ruins. The story is told with restraint, never seeking to create an exploitative or exotic narrative but instead staying slightly detached. The fact that it's told in past tense helps contribute to this sense of perspective, but it was clear that Melendez always was open to understanding the bigger picture, that the ways in which people interacted was bigger than just his local sphere of influence. That becomes especially clear when he met a Black Panther Party member who plants the seed of peace when he pointed out the facts: if the gangs continued to fight each other instead of fighting against their common predicament, they'd be unable to combat their real foe: the white elites and the government that represented their interests. A brewing gang war was the inevitable result of how the gangs were interacting, which was not unlike Thomas Hobbes' "State of Nature" in his political treatise Leviathan. When gang members competed for the same limited resources and territories with no guiding ethical principles whatsoever, it resulted in lives that were increasingly "nasty, brutish and short".

When a key member of Melendez' gang is killed in an effort to spread peace, Melendez had every opportunity to righteously declare war. Instead, his ability to access his own emotions and instead choose the moment to hold an unprecedented peace conference created an indelible moment that altered history. In a scene that was a sort of ur-moment of urban grit, one that would be adapted in any number of future films, Melendez declares peace and a treaty is established. The gangs turned negative activities into positive ones in an effort to improve their communities, using their reach and influence to create outreach, feed the poor, etc (in very much the same way the Panthers did). This helped to create an environment that, though till impoverished (and now plagued by drugs), was at least peaceful and integrated enough to help foster the birth of hip-hop in the 1970s. Indeed, the building the peace conference was held in later saw DJ Cool Herc host some of his first hip-hop shows.

The book also focuses on Melendez's family, both his family of origin and the eventual children he had, as well as the unlikely discovery that his parents were actually Jewish. The whole book is about a sense of personal discovery, a sense of trying to find a way to belong and become part of something larger than oneself. For Melendez, this shifted from being a gang member to becoming a practicing Jew, but it was all part of the same journey. The book ends with him about to talk to his children (whom he hadn't seen in years) and telling him his story, creating connection and pride instead of isolation and shame. It's a beautiful ending in a book whose slender and almost androgynous figures offer an interesting contrast to the self-perceived hardness of the gangs. The gang members were barely more than children, and Voloj and Ahlering get at the essence of this, that Melendez and the gang members were Lost Boys of a sort. The ending sees him come full circle in growing up. The artists don't have to hammer any of this out in an obvious fashion, letting the incredible details of the story speak for themselves.

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