Manchild in the Promised Land Characters

Claude Brown

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Sonny tells his own story, using a mostly limited point of view that mirrors his attitude at a particular age. For example, young Sonny’s explanation to his little brother Pimp of how to recognize a Jew or a “cracker” shows that he really does not know but will not admit it: “That’s easy. Just ask me. I’ll tell you what they is.” Later, when he is sent to Wiltwyck School, Sonny asks to see the director but is shuttled to an assistant instead. “I knew he couldn’t help me,” Sonny thinks. “He was colored. What could he do for anybody?”

Sonny views his parents with chagrin as backward Southerners. His mother has only a fifth-grade education, his father one year less. Both mistrust words, play the numbers, and believe in the importance of a steady job over dreams. Both, moreover, become meek in the presence of white authority, a fact that Sonny hates.

His mother cannot understand her sons or the street life that Sonny prefers, and she fears for them. Religion offers her some consolation; when Sonny is shot in the stomach, she prays at his bedside. On the other hand, Sonny’s father is either violent or indifferent, and on weekends he disappears entirely to seek refuge in alcohol and women. Before Sonny is sent to Wiltwyck, his father plays a shell game with him, warning, “That’s jis what you been doin’ all your life, lookin’ for a pea that ain’t there.” It is the only bit of fatherly advice that Sonny remembers. Eventually, they do not talk at all.

The book is episodic, a vast canvas as diverse and richly peopled as the Harlem of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Brown builds his characters by accretion of details, beginning with a brief...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Claude Brown

Claude Brown, referred to as “Sonny” throughout most of the book, the first-person narrator and voice of the author. Sonny is a young black child at the opening of the novel, and this is his story of growth and survival in the streets of Harlem. His youth corresponds to the era of drugs, violence, and racial unrest in Harlem, and he learns quite young that survival depends on one’s ability to fight everything and everyone. Unhappy under the roof of his abusive father and complacent mother, Sonny considers the streets of Harlem his home, and fear is his constant companion. Before reaching his teen years, Sonny has been shot, arrested, and sent to two reformatories, and he has experimented with various drugs, including heroin. As he matures, he witnesses the tragic self-destruction of most of his childhood friends, and he realizes that in order to escape poverty, addiction, and early death he must leave Harlem through the only avenue open to him: education. At the end of the novel, Sonny has left New York to obtain a college degree.

Mr. Papenek

Mr. Papenek, the administrator of Wiltwyck School for Boys. During Sonny’s stay at Wiltwyck, Mr. Papenek encourages Sonny to continue his education to escape Harlem street life. He is the first adult to recognize a potential in Sonny to rise above the traditional expectations of a black child from Harlem. Sonny is impressed with Mr. Papenek’s ability to...

(The entire section is 517 words.)