Claude Brown’s revealing autobiography, Manchild in the Promised Land, is often considered the definitive picture of life in Harlem, New York. Brown’s book gives readers an idea of what it is to be black, urban, and poor. Brown’s second major opus, The Children of Ham, continues his explanation of how many children of the impoverished grow up; it also describes the ability of the young to rise above their environments. Both books are marked by underlying optimism and reflect the author’s own struggle from hopelessness to productive life.
Claude Brown was born to parents who had been southern sharecroppers and had moved to New York after the Depression of the 1930’s. The family lived in a tenement in Harlem; Brown’s father had a job with the railroads while his mother worked as a domestic in other people’s homes. Brown was well versed in “street life” even before he attended school: He knew how to fight and steal and had a reputation as a tough kid on his block. He emphasizes in Manchild in the Promised Land that this was a child’s way of attaining social status as well as of being self-protective; it was an ordinary way of life that was built into the very social fabric of life in the poorer sections of Harlem. There were consequences, however. By the age of ten, the author had been expelled often from the public school system as well as from children’s centers to which he had been sent. He was sent to live with relatives in the South for a year in the hope that his behavior would improve. His response to the environmental change was not positive, for in the South he encountered a way of life that he vowed not to endure again.
At the age of eleven, Brown was sent to a school for the emotionally disturbed for two years. This was not a wholly negative experience: He met psychologists and administrators who influenced him and with whom he maintained later friendships. When he returned to the streets of New York, however, he resumed his former lifestyle. He was thereupon sent to a reform school, the first of three times, and when finally released,...
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