Under The Walnut Tree: A Memoir, by Donnell Joseph, (The Troy Book Makers, Troy, New York, 2015, 252 pages).
Book Review by Dennis Moore
November 7, 2015 (San Diego’s East County) - Hollywood has a tendency of glamourizing the perceived sordid nature of the South Central area of Los Angeles, as depicted in the movies, Boys In The Hood, starring Lawrence Fishburne, Angela Bassett and Cuba Gooding Jr., as well as Menace To Society, starring Larenz Tate, and most recently in the blockbuster movie Straight Out Of Compton, chronicling the rise to fame of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. Donnell Joseph gives a more realistic and authentic meaning and picture of South Central, as he actually lived through it and on many occasions almost died in it through his involvement in gangs and drugs common to the area when he was coming up.
As a matter of fact, three of his younger brothers, Wilbert, Kenneth and Chris, all were murdered on the mean streets of South Central. Joseph’s memoir, Under The Walnut Tree, tells a sordid story of gang violence and subsequent prison life that would make Hollywood producers and directors blush! While the author was a member of the “Brims” street gang in South Central, the more noted “Crips” and “Bloods” actually had members that had been childhood friends or acquaintances.
There are poignant moments in this well written book, superbly edited by Jeanne Finley, that at times captures the essence of humanity that one might not expect of the author, especially considering revelations of his early childhood and how he was raised. One poignant moment for example, is how the author reflects on the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, and doing so “under the walnut tree” in his family’s back yard. This is in contrast to his demonstrated aberrant behavior throughout this book. Clearly, there are two sides to this man that deserves analyzing if we are to truly understand him and the South Central area of Los Angeles that would breed similar such young men.
In further regard to Dr. King, the author states: “I have always liked to be next to trees and to gather my thoughts under their shelter. I am better able to enter a world of solitude near trees, where my thoughts can flow freely and where I can make sense of matters affecting my immediate existence. It was under the walnut tree in my back yard that I went to think the evening after Dr. King was assassinated. His words of racial harmony had brought me hope and caused me to believe that the world he described could exist. I wondered what would become of my people and all people, and who would carry the burden of responsibility now that Dr. King was gone. My sadness was intermittently broken by the birds singing in the walnut tree.” This would seem to contrast with the racial warfare between the Mexican Mafia and Black gangs in the prisons that Joseph speaks of in his book.
By his own accounting, Donnell Joseph has spent more years of his life in prison than out. But he is one former prisoner who, upon his release and against all odds, has permanently turned his life around. That remains to be seen! “Under The Walnut Tree” is the extraordinary memoir of that life, beginning with Donnell’s childhood in South Central Los Angeles and his introduction to the gangs that would serve as both family and ruin; to his journey through the hells of the California juvenile penal system and, as he grew up, the infamous state prisons at San Quentin and Folsom; to the lost years of federal prison; and finally to the recovery of his own humanity and the blossoming of love. A story not only of “a human being who has grown to learn how to love," Under The Walnut Tree is also one man’s witness to “living life as a fool” offered as example and warning.
Another poignant moment in Joseph’s book is how he describes the realities of prison, which he would get to know all too well, as he states: “Prison is one of the most misunderstood realities. Confined within the walls of this confused maze of pain and ostracism, human beings fight the urge for affection by repudiating the images, treasures, privileges, and wonderment of the free world, which is to be free to love and to be loved in return. Isolation destroys and hampers the growth of a man through a series of petty rules and problems, all of which are designed to retract the course of nature and man’s ability to exist in his natural state.” Does this sound like a man that grew up on the mean streets of South Central – gang-banging and spending the majority of his life in numerous prisons throughout California and other parts of the country, and accused of every other heinous activity imaginable?
As the former President of the Bethel A.M.E. Prison Ministry in San Diego, and regularly visiting and ministering to inmates in Donovan Prison and the George Bailey Center Jail in the San Diego area, as well as the Las Colinas Jail for women, I hope to have the author visit with me to one of these facilities to share his message of redemption. Joseph has indicated that is exactly what he wants to do, as well as visiting schools before the young men and women get to the point of following a life of crime and violence. Who better to get that message across to them than Joseph?
The author also gives a disturbing picture and viewpoint of his early life in the juvenile justice system, as he states: “And I listened to the nightly cries and rapes. Each morning brought the stories of the previous night. There was a look on the faces of the boys who had been raped in the night. I could feel their sadness, and it hurt me to know that no one cared. I could feel the pain of the victims of rape in Juvenile Hall, but not the pain of the victims of my own iniquity. I was a hypocrite who hated violence when I saw its victims, but justified my own violence and gang activity.”
Joseph gives a candid and graphic description of his incarceration at San Quentin (“Bastille by the Bay”), one of many prisons throughout the country that he would serve time at. He describes it as such: “There seemed to be no end to the height or breadth of San Quentin. I had never imagined people would build a place that big, in which to put those who had broken the law.” Ironically, upon his arrival at San Quentin he was sent for orientation to North Block, the Hole, the block that housed Death Row, where many died within San Quentin’s gas chamber, including the author’s childhood friend, StanleyTookie Williams, several years ago. I recall quite vividly and painfully Tookie Williams’ execution, as activists from all over the world, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu, called for a stay of execution. The Governor of California at the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had the power in his hands to let Tookie Williams live or die. He chose to let him die! That is something that I will always remember and associate with the former actor, not his movies “Terminator” or “Predator”.
In his memoir, “Under The Walnut Tree”, the author states that in San Quentin; “Murder and assaults were the common language, and to speak of killing someone was natural within the normalcy of incarceration.” Joseph writes of his own “life-or-death’ experience at San Quentin, that with an inmate known as “Killer Dog”.
Just last night, the author and I had a long distance phone conversation about a subject that he writes about in his book, and evidently means a lot to him and has caused pain to him and many others in South Central Los Angeles, the crack cocaine epidemic in his neighborhood. He touched on a conspiracy theory, that of the “Arm & Hammer” company involvement in the making and distribution of crack cocaine. He further indicated that the baking soda made by Arm & Hammer was absolutely necessary and an essential element in crack cocaine. Interestingly, a George Allen Ward, serving a 200 month sentence in the Petersburg Low Federal Institution in Virginia for the distribution of crack cocaine, filed a civil action (Civ. No. 03-6113) against Defendant Church & Dwight Co., Inc. (“Church & Dwight”), the manufacturer of Arm & Hammer baking soda. Plaintiff Ward asserts that Church & Dwight should be held liable for failing to include a warning on the package regarding the consequences of criminally misusing baking soda with cocaine to manufacture crack cocaine. Needless to say, Judge Stanley R. Chesler ruled against him.
It makes one wonder what would Beverly Hills or Malibu look like today if the amounts of crack cocaine introduced to the South Central community had been introduced there – or if the powers that be would have even allowed such a phenomenon to occur? Joseph states in his memoir, and he knows all too well: “The drug trade brought with it the evils of addiction. Prostitution was widespread and the crime rate increased as crackheads stole everything they could get to support their habit. It was worse for the women, who lost their beauty to addiction. The dealers made them perform perverted sex acts for drugs; sick dealers gave them crack for having sex with dogs.” Although the author professed an aversion for using and selling drugs, he didn’t practice what he preached!
Perhaps most profound in his book, and to sum up the author's life, is this statement: "I'm not the fortunate son of the American dream. I'm not the son of a land filled with milk and honey, opportunity and compassion. I'm a product of the American nightmare in its truest reality. I come from a world of poverty, sickness, and perversity, from a society where violence and human immorality exist with no shame or remorse. I come from a world where people prey on the weak and ignorant. I've tasted the putrid bitterness of poverty. I've risen up with the smells of violence and human excrement and have sought to escape through drugs and alcohol. But this means of escape only pulled me deeper into it."
It is interesting to note that just recently two members of the “Crips” street gang were convicted of the 2014 murder of former Boron High School football star Reggie Heard, who prosecutors believe was gunned down in front of a college teammate’s Compton house because he was wearing a red shirt – mistaken as a Blood gang member. When I shared this with the author Joseph just last night, he indicated to me that he wanted to make it his life mission to stop this deadly trend by educating young people about this dead end street of glamourizing and glorifying street gang violence. This book that he has written is a start, and I believe he will succeed.
Dennis Moore is the Associate Editor of the East County Magazine in San Diego and the book review editor of SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego that has partnered with the East County Magazine, as well as a freelance contributor to EURweb based out of Los Angeles. He is also the author of a book about Chicago politics; “The City That Works: Power, Politics, and corruption in Chicago.” Mr. Moore can be contacted at email@example.com or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.