Claude Brown

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Nat Hentoff

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There are strengths in Manchild in the Promised Land, and for some there will be more basic discoveries than the guided tour of violence, junk, hookers and "correctional" waystops….

The mobile, vivid portraits in Manchild range through all kinds of cats, beautiful and lost. Mostly lost. Friends die of an overdose or take up residence in jail; girls Brown went to school with turn tricks on street corners to feed the habit; his younger brother becomes a junkie and then goes up on an armed robbery conviction (though he does get his high school diploma in jail).

As a chronicler of those years of violence and then of "the plague" (heroin), Brown is expert if often repetitious. (A hundred less pages would have made for a much tauter book.) As an analyzer of himself, he is less penetrating. He tells us of his decision at 17 to leave Harlem for a time and return to school. He tells us of his realization that he didn't have to go to jail, that he could be free of the quicksand. But the process by which that recognition was won is glossed over. In that respect, what should have been the core of his resurrection is hardly explored at all.

Brown, furthermore, hits at only the surface of those social forces that maintain the ghetto. When a judge gives him another chance, he tells him, "Man, you not givin' us another chance. You givin' us the same chance we had before."…

Yet none of these fragmentary indictments nor the rising motif in Manchild of a growing collective pride in being black brings Brown to a recognition of the need for counter-power in the ghetto if the beautiful cats who make it are not to continue to be small in number—especially as cybernation accelerates….

True, impotent anger finally turns inside. And Brown was able to transmute his rage into a sense of his own worth. He created his own self-fulfilling prophecy. And that's why his story will reassure at the same time as it disturbs the other, white America. If Claude Brown could do it, others can. Through Operation Head Start. Through "quality, integrated education" some day. Through that "War on Poverty" with its wooden bullets. But where are enough jobs to come from for those in today's Harlems? And radically rehabilitated housing—not just one block—let alone integrated neighborhoods? Without counter-power, political counter-power, the promised land will continue to be a desert for most of the poor. And for the black poor, it will be a desert with fewer and fewer mirages.

Claude Brown broke free, but for many black teenagers in today's under-class, the decision to stop running on a treadmill is getting harder and harder to reach. With political and economic power where it is, the odds are too high for more and more of them. And the odds are getting higher.

Nat Hentoff, "Sprung from the Alley, a Rare Cat," in Book Week—The Sunday Herald Tribune, August 22, 1965, p. 5.

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