Manchild in the Promised Land is the odyssey of a young black man through the treacherous streets of Harlem and beyond. In the person of Sonny, the book’s narrator, Claude Brown tells his own story of growth and survival against all odds. Though some of the book is fiction, this autobiographical novel remains an authentic account of Brown’s evolution from tough, hardened streetfighter to a young man on the brink of becoming one of the most powerful writers of the urban African American experience.
By the time he is eleven, Sonny is already a member of a street gang called the Buccaneers; the gang’s main objective is to steal as much and as often as possible. After he is arrested for stealing, Sonny is sent to the Wiltwyck School for emotionally and socially maladjusted boys. He joins many of his friends who, like Sonny, have been arrested as minors. He also meets Mr. Papenek, the school’s administrator, who plays an important role in influencing Sonny’s life. Papenek, though physically unimpressive, commands Sonny’s respect through his knowledge, polished demeanor, and overall kindness. For the first time in his young life, Sonny realizes that power can be derived from sources other than the gun, fist, or gang; it can be found within the intelligent, educated mind. Though much time passes before Sonny is strong enough to act on the example Papenek sets for him, he never forgets the faith the older gentleman placed in him. Brown dedicates Manchild in the Promised Land “to the late Eleanor Roosevelt, who founded the Wiltwyck School for Boys. And to the Wiltwyck School, which is still finding Claude Browns.”
Returned to his home, where his father physically and verbally abuses him while his mother stands by, sympathetic but powerless, Sonny soon gets into trouble again on the streets, dealing drugs and stealing. At thirteen, he is shot while trying to steal sheets from a neighbor’s backyard clothesline. After he recovers, he is sent to Warwick Reform School, thus beginning a cycle of crime and reformatory life that lasts for most of his teen years....
(The entire section is 861 words.)