Arnold Rampersad

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1040

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 Manchild was part Poor Richard, part Horatio Alger hero, and part con man, with the work itself his most sophisticated and lucrative hustle, Brown's best instincts are toward the rational, the moral and the prophetic, and between the first book and the second he has had much time to think of his fate and that of his people….

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His literary method is simple. Armed with a tape-recorder and, perhaps, some means of inducing his subjects to relax, he allows them to tell their stories, transcribing their remarks verbatim, filling in the empty spots with impressions, explanation and facts. Of the 13 stories, four focus on the women of the group; one is about its youngest member, 14-year-old Snooky; another is about Stretch, who is close to 50 and a friendly outsider. In essence, though, they tell one tale.

The religion of this community is survival. The armor of their creed is unity and compassion for one another. Each child has been abandoned, more or less, by his or her family…. The Devil in their creed is "scag," "the white boy"—heroin; the devil's angels are the junkies, who must be terrorized to keep their distance, unless, as in the case of Lee, the group decides to make an exception. The prime force of these children's lives is fear—fear of becoming a worshiper, fear of becoming a wino (lower in status than a junkie in Harlem), fear of being overtaken by the Harlem fate. The greatest compliment is to be called "swift"—a "swift dude" or a "swift chick"; speed is of the essence, and flight the better part of valor.

In the most harrowing section of that book, the narrator of Manchild in the Promised Land related how heroin destroyed his brother Pimp. In The Children of Ham, all lives have been warped by its power….

If it has any impact at all, this work should ice, once and for all, the myth of Harlem propagated so assiduously since Harlem's brassy age in the early '20s, during the years when, as Langston Hughes put it, "the Negro was in vogue." The grotesque irony of Harlem as Promised Land in the title of Brown's first book is attenuated, then reversed in The Children of Ham. The myth of Canaan persists for these youths, but the promised land is now anywhere but Harlem. (p. 25)

Ancient as a ruin, these cave dwellers are as childlike as their most recent fantasy, illusion or dream. Their urge to rational intellection is constant and intense, if predictably inchoate, and their desire for learning heartbreaking in its misdirection. Dee Dee writes poetry, and Hebro the muscle man, seeing Nita turning in the sunlight by a window, thinks of eternal beauty, but visions and ideals live fitfully in this foul air. Snooky wants a gun and a Cadillac; Mumps, a gifted thief, wants a legitimate cover for his hustle and intends to go to college to find it; Jill dreams of being an actress. Lee, with a BA in sociology, wants to go home to Florida, but a fix keeps getting in the way. Hebro, the athlete, intends to lift himself up into the world of high salaried ballplayers. They do not see the white world as now more sympathetic or understanding, only as more vulnerable to black force.

A familiar term at the end of the last century among certain liberal reformers concerned the "unconscious moral heroism" of the poor. Perhaps it is fatuous to apply such a term to juvenile delinquents, but if self-preservation is a moral duty, then these are moral heroes of the first order. Though the book is about youth and death, its human subjects are short on self-pity. Indeed, the only pathetic character in the book is its narrator. I do not mean Claude Brown, but his persona, who visits the scene of disaster with an open notebook and a closed mouth. He exemplifies the predicament not of the author but of the reader, the person of education and means from whom the accusations of neglect and abuse in the book demand response. The book itself, of course, is the supreme act of intervention in the tragedy of these lives, but that is to Claude Brown's credit, not to ours. Nor, paradoxically, to his narrator's. Intending to be distant and scientific, an empirical sociologist gathering facts, he tries in vain to conceal his insecurities within a laconic style. But occasional pious moralizings, hip expressions, ripples of self-conscious, nervous humor and crass judgments flesh out a picture of a human being that every sensitive reader should recognize at once. Consciously or unconsciously, Brown reveals his deep discomfort in dealing with his material: this is a glaringly honest book.

The Children of Ham invites comparison with the most successful of those books that record, fictionally or factually, the crusades of children against the world of their fathers and mothers. From this perspective and in the context of the rise of the American city, it is alike in its power, if not in its art, to Stephen Crane's first novel, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets; as a book about those young people whose primary gift is a determination to live, it reminds one of the diary of another tenement prisoner struggling for the right of survival, Anne Frank. In any event, The Children of Ham is among the more important books published in recent years. (pp. 25-6)

Arnold Rampersad, in a review of "The Children of Ham," in The New Republic, Vol. 174, No. 19, May 8, 1976, pp. 25-6.

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