Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker pulls the true story of Benjamin “Yellow Benjy” Melendez out of the ghetto and into the spotlight. Melendez’s family immigrated to New York City from Puerto Rico shortly after he was born, settling in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. However, like many other Puerto Rican and African-American families, the Melendezes were soon displaced by urban planner Robert Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway, the first highway built in a densely populated urban area. While immigrant families like Benjy’s were flooding into the Bronx, many white families were moving out of the borough and into new white-only suburbs. As author Jeff Chang introduces Ghetto Brother: “Young people like Benjy came of age amidst malign neglect, re-segregation, and the politics of abandonment. They sought solidarity, security, and kicks in gangs.”
Ghetto Brother tells the story of the titular gang’s formation and its ultimate transformation. The graphic novel begins powerfully in medias res with the death of “Black Benjie” in 1971, depicted on a single page featuring ten panels and very little text. The somber sparseness of this opening scene contrasts sharply with the jam-packed panels to come, in which a present-day Melendez reflects on how different New York City was only 40 years ago. While Black Benjie’s death could have served as the catalyst to an explosive all-out gang war in the Bronx, it instead led Benjy Melendez to call for a truce and the unification of various street gangs in a larger group called “The Family”. As the divisions between groups broke down, other opportunities arose, including collaborations that led to the hip-hop movement and breakdancing, as well as Benjy’s personal religious journey.
Julian Voloj’s writing and Claudia Ahlering’s artwork combine to offer readers an absorbing glimpse of life in the Bronx during the 1960s and 1970s. The conversational tone of photojournalist Voloj’s writing creates a sense of intimacy, as though Benjy is speaking directly to the reader; indeed, Voloj spoke with Benjy for three years before writing Ghetto Brother. Ahlering’s black-and-white illustrations complement the writing, conveying a sense of history and gravity and emphasizing the innumerable shades of grey between black and white in both art and life itself. The lack of color also softens the visual depictions of violence in Ghetto Brother: instead of bright red blood that stands out against the background, it is a dark black pool of blood that gathers under Black Benjie’s afro, making it difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends. Although there are few depictions of extreme violence in Ghetto Brother, librarians, educators, and parents should be aware that the graphic novel contains some violent content and strong language. That being said, the language feels authentic and thus powerful, rather than a disingenuous attempt to shock the audience.
Addressing myriad issues involving race and power, religion and persecution, and war and peace, Ghetto Brother is a true story of American history that needed to be told. This powerful coming-of-age tale makes a wonderful addition to teen graphic novel collections, where it will likely appeal to fans of hip-hop music; those interested in Civil Rights and activism, immigration and racism, and/or the culture of the 1960s and 1970s; and graphic memoirs in general.
Frontmatter includes an introduction by Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Backmatter includes an author’s note, “The Story Behind the Story,” in which Julian Voloj provides more information about the impact of the gang truce on the hip-hop movement, photographs of Melendez and other key figures, and suggestions for further reading and viewing. This is Voloj and Ahlering’s first graphic novel.
Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker
by Julian Voloj
Art by Claudia Ahlering