Claude Brown Ishmael Reed

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Ishmael Reed

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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In case you haven't heard, scag is another name for heroin. Substitute the word devil for scag and The Children of Ham, Claude Brown's first book since Manchild in the Promised Land, becomes a medieval mystery in which scag has supernatural power over people. They come under its influence because of bad homes, society, and one fellow says he became addicted because he was from the country instead of the city….

The children of Ham don't use [scag] any more and hold views about junkies which lend credibility to a recent New York Times article reporting a shift in attitudes among blacks regarding black criminals….

When I met Claude Brown at Notre Dame, I expected to meet Mr. Ghetto coming at me like a swaggering ostrich handing out all kinds of jive, you dig? Instead, I found someone who talked like the host for Masterpiece Theatre, and who ordered in French. The author of Manchild in the Promised Land had gone to etiquette school. "You're the first black Wasp, Claude," I remarked.

Occasionally, the black Wasp comes through. Even Claude Brown can't breathe life into an image like "the rats were as big as cats." Claude has returned to his old stomping grounds, only this time he's the tourist. His predictable glossary, "cops … blow … dudes," is from an old rock record which provided background music at a suburban barbecue. From time to time the tourist abandons his subjects and addresses the liberal audience this book is intended for: "The common tragedy among these youngsters is that by the time they reach the age of nineteen or twenty they are thoroughly and irreversibly demoralized."

I wanted to say, "they know that already, Claude." They've been told that for 20 years through reports, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, motion pictures, documentaries, etc. Through every conceivable medium and from every point of view, yet the heroin problem is worse, claiming 400,000 victims. There are more white addicts than black and the addict population of Los Angeles exceeds that of New York. (p. E1)

Claude Brown means well. His conclusion is that if you care for each other as the children of Ham care for each other you won't need heroin. All you need is love! I wonder what the mothers and fathers of those suburban junkies who've received more care and love than any generation in history with the exception, perhaps, of some child emperors, would say about that. All you need is love. Claude means it.

In the midst of his eloquent, futile pleas, and interesting, often poetical, testimony from his subjects concerning politics (colorful), and their values (flashy cars and clothes), there's a considerable amount of homosexual rape, lesbianism, thievery, murder, and whoring. Mr. Brown meant for his book to be an earnest illustrated sermon directed at arousing the American conscience, but the book will be read as a peepshow….

The author of The Children of Ham meant his book to be about some extraordinary people of ambivalent morality who transcended the situation in which they were thrust. But the book will become popular because of the Bowery parts.

Claude Brown has the best intentions, and some of the children of Ham might be touched by the magic wand of publicity and rescued from their plight. But for every bright and ambitious Hamite there are thousands who won't be rescued. Claude Brown is best at writing about himself in the first person. That book, when he writes it, will be a classic, and it will be post-Harlem.

You can't go home again. (p. E2)

Ishmael Reed, "The First Black Wasp," in Book World—The Washington Post, April 11, 1976, pp. E1-E2.