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Who knew that Benghazi, Libya, in North Africa, would become one of the most reported about places on the planet?  Tragedy and politics make strange bedfellows.

Ambassador Chris Stevens

Last month, when I read a listserv announcement about the late Ambassador Christopher Stevens, I felt I understood a lot more about this widely acclaimed man, someone who became celebrated as a diplomat with a special calling and a singular set of talents.

That his tragic death seems to be caught up in current political posturing is disheartening.  The circumstances made me want to talk about a childhood experience and a much more recent trip to Africa, and the connections to what may have happened a world away.

But first, I have to tell you a family story.  Bear with me.

Aunt Lorraine and Uncle Moses had a son.  I’ll call him Frank. He was one of a big brood, growing up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Philadelphia.  Our parents had lived in similar environs, but they were able to move our family away.  So, my brothers and I grew up in other parts of this vast city, but we would make visits to see our cousins in North Philly.

Today, my memories of Frank are a mix of tinted impressions, idealized feelings and half-distinct facts.  I was young, on the edge of pre-teen-hood, and as I remember cousin Frank, he was all charisma, kindness, big muscles and an even bigger smile.  He invited me go with him and his girlfriend to an afternoon matinee at the famed Uptown Theater – an entertainment hotspot where live musical acts and boisterous reactions from the audience were its hallmarks.  And it was right on the fringes of one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city, known for its gang activity.

Street gangs.  Youth gangs.  Juvenile-delinquents-who-work-in-teams.  However you think of them, the images can be frightening.  Sure, the American musical, West Side Story, stylized gang conflict.

Rival gang members posture artistically in the movie, West Side Story (Photo from Collider.com).

And watch a clip of the iconic actor, Marlon Brando, as he makes the job of a gang leader look dangerously sexy.  Fast- forward nearly four decades into the 21st century, and there is Leonardo DiCaprio, looking heroically violent, in the Gangs of New York, and you just want to hug him.

These images were not the reality of Philadelphia’s youth gangs.   Their combined reputation in the 1970s was legendary, and as a child removed from the day-to-day harshness of life on the streets, I could not come close to understanding the anxieties my parents must have felt about raising a family in the city.

Years later, in 1990, Will Smith debuted his hit television show, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and I was an instant fan.  Visuals of sprawling and colorful graffiti—gang signatures—and the unpredictable threat of youth gangs who patrolled and controlled neighborhood turfs really resonated.  I got it.  I laughed—hard—at each episode and sang along with the opening credits, as millions of us did.

But there was a really gritty reality behind the light comedy.  Recently, I discovered a documentary on a site called Dangerous Minds that apparently was quite controversial in its time.  In 1967, three teenagers living in the vortex of gang life, wrote, produced and acted in a documentary about their lives.  Even the title—The Jungle: Philadelphia’s Mean Streets—is menacing. The images are much more disturbing.  Young narrators speak over grainy black-and-white images, telling stories of violence and retribution that gauge the volatility of the streets where they live,  as calmly as if they were giving the local weather report.

My mother had to be convinced to let me travel to this North Philadelphia of the documentary.  The Uptown Theater may have been an icon, but even in the daylight, that part of the “City of Brotherly Love” had an aura of danger and threat.  But cousin Frank was persuasive.  He was a college-educated man, and although he could have left his poverty-ridden North Philly neighborhood in the dust of a rapid escape, he stayed.  He found work with the city in social services and honed a specialty in youth gang intervention programs.

Mom relented. After the afternoon matinee, my cousin brought me back to my Aunt and Uncle’s cramped family home in North Philly where my parents were waiting for me, I can only imagine now through the lens of a parent that my mother must have exhaled audibly when she saw me.  But true to his word, Frank kept me safe. Oblivious to the potential danger, I had a fantastic time hanging out with grownups who weren’t my parents.

That was the last time I saw Frank alive.  Shortly after that, we learned that he died in a senseless tragedy, caught in the crossfire of a gang conflict that everyone said he was trying to prevent.   Our family went to his funeral, the first family death services I had ever experienced.  We sat in a section reserved for relatives, close to an open casket showing Frank in a state of orchestrated repose.  I remember emotional weeping and the frequent testimonies about my cousin’s sterling character and genuine kindness, all of which made the heaviness of the occasion seem weightier.

Then, the services took a dramatic and unrehearsed turn of events.  In single file and in rhythmic progression, several youth marched down the narrow aisle of the church leading to the casket.  They belonged to two groups, separated by differently colored bandanas around there foreheads.  As they shuffled past the open casket, each one leaned over Frank’s body.  Some kissed him.  And some gave a kind of salute.  Each one pounded a clenched fist over his own beating heart, just as he passed by Frank’s death-frozen heart.  Turns out they were representatives of the very gangs that had been at war that fatal night.

Sometimes, conflict overshadows good intentions.  I remembered this surreal funeral scene as I read some of the sympathetic comments from Libyans who, too, mourned Chris Stevens’ death.  While there is genuine sympathy in their comments, one can also read frustration among people living on the edge of survival.

The late ambassador was a dedicated professional who gave his life in service to his country.  But what I also learned from that listserv, which focuses on American Indian news and issues, was that he was also an Indian.  And I believe that his Native American roots inform his personal and professional story more than any one thing we can know about him.  Ambassador Chris Stevens was a member of the Chinook Nation, indigenous peoples whose ancestral ties connect to the Pacific Northwest, or present-day states of Washington and Oregon.   As I thought about this more, I began to believe that, as is often the case, identity is everything….

I’ll explain more in my next post.