In Manchild in the Promised Land, how does Claude Brown address the themes of poverty, racism and crime?

Expert Answers
teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hi there! You asked about the themes of poverty, racism and crime in Claude Brown's novel Manchild In A Promised Land.

I will address each theme separately:


Brown portrays poverty as an impediment to upward mobility, and as a self-perpetuating cycle of despair and self-hatred. Poverty is both portrayed as a social and material handicap. Sonny, the narrator, not only resorts to stealing to purchase life's necessities, he also has to endure the emotional morass of an unstable home. He endures physical abuse from his father with a helpless mother looking on. The poverty and the lack of a healthy home environment steals the innocence of many Harlem youth and burdens them with their own self-defense and self-care before they are able to mentally grasp the gravity of their situation.


Racism is portrayed as both institutionalized and societal. Sonny is sent to the Wiltwyck School For Boys, founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, to whom Brown dedicates Manchild In A Promised Land. Brown portrays for us the utter shame and helplessness in being relegated to a school for troubled African American boys; it is only due to the sincere and conscientious efforts of the school administrator, Mr.Papanek, that Sonny is able to start his journey of pulling himself out of the mire of poverty and crime. When he finally leaves Harlem, he learns that even though he has no future with a white girl with whom he falls in love, he will never be blinded again by being overly conscious about color. The fact that he is able to love a white girl proves his humanity, and even though her parents send her away in disapproval, he learns that a strong sense of self is the key to meaning in his life as he explores his African heritage and various religions, from Coptic Christianity to Islam.


Brown portrays crime as one of the biggest handicaps Harlem youth had to contend with in the 1950s. Crime is only attractive because it is the means to an end. It is the means of survival; low wages were a contributing factor to the high crime rate among angry and disillusioned African American youth in Harlem in the 1950s. Yet, there is a silver lining to Brown's story; education is the key to Brown's Sonny making his own way out of the never-ending and soul-destroying environment of drugs, police brutality and death.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Claude Brown's autobiographical novel Manchild in the Promised Land attempts to address how the protagonist triumphed over the forces of racism, poverty, and crime to find a degree of inner peace and outward success. 

The first issue the novel addresses is poverty. The people in Harlem among whom Brown grew up were often trapped in a cycle of poverty, unable to afford the necessities of life. As a result, they were unable to invest in education or start legal businesses that would lead to escape from poverty. 

This poverty leads to crime; stealing or dealing drugs seem to be the only ways which allow one to survive. This causes children to grow up in an atmosphere in which crime and violence are widely accepted. Often, the only way to avoid become a victim of crime is to join a gang and become a perpetrator. Sonny joins a gang at the age of 11. By the end of the novel, his brother, Pimp, is arrested for armed robbery, and one of his friends dies from a drug overdose. 

Racism is seen as a root cause of poverty and crime, isolating many African Americans in slums in which poverty and crime are endemic. While Sonny finds a way out through his discovery of Coptic religion and education, he struggles to find a way he can construct an identity as an African American who is part of middle-class society.