(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 Land “to the late Eleanor Roosevelt, who founded the Wiltwyck School for Boys. And to the Wiltwyck School, which is still finding Claude Browns.”

Returned to his home, where his father physically and verbally abuses him while his mother stands by, sympathetic but powerless, Sonny soon gets into trouble again on the streets, dealing drugs and stealing. At thirteen, he is shot while trying to steal sheets from a neighbor’s backyard clothesline. After he recovers, he is sent to Warwick Reform School, thus beginning a cycle of crime and reformatory life that lasts for most of his teen years....

(The entire section is 861 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Claude Brown’s classic autobiography Manchild in the Promised Land is a quintessentially American story of hardship and disadvantage overcome through determination and hard work, but with a critical difference. It became a best-seller when it was published in 1965 because of its startlingly realistic portrayal of growing up in Harlem. Without sermonizing or sentimentalizing, Brown manages to evoke a vivid sense of the day-to-day experience of the ghetto, which startled many readers and became required reading, along with The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), for many civil rights activists.

Manchild in the Promised Land describes Brown’s resistance to a life path that seemed predetermined by the color of his skin and the place he was born. In the tradition of the slave narrative of the nineteenth century, Brown sets about to establish his personhood to a wide audience, many of whom would write him off as a hopeless case. The book opens with the scene of Brown being shot in the stomach at the age of thirteen after he and his gang are caught stealing bed sheets off a laundry line. What follows is the storyline most would expect of a ghetto child—low achievement in school, little parental supervision, and a sense of hopelessness about the future. There are crime, violence, and drugs lurking in every corner of Harlem, and young Sonny (Claude) falls prey to many temptations.

In spite of spending most of his early years committing various petty crimes, playing hooky from school, living in reform schools, and being the victim of assorted beatings and shootings, Brown manages to elude the destiny of so many of his boyhood friends—early death or successively longer incarcerations. Sensing that he would perish, literally or figuratively, if he remained on the path that seemed destined for him, he leaves Harlem for a few years and begins to chart a different outcome for his life, which includes night school, playing the piano, graduating from Howard University, and beginning law school.

Although Brown offers no formula for escaping the devastation that so often plagues ghetto life, he shows by example that it is possible to succeed in constructing, even in the ghetto, a positive identity.