Claude Brown

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Eliot Fremont-Smith

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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 "cats" he knew, did not. Instead, they died, in spirit if not in body. They died, he reports—and no doubt are dying still—from dope and jail and prostitution, from never having found a sense of person or of purpose, from hopelessness, from being the garbage of the street and knowing it, from growing up in Harlem.

Mr. Brown offers a few clues to his survival, and gives credit to a few individuals who cared enough to help at certain crucial moments. More important, however, as this book testifies, he somehow found, or perhaps was born with, the right combination of inner resources to survive; early courage and tenacity were somehow tempered with intelligence and insight. He is now able to write, with immense control, about the debasement and self-abasement and destruction of his friends. He can record their (and his own) bitter, piteous and doomed attempts to escape the street through further loss of self-esteem—through pointless challenge and violence, through the masquerade of hipness and exotic argot that substitutes for the sense of masculinity denied to Negro men (his younger brother's name is Pimp), through cult-religions, through turning homosexual, through symbolic weapons and irrelevant, useless goals (to own a Cadillac), through drugs. All this he can write about in detail, and without the anger or resentment that he shows is justified, but blinding all the same.

Somewhere near the middle of his book, this report from hell, Claude Brown tells of running into a girl he once knew and loved and yearned for. Now, no longer beautiful, she wanted to borrow money, would pay him back by "turning a trick or two." He declined the offer, but gave her the money, and watched as she got the heroin to take her to her private "promised land." The passage sums up the quiet terror of this book, and the fate of a generation of Negroes who came of age in Harlem.

Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Coming of Age in Harlem: A Report from Hell," in The New York Times, August 14, 1965, p. 21.

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