Manchild in the Promised Land Analysis

Claude Brown

Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Claude Brown begins Manchild in the Promised Land with himself (Sonny) at the age of thirteen, shot on the streets of Harlem for stealing sheets from a clothesline. The autobiography then retraces Brown’s life from the age of eight up to the shooting and goes on to chronicle his stays in the Warwick Reform School and his eventual escape from the street life of Harlem. A gang member at the age of nine, Brown was sent at eleven to the Wiltwyck School for Boys, returned to the streets, was shot, was sent to the reformatory and then gradually moved from Harlem as he earned his high-school diploma, became a jazz pianist in Greenwich Village, and ultimately began college.

The autobiography is introduced with a foreword in which Brown claims the book to be the story of “the first Northern urban generation of Negroes.” From Brown’s point of view, the autobiography is the story not only of his life but also of the children of a generation that came from the South with hopes for a promised land of jobs and opportunity and instead found itself in frightening urban ghettoes. The parents of Brown and his friends attempted to maintain values and habits learned in the rural South and were baffled by the complexities of a new world. With parents and children inhabiting different mental worlds, family ties were severed and mutual respect was often lost. The children became rootless. At one point, Claude, expelled from school, was sent to the South and...

(The entire section is 440 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Brown, Claude. The Children of Ham. New York: Stein & Day, 1976. The author’s nonfiction account of the life of African American children in New York’s ghettos.

Davis, Charles T. Black Is the Color of the Cosmos: Essays on Afro-American Literature and Culture, 1942-1981. Edited by Henry L. Gates, Jr. New York: Garland, 1982. Davis contrasts the use of sexuality in novels by Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, using Claude Brown’s work as part of his analysis. Davis contends that Brown, when compared to other black writers of his time, may appear as a “raving sensualist” because of his graphic and frequent allusions to the sexual aspect of black culture.

Karl, Frederick R. American Fictions, 1940-1980: A Comprehensive History and Crit-ical Evaluation. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. Karl discusses Brown’s work in the context of the “journalistic fiction” of the latter part of the twentieth century. He also examines Brown’s motives for working with the first-person narrative and using the author as subject.

Ostendorf, Berndt. Black Literature in White America. Brighton, England: Harvester Press, 1982. In an essay entitled “Contemporary Afro-American Culture: The Sixties and Seventies,” Ostendorf quotes from Brown in regard to the black literary movement in those two decades, which Ostendorf contends saw an explosive exposure for African American culture. He argues that Brown and others, from musicians such as Otis Redding and Ray Charles to writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, fed the fire.

Petesch, Donald A. A Spy in the Enemy’s Country. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989. Petesch traces the evolution of self and personality in black literature from Frederick Douglass to modern writers. Manchild in the Promised Land is included in a discussion of the question of “disappearing selves” in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and other representative works. Petesch’s argument is that the main characters in these works, Brown’s included, do not surrender self but rather continue to survive and fight.