Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1079
Claude Brown's "Manchild in the Promised Land" is the autobiography of a young man who grew up in Harlem. It is a Pilgrim's Progress through the deadly realities of the 28-year-old author's childhood and youth during the 1940's and 1950's. It brings to sharp focus and vivid life the desolations and survivals of his contemporaries during that dark night of the Negro soul.
It is written with brutal and unvarnished honesty in the plain talk of the people, in language that is fierce, uproarious, obscene and tender, but always sensible and direct. And to its enormous credit, this youthful autobiography gives us its devastating portrait of life without one cry of self-pity, outrage or malice, with no caustic sermons or searing rhetoric. Claude Brown speaks for himself—and the Harlem people to whom his life is bound—with open dignity and the effect is both shattering and deeply satisfying.
He tells the story of a generation as well as an individual. In his youth, Claude Brown was a violent hoodlum, a thief, a bully, a hustler, who had to look upon himself as an aristocrat of petty crime in order to justify his being. But his mind grew doubtful even as his fists and schemes were furious. As we follow him in and about his life, from a point where he lies bleeding from a gunshot wound at the age of 13, we meet head-on the desperate life of his people. We follow him along the streets that frighten and fascinate him, into the homes, bars, churches, brothels, alleys, crap games, riots, gangs, murders and reform schools that he describes with straightforward and skillful knowledge.
We know the dogged persistence of his parents in their failure to comprehend their own situation, who must defend their own abject existence against the rebellious rages of their children, and we shudder at the resulting mixture of brutality and devotion. We follow the reasoning of children who must fight savagely, often to kill, and their logic is horrible and exact. We learn the methods of thieves, whores, pimps, pushers, junkies, faggots and cold-blooded killers; their desires and thoughts are so perfectly natural that we know very well that in their place we would do the same.
The great plague of dope traffic that struck in the fifties, raged unchecked and changed the fabric of Harlem life, is dealt with openly, for the author had his part in it. Yet its victims are among the most moving and sympathetic people that we meet. When an older Claude Brown returns to Harlem and looks around for the friends of his youth, we feel the weight of his destiny at the fate of so many of his generation—those who are dead, or those waiting for him to join them in prison, to meet again in the close, incorrigible fraternity of children's centers, reform schools and jails. Scene after absorbing scene joins us to Harlem life, but we always face it through the thought and feeling of the people themselves and never by the pretense of a false objectivity or through self-righteous judgments.
His story is not all savagery, however. Very often it is told with humor. There are moments of delight: the description of Vassar girls romping about at the reform school with the little colored boys who peek up their dresses and smash up their bicycles; the author bravely pretending old-fashioned salvation, rolling on the floor in his $150 suit and screaming for Jesus, all to get the preacher's daughter into bed. And careful notice is taken of those who somehow grew up intact—like Turk, a prize fighter, and Danny, a conscientious father—who were able to face their harsh lives with realistic but determined hope.
But the final strength of this autobiography rests in the survival of the author himself. How did it come about? What miracle was passed, that an almost murderous hoodlum whose personality was dissolving in the fears of his youth could achieve not only self-control, but a judgment so balanced and a compassion so undeceived? Brown dedicates his book to Eleanor Roosevelt and to the Wiltwyck School she founded, where he first became aware, if only dimly, that human virtue did exist, that the unerring eye of the bullied child for the monstrous hypocrisy of adults does not see everything. He pays understanding tribute to Ernst Papanek, a director of the school. He dramatizes the cold incorruptibility of Judge Jane M. Bolin, who sent him there, and the concern of the Rev. William M. James, who helped try to save the author's young brother from drug addiction. In many places he acknowledges the help he received, but help alone did not save him.
Claude Brown presents us no piercing visions or great miracles that must sweep all problems from the path of the urban American Negro. His book recognizes that no human life is so composed. And while he approves the energy and impact of the Muslims, he will not hold the flag for them or any movement that draws sharp battlelines, any more than he would burden the utterly defeated with futile dreams. He knows that something else must happen to his ravaged, delinquent friends…. (p. 1)
Claude Brown recently graduated from Howard University, and will attend law school next year. Again, the question: how did he survive? What did he come to understand and where did his understanding come from?
More than anything else, his book reveals that his personal regeneration came not only from dedicated individuals and institutions, not only from his own toughness and clarity of mind, but from the agonies of the defeated friends he so deeply respected and loved, who have been destroyed. He owes his understanding to the damned of Harlem; upon their fallen lives he erects his own future and his truest guidance is here recorded in their hopeless struggles and brave despairs. The book is written for them, and they possess it most completely. Through it their anonymous lives reach our own and shake us, while Claude Brown's allegiance to them, to himself, and to the children of his generation grows quiet and sturdy, until finally it is solid as granite.
"Manchild in the Promised Land" is a mature autobiography of the coming of age of one hidden human being, whose experience and generation are absolutely crucial to any future history of the American people. (p. 14)
Romulus Linney, "Growing Up the Hard Way," in The New York Times Book Review, August 22, 1965, pp. 1, 14.
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