Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 866
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, worked in the garment district of New York. When he left that job, he began to sell drugs. Yet he was slowly accepting another lifestyle. Brown had at least two advantages: He was not addicted to drugs, and he began perceiving the advantages of an education. He graduated from high school and began to commit himself to studying the law, feeling that the only hope for black people in the United States lay in their becoming aware of their legal rights. He enrolled at Howard University and graduated in 1965. It was during this time that he wrote Manchild in the Promised Land, though he never believed the work would be published. When the book was released, it became a best-seller in both hardback and paperback.
Two years later, in 1967, The Children of Ham appeared, but it did not have the wide acclaim of the first book, though it features many of the same themes. These themes come out of Brown’s own life experience in Harlem, but the work is fiction, focusing on a group of young adults who attempt to help one another in the demanding and negative environment of a ghetto. Brown presents a common dilemma in both books: whether it is possible for people to extricate themselves from their environment successfully or whether that environment remains a part of each individual. Brown’s own opinion is somewhat ambiguous; sometimes he emphasizes ways in which environment can be overcome, and sometimes he stresses that people carry their background and environment throughout life. Some critics have suggested that the Harlem Brown described no longer exists and that new generations of residents experience life differently. Others find continuing similarities and continuing unresolved social problems. The author has acknowledged that not all have the advantages he had: He had particular people who helped him to surmount problems and inner personal resources upon which to draw, and he was able to balance his tenacity with reflection, his aggressiveness with thoughtfulness.
Brown entered Stanford University law school and then transferred to another university, attempting to avoid publicity. He continued to write periodically for journals and newspapers. In these occasional writings, he stressed his dissatisfaction with many middle-class black organizations that in his opinion did not represent the needs of the poor. He was also critical of academic studies of the poor, often dismissing sociological studies for not addressing the roots of the problems of poverty. Brown died of lung cancer in 2002 just shy of his sixty-fifth birthday.
Although he did not consider himself a Black Nationalist, Brown admired black religious groups such as the Nation of Islam, acknowledging that participants in such organizations realize a sense of dignity and pride that enables them to cope with negative environments. Those individuals have left the Harlems of the United States by understanding their own individual importance, yet they have remained among others who have not yet achieved this understanding: They have thus both stayed and left “home.”