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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291

Manchild in the Promised Land is Claude Brown's semi-autobiographical account of growing up in Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s. He drew from his own life and added some fictional elements in a coming-of-age story that presents the reality of what it was like for the first generation of African American young people to grow up in the north after their parents had left the South during the Great Migration.

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Part of the background of the story is the way in which the author felt that his generation was a "misplaced generation." Claude Brown was born in Harlem in 1937, three years after his parents had left the South. His protagonist, Sonny, is similarly misplaced, and he feels that his parents can not offer him any guidance. His mother takes a resigned attitude, while his father is largely indifferent. Sonny feels that they are too subservient to white people.

Brown's book explores the sociological and demographic variables, including hopeless and poverty, that created crime in places like Harlem. Brown documents Sonny's involvement in gangs who he feels could better orient him to life in the urban north and his introduction to the dangers of that life, including drugs and crime. At only 13, Sonny is shot while caught in a burglary, and he is sent to the Wiltwyck Reformatory, where an administrator named Ernest Papanek urges him to get an education. Although he sees the people in the world around him descend into drugs, thievery, and prostitution, he is saved through a combination of luck and his interactions with people like Papanek. The book is the story of a boy's descent into a kind of urban hell and his salvation by choosing a path in life that is different from those around him.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440

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 found it to be as alien as his parents found Harlem.

Manchild in the Promised Land is, in large part, the story of Harlem itself. The book’s eighteen chapters, while roughly following the chronology of Brown’s life, are frequently organized around such topics as drugs, the Black Muslims, and Saturday nights in Harlem, thus picturing a time and a society. Brown moved in and out of Harlem, usually to and from reform school, and, thus, was able to note the otherwise gradual changes in that area, particularly as it was infested by...

(The entire section contains 1060 words.)

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