Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Brown ends his introduction to Manchild in the Promised Land with the question, “Where does one run to when he’s already in the promised land?” The question summarizes the novel’s themes of displacement and dreams forsaken. Brown’s premise is that since the black man never belonged in the white man’s promised land, the promises the land offers must be forfeited for other dreams and expectations. Sonny’s Harlem, after all, looks very little like any promised land; it is a forsaken hell in which men, women, and children are devoured by their own vices. The escapes of drugs and crime are merely entrances into a lower level of Brown’s inferno, and the white man’s promised land shines like tinsel somewhere “out there” in America, the land of opportunity and equality.

Manchild in the Promised Land is the story of one young man’s struggle, yet Brown wants his readers to see a certain universality in Sonny and the book’s other main characters. The Harlem environment itself is a metaphor for the struggle of an entire race; Harlem is united to the black community as a whole by the empathetic struggle for identity, respect, and basic survival. Sonny’s parents represent a defeated generation of African Americans who believed it was best to keep one’s place, grateful to be allowed to live and work in a place like Harlem. Inside this generation, however, is a seething anger that shows itself both in displaced anger toward the coming generation (Sonny’s father beats him out of frustration and confusion) and in the attitude of their offspring. Sonny and his contemporaries are many things—angry, degenerate, self-destructive—but they are not beaten. They do not know where they are headed, but they are...

(The entire section is 716 words.)