Manchild in the Promised Land is quasi-autobiographical novel by Claude Brown first published in 1965. It focuses on the protagonist's experience growing up in the 1940s and 1950s in Harlem, an area in the northern part of Manhattan that at the time was almost exclusively African American and plagued by poverty, violence, and drugs.
The author, Claude Brown (1937 - 2002), like the protagonist, was born and raised in Harlem. During his early life, he was involved in drinking, stealing, and gangs. He spent several years attending reform schools for delinquent children and only gradually began to see education as a path out of poverty and crime. In reaction to seeing how much his friends were harmed by drugs and violence he moved to Greenwich Village and supported himself as a busboy while taking night classes and eventually being admitted to Howard University. His main concern after graduation was juvenile justice and rehabilitation and as a writer and lecturer he strove to advocate for young men like himself.
The protagonist of the book, Sonny, was a member of a criminal gang, the Buccaneers, and a thief by the time he is 11 years old. He lived in a world in which power was linked to money and violence. At reform school, Sonny meets Mr. Papenek, who shows by example a different sort of life in which education is a path to a successful life and people are treated with courtesy and respect. Sonny's home life with an abusive father and passive mother and surrounded by gangs is not conducive to self-reform and soon Sonny begins dealing drugs and stealing again.
Although Sonny spends his teen years committing various crimes and being sent to reform schools, he is smart enough to realize that this behavior will lead to a permanent criminal record. He also sees that his gang friends tend to end up in prison, strung out on drugs, or dead, like his female friend Sugar and his younger brother Pimp. A major positive influence in the book is Danny, a heroin addict who constantly warns Sonny against drug use and eventually gets clean himself and finds a new life as a Christian.
Sonny moves out of Harlem and begins to explore his African heritage and various faith traditions. He falls in love with a white girl and though the relationship does not work out, he becomes aware that relationships can be better than the dysfunctional one he sees in his parents. Eventually, we see him decide to continue his education and become a role model for young children living in poverty and violence.
Manchild in the Promised Land is the odyssey of a young black man through the treacherous streets of Harlem and beyond. In the person of Sonny, the book’s narrator, Claude Brown tells his own story of growth and survival against all odds. Though some of the book is fiction, this autobiographical novel remains an authentic account of Brown’s evolution from tough, hardened streetfighter to a young man on the brink of becoming one of the most powerful writers of the urban African American experience.
By the time he is eleven, Sonny is already a member of a street gang called the Buccaneers; the gang’s main objective is to steal as much and as often as possible. After he is arrested for stealing, Sonny is sent to the Wiltwyck School for emotionally and socially maladjusted boys. He joins many of his friends who, like Sonny, have been arrested as minors. He also meets Mr. Papenek, the school’s administrator, who plays an important role in influencing Sonny’s life. Papenek, though physically unimpressive, commands Sonny’s respect through his knowledge, polished demeanor, and overall kindness. For the first time in his young life, Sonny realizes that power can be derived from sources other than the gun, fist, or gang; it can be found within the intelligent, educated mind. Though much time passes before Sonny is strong enough to act on the example Papenek sets for him, he never forgets the faith the older gentleman placed in him. Brown dedicates Manchild in the Promised...
(The entire section is 1,653 words.)