Claude Brown Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

By the time he was thirteen years old, Claude Brown had been hit by a bus, whipped with chains, thrown into a river, and shot in the stomach. Spending more time on the streets of Harlem than in school, Brown was an accomplished thief by the age of ten, when he became a member of the Forty Thieves, a branch of the infamous Buccaneers gang. In a desperate attempt to save their son from his early downward spiral into the penal system, the Browns sent Claude to live with his grandparents for a year. The sojourn seemed to have little effect on him, because soon after his return to Harlem he was sent to the Wiltwyck School for emotionally disturbed boys.

Brown’s early life was a seemingly endless series of events leading to one form or another of incarceration. All told, Brown was sent to reform school three times, and in between those times he ran con games and sold hard drugs. He avoided heroin addiction only because the one time he tried it he nearly died. Avoiding drug dependency may have been the key factor in his ability to escape the fate of early death or lengthy incarceration that met so many of his peers. Sensing that he would perish if he remained in Harlem, Brown moved to Greenwich Village at seventeen and began to attend night school.

As he began to understand that living in the ghetto did not mean a certain destiny of crime, misery, and poverty, he no longer believed that living in Harlem would inevitably ruin his life. While selling cosmetics he devoted many hours daily to playing the piano, and eventually enrolled in and was graduated from Howard University. During Brown’s first year at Howard, he was urged to write about Harlem for a magazine by Ernest Papanek, who had been the school psychologist at Wiltwyck School. As Brown reflected on his life he began to understand what a difficult feat it is to survive the ghetto, and his writing describes the reasons for the general despair found there. The magazine article led to an offer from a publisher for Brown to write what eventually became Manchild in the Promised Land.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Baker, Houston A., Jr. “The Environment as Enemy in a Black Autobiography: Manchild in the Promised Land.” Phylon 32, no. 1 (Spring, 1971). A critical essay on Brown’s interpretation of environment.

Davis, Charles T. Black Is the Color of the Cosmos: Essays on Afro-American Literature and Culture, 1942-1981. Edited by Henry L. Gates, Jr. New York: Garland, 1982. Davis contrasts the use of sexuality in African American novels and uses Brown’s work as part of his analysis. Contends that Brown, when compared to other black writers of his time, may appear as a “raving sensualist” because of his graphic allusions to the sexual aspect of black culture.

Fremont-Smith, Eliot. “Coming of Age in Harlem: A Report from Hell.” The New York Times, August 14, 1965, p. 21. Claims that Brown’s work is significant not only because of its detail but also because he writes without anger or resentment.

Goldman, Robert M., and William D. Crane. “Black Boy and Manchild in the Promised Land.” Journal of Black Studies 7, no. 2 (December, 1976). Compares the two works and emphasizes how social pressures experienced by the authors may have influenced their attitudes toward their subject areas.

Petesch, Donald A. A Spy in the Enemy’s Country. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989. Traces the evolution of self and personality in black literature. Manchild in the Promised Land is included in a discussion of the question of “disappearing selves” in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and other representative works.

Rampersad, Arnold. Review of The Children of Ham, by Claude Brown. The New Republic 174, no. 19 (May 8, 1976): 25-26. Calls Brown’s work honest but also considers it to be moralistic and to reveal Brown’s own insecurities when interviewing people about Harlem.