Ann Allen Shockley

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458

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.

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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 during the forties and fifties. Both books in tough, raw, nitty-gritty language tell how two youths are victimized by the inequities of being born poor in a society of plenty, and of having dark skins. Their courage and will to subsist when thrown by family breakdown into the streets is the heart of these personal narratives.

The books, in Ray Charles' blues cry, do not make you "feel all right" after reading. The violence and savagery unmasked in trying to live with and up to the code of the streets do not make for "nice" reading. But for those youths who live along these streets, fight the same battles, brave the sickness of poverty and inadequate schools, the books are excellent for proving that men as defiant against society as Claude Brown and Piri Thomas did finally have the sanity to try to steer themselves in a more meaningful direction. (p. 396)

The revealing lives of these two men are written without rancor and apology. The books make excellent therapeutic books for mature, disadvantaged ones who feel there is no way out. By reading true histories of those who have lived, shared, and experienced stifling poverty amidst the brutality of the streets, but managed to escape through self-determination, the books should prove to be elevating and rewarding.

The language of both books is earthy and realistic, but certainly not without words heard or seen before. The narratives are easy to read although somewhat different in style. Claude Brown's book reads like fiction with slices of humor and objectiveness. Piri's book is hip, cool, and swinging with a glossary of the Spanish words used throughout in the back. Even those disadvantaged youths who dislike reading and consider it "for the birds" would find these nonfictional accounts interest holding.

There is no doubt the books are filled with soul. The soul of hardship, misery, rootlessness, defiance, but tempered by the will for survival. Above all, they possess the soul knowledge that there can be a promised land down those mean streets. (p. 398)

Ann Allen Shockley, "Two Books with Soul: For Defiant Ones," in English Journal, Vol. 58, No. 3, March, 1969, pp. 396-98.∗

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