Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762
["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 children furnished the place by stealing: And then we stole some sheets, boosted some blankets, grabbed a chair from in front of a store and so on. They support themselves by begging, stealing, whoring and similar odd jobs. This keeps them in clothes, wine, marijuana and other creature comforts. Most of them have left home, they say, because one or both parents are junkies. A few have parents whom they describe as alcoholics.
As we all know, Claude Brown published a best seller in 1965 called "Man-Child in the Promised Land." In that book, Mr. Brown described himself as the "baddest" boy on the block, and there were some critics, both black and white, who doubted the "facts" of his autobiography. "The Children of Ham" presents itself as a group biography, and here is one critic, at least, who doubts its authenticity as well.
If the book were well written, perhaps it would not matter whether it was true or not. Most good fiction is "true" in a sense. But Mr. Brown cannot write at all. "We keep hoping that one day somebody will devise a solution to this affliction in Harlem. The common tragedy among these youngsters is that by the time they reach the age of 19 or 20 they are thoroughly and irreversibly demoralized." These are examples of the author's prose style. If "people became aware of her sensitivity, she would be defenselessly exposed to a ruthless world." "Sheryl has committed so many urbane deeds …" "… she has both capability and the proclivity for inflicting mayhem."…
It is a toss-up who is more boring—Mr. Brown, in his sententious social worker's jargon, or the "children" themselves….
In each chapter of "The Children of Ham," we hear the 13 members of the "family" telling their stories in their own words. We learn that Salt-Noody has a compulsion to spray his name all over Harlem; that Dee Dee believes in astrology; that Snooky is wild about cars and guns; that Connie regards Harlem as a prison; Nita wants to become a lawyer because she "like to lie"; Lee "would like to get a job," and more of the same.
We discover how various members of the "family" feel about various drugs, about whites, about sex, about religion, about politics. We are told of a drug dealer who has shopping bags full of paper money littering her apartment. White cops "are some of the foulest forms of life." Hebro wants to play football; somebody else wants to play basketball.
All this is told to us in a largely arbitrary and colorless slang. "Scag" is heroin; a "jones" is a drug habit; a man is a "dude"; clever is "swift"; getting along with someone is being "tight"; a hick or square is a "gator"; New York City is the "Apple." These "translations" do nothing to disguise the banality and puerility of what is being said. They suggest, rather, that it may be time for these particular blacks to consider closing the gap between themselves and white society by speaking English. If it is "understanding" they want, this would be one of the ways of approaching it. "The Children of Ham" suffers from a monotony of negatives and oversimplifications, and these do not sound any better when they are ungrammatically phrased. A case can be made out for slang, but the insistence of the children on deliberately evading grammar is not so much the expression of a personal style as it is a pointless and uninteresting nonconformity.
Talented black writers like Ralph Ellison, Leon Forrest, John Wideman and Albert Murray can make music out of black speech, but Claude Brown cannot. Nor can "The Children of Ham," no matter how much they ham it up.
Anatole Broyard, "A Monotony of Negatives," in The New York Times, April 16, 1976, p. 25.