Claude Brown Essay - Critical Essays

Brown, Claude


Claude Brown 1937–

Black American nonfiction writer.

Brown has used his writing to help promote a greater awareness of the adversities confronting the youth of black ghettos. Brown grew up in a Harlem environment ruled by violence, crime, and drugs, where he developed skills as a fighter and thief at a very early age. In his widely read autobiography, Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), Brown relates his experiences "roaming the streets with junkies, whores, pimps, hustlers, the 'mean cats' and the numbers runners" and how he survived and eventually overcame this way of life. Many critics and readers found Manchild to be horrifyingly realistic and deeply moving. Brown's depiction of the degrading effects of ghetto life impressed readers, and he was praised for powerfully expressing his anger without outrage, rhetoric, or sermonizing. In a 1965 interview, Brown stated his reason for writing Manchild: "I'm trying to show more than anything else the humanity of the Negro. Somebody has to stop problemizing and start humanizing the Negro."

Brown's second work, The Children of Ham (1976), depicts a group of young adults in Harlem who help each other rise above the squalor of their environment. This book was not as widely praised as his first. However, many agreed that Brown again achieved a sensitive and brutally realistic portrait of people who struggle against the corrupting influence of their environment and the indifference of society as a whole.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

Eliot Fremont-Smith

The scene [in "Manchild in the Promised Land"] is Harlem, the street, the trap, and the first word of Mr. Brown's narrative is the imperative, "Run!" But at the moment he could not run. He was 13 years old, a veteran of the street, and he had just been shot in the stomach while trying to steal some bed-sheets off a clothesline. (Later, much later, after he had moved downtown, he would twice be nearly killed again, by policemen who could not believe a Negro was merely living in a white man's building, not robbing it or raping someone or shooting dope.)

Run! But first he fought, which is how a boy grows up in Harlem: he talks tough about "the Man," the whites, and fights other Negroes. When he was nine, Claude Brown was a member of the élite thieving section of the Harlem Buccaneers, a notorious bopping gang. At 11 he was sent to the Wiltwyck School for "emotionally disturbed" boys, for a two-year stay. Back on the street, he turned to pushing marijuana and cocaine. At 14 he was sent to the Warwick Reform School for the first of three stays. Again he returned to Harlem, and always to the street, the place of growing up.

And then, eventually, he did run; he escaped the street. He went to school; he learned to play the piano; he graduated from Howard University; he wrote this book; he is now studying for a law degree.

What was different about Claude Brown? How did he escape? Most of his generation, most of...

(The entire section is 601 words.)

Nat Hentoff

There are strengths in Manchild in the Promised Land, and for some there will be more basic discoveries than the guided tour of violence, junk, hookers and "correctional" waystops….

The mobile, vivid portraits in Manchild range through all kinds of cats, beautiful and lost. Mostly lost. Friends die of an overdose or take up residence in jail; girls Brown went to school with turn tricks on street corners to feed the habit; his younger brother becomes a junkie and then goes up on an armed robbery conviction (though he does get his high school diploma in jail).

As a chronicler of those years of violence and then of "the plague" (heroin), Brown is expert if often repetitious. (A hundred less pages would have made for a much tauter book.) As an analyzer of himself, he is less penetrating. He tells us of his decision at 17 to leave Harlem for a time and return to school. He tells us of his realization that he didn't have to go to jail, that he could be free of the quicksand. But the process by which that recognition was won is glossed over. In that respect, what should have been the core of his resurrection is hardly explored at all.

Brown, furthermore, hits at only the surface of those social forces that maintain the ghetto. When a judge gives him another chance, he tells him, "Man, you not givin' us another chance. You givin' us the same chance we had before."…


(The entire section is 500 words.)

Romulus Linney

Claude Brown's "Manchild in the Promised Land" is the autobiography of a young man who grew up in Harlem. It is a Pilgrim's Progress through the deadly realities of the 28-year-old author's childhood and youth during the 1940's and 1950's. It brings to sharp focus and vivid life the desolations and survivals of his contemporaries during that dark night of the Negro soul.

It is written with brutal and unvarnished honesty in the plain talk of the people, in language that is fierce, uproarious, obscene and tender, but always sensible and direct. And to its enormous credit, this youthful autobiography gives us its devastating portrait of life without one cry of self-pity, outrage or malice, with no caustic sermons or searing rhetoric. Claude Brown speaks for himself—and the Harlem people to whom his life is bound—with open dignity and the effect is both shattering and deeply satisfying.

He tells the story of a generation as well as an individual. In his youth, Claude Brown was a violent hoodlum, a thief, a bully, a hustler, who had to look upon himself as an aristocrat of petty crime in order to justify his being. But his mind grew doubtful even as his fists and schemes were furious. As we follow him in and about his life, from a point where he lies bleeding from a gunshot wound at the age of 13, we meet head-on the desperate life of his people. We follow him along the streets that frighten and fascinate him, into the homes, bars, churches, brothels, alleys, crap games, riots, gangs, murders and reform schools that he describes with straightforward and skillful knowledge.

We know the dogged persistence of his parents in their failure to comprehend their own situation, who must defend their own abject existence against the rebellious rages of their children, and we shudder at the resulting mixture of brutality and devotion. We follow the reasoning of children who must fight savagely, often to kill, and their logic is horrible and exact. We learn the methods of thieves, whores, pimps, pushers, junkies, faggots and cold-blooded killers; their desires and thoughts are so perfectly natural that we know very well that in their place we would do the same.

The great plague of dope traffic that struck in the fifties, raged unchecked and changed the fabric of Harlem life, is dealt with openly, for the author had his part in it. Yet its victims are among the most moving and sympathetic people that we meet. When an older Claude Brown returns to Harlem and looks around for the friends of his youth, we feel the weight of his destiny at the fate of so many of his...

(The entire section is 1079 words.)

Martin Tucker

The man who would understand miracles is as dull as the general who drafts answers to an army of rhetorical questions. Yet in literature at least, miracles have to seem natural—that is, as belonging to the nature of things an author is creating.

Claude Brown's miracle is that from a childhood spent amidst crime, poverty, dope, promiscuity, violence and perversion, he managed to wrest himself into a belief that life could be different and better than that. The streets, as he says in his autobiography [Manchild in the Promised Land], were his home, though never his house; his house was a place with which he never made peace till he moved from it, while the streets were what gave him his sense of individuality. Brown begins his book when, at thirteen, he is struck by a bullet when trying to steal bedsheets and linen from a clothesline. He ends it in the present, as a student in his late twenties ready to graduate from a good university. During the course of the book Brown reminisces about his first experiences in "catting" (spending the night away from home); his bebopping jousts with the Buccaneer gang; his numerous visits to Children's Court; and his two years at Wiltwyck School for Boys. (p. 700)

Brown's response to life, both in the liturgical immediacy and in his lyrical retelling, provides an affirmation of Harlem's problems and its hopes for a change. His search is for a meaningful father. He has a real one, whose activity consists of work...

(The entire section is 613 words.)

William Mathes

The book came to me along with the summer's meager trickle of new offerings, at a time when publishers seem to be lying low, waiting to spring their really important fall lists on the world: Manchild in the Promised Land, by Claude Brown. Though it came with a benediction by Irving Howe, I put it aside, thinking it was just another book by an angry young Negro.

There is no doubt that Negroes have much to be angry about, and I am all for anger, righteous or otherwise. Not hate, but anger. There is room for dialogue in that emotion. It gets things moving; someone answers with shock; someone applauds; something happens. Nevertheless, I am growing more than a little tired of the persistent and...

(The entire section is 1438 words.)

George Dennison

Claude Brown's story of growing up in Harlem deals at great length with juvenile crime, the life in the streets, poverty, the curtailment of schooling, changes in the attitudes of Negroes toward themselves and toward whites, the role of the Black Muslims among the poor, and so forth. These are all issues of public concern, and this fact has been reflected in the way [Manchild in the Promised Land] has been praised and criticized. It has been called "a major American autobiography," "a Pilgrim's Progress," and "the voice of a generation and a people." From a more radical point of view, it has been criticized for its serious political and cultural omissions. In view of all this, it may be well to begin with a few...

(The entire section is 1236 words.)

Daniel Aaron

Brown lived through the ordeal of early adolescence because he was tough, intelligent and lucky. He cut loose from his parents, came of age in the school prisons where he was fortunate enough to find a few white supervisors who could give him a reason for living. At 17 he had passed the crisis. The move from his home, he says, 'was a move away from fear, toward challenges, towards the positive anger that I think every young man should have'.

[In Manchild in the Promised Land] Brown tells his story in the guise of the delinquent who simply reports in the scatological argot of the slums what he said and saw and did. Occasionally, the voice of the mature Brown interpolates. The narrative is...

(The entire section is 248 words.)

Ann Allen Shockley

Two very pointed autobiographies heavily instilled with that very elusive but provocative term called soul are Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land … and Piri Thomas' Down These Mean Streets…. These two books—widely sprinkled with similarities in experiences, rebelliousness, and search for identity—are suffused with the outpourings of word soul as gripping and heartrending as the blues of Aretha Franklin's soul songs.

Claude Brown, a Negro imprisoned in the festering Harlem ghetto, and Piri Thomas, a dark-skinned Puerto Rican hemmed in El Barrio of Spanish Harlem, relate with deep-felt honesty their rebellion against society and eventual determination to survive...

(The entire section is 458 words.)

Ishmael Reed

In case you haven't heard, scag is another name for heroin. Substitute the word devil for scag and The Children of Ham, Claude Brown's first book since Manchild in the Promised Land, becomes a medieval mystery in which scag has supernatural power over people. They come under its influence because of bad homes, society, and one fellow says he became addicted because he was from the country instead of the city….

The children of Ham don't use [scag] any more and hold views about junkies which lend credibility to a recent New York Times article reporting a shift in attitudes among blacks regarding black criminals….

When I met Claude Brown at Notre Dame, I expected to...

(The entire section is 605 words.)

Anatole Broyard

["The Children of Ham" concerns] a group of young black people ranging in age from 14 to 22, who live as a "family" in a condemned tenement in upper Harlem, a shell of a building owned, we are told, by the City of New York. They heat the building with gas that has never been turned off and need never be paid for. Their electricity is tapped from the still-functioning hall lights. Its use is never questioned either. Water still runs, just as mysteriously, in the house. There are rats in the halls "as big as cats," and "some of the apartments have garbage piled up in them five feet high, and that makes opening the door a very difficult task for those whose nasal passages are sufficiently insensitive to permit entry."...

(The entire section is 762 words.)

Arnold Rampersad

Harlem is once again on Claude Brown's mind, and it should be on ours. With Manchild in the Promised Land and now The Children of Ham, he has established himself as the true epic poet of modern Harlem. Manchild chronicled his escape from disaster there; Children of Ham is his testimony that no such escape is totally possible, that one must go home again or live and die a traitor. Brown brings the survivor's guilt to his reportage; this is the story of other menchildren and women-children left behind in his escape though born after his time. The manic humor of Manchild is gone. Harlem is an apocalypse and the story is revelation itself. Though the autobiographer of...

(The entire section is 1040 words.)

George Davis

If you lived on a block in Harlem where nearly every family had been destroyed by heroin, these might be a few of the reasons you would find a deteriorating tenement a more inviting place to live than home. "The Children of Ham" is Claude Brown's account of about a dozen teen-agers who banded together to fend for themselves and provide a place of relative security in these garbage-strewn fire traps—a place that their families failed to provide, a place to belong, a space to live in and interact free of the "monster" heroin that dominated their homes and the narrow Harlem side street out front….

The youths transformed several apartments into habitable places they called "spots," where they could...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Chris Smith

Eleven years ago Claude Brown published an autobiographical masterpiece, Manchild in the Promised Land. It poignantly told white America what it meant to grow up in the slums of Harlem. [The Children of Ham] is Brown's second book, and it should also have a startling impact.

It is the true story of a group of young, abandoned black Americans ranging in age from fourteen to twenty-two who live in the shell of a condemned and deserted city apartment building in upper Harlem. The whole area resembles a bombed-out city and is ghostly in its abandonment…. This is part of urban America through which millions of white Americans commute. The book also concerns "the stuff that history won't...

(The entire section is 320 words.)