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...
(The entire section is 1079 words.)