George Davis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

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….

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The youths transformed several apartments into habitable places they called "spots," where they could be when there was no other place to be. Here, as Claude Brown tells it, they encouraged each other to stay clean and stay in school, or to develop whatever latent talents each might have. We are not told how much time Brown spent with them but it is apparent that he knows them well. They are a remarkable set of young people, for they have learned how to survive in an environment as harsh as the desert.

In it, they move like nomads maintaining little connection to anything except each other. Unfortunately Brown does not let the reader get close enough to them to see the intricate psychological conditioning that makes survival possible. At too many times we view the youths from too great a distance with Brown simply telling us about them instead of allowing us to get a fuller picture by watching them interact.

"The Children of Ham" is a report, a chronicle of completed action that fails to come alive as we read it. Yet, in some ways, it proves that "Manchild in the Promised Land," Brown's best-selling autobiography of more than a decade ago was no fluke. Brown has a good eye for detail and for the language of this environment. "Manchild" remains one of the great personal, nonideological views of life in the rawest parts of Harlem. "The Children of Ham" scans a neighborhood that 10 years of neglect has rubbed even more raw, and in it Brown was obviously aiming for the same impact.

But it was Brown's ear for language and the sense of personal involvement conveyed that made reading "Manchild" an unforgettable experience. Without this language and the feel of particularity, the author forfeits his great advantage—the authenticity, the storyteller's gift and the remarkable ability to see with humor and humanity what others only partially see through clouds of outrage and cant.

Claude Brown is one of the few reporters on this beat who knows enough to write about it as an insider without sentimentality or false pride. The proof is here that he did the reconnaissance. Unfortunately, he or his editors did not make the best use of the data.

George Davis, "How to Survive in Harlem," in The New York Times Book Review, August 15, 1976, p. 24.

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