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Claude Brown (February 23, 1937 - February 2, 2002) is the author of Manchild in the Promised Land, published to critical acclaim in 1965, which tells the story of his coming of age during the 1940s and 1950s in Harlem. He also published Children of Ham (1976).
Autobiographical in nature, Manchild in the Promised Land describes the cultural, economic, and religious conditions that suffused Harlem during Brown's early childhood and adolescence while constructing a narrative of Brown's tumultuous early life. Brown explains in his book how in the early 20th century, New York was supposed to be the promised land for African Americans, but life in Harlem was more challenging than migrants had expected. Brown’s parents, who were sharecroppers, had moved from South Carolina to Harlem in 1935 before they had children and lived in a tenement at 146th Street and Eighth Avenue. Brown had one younger brother and two sisters. From the age of six, his life involved stealing, alcohol consumption, truancy, and gang wars. These were the harsh realities of life in 1950s Harlem that shaped his childhood. Hoping that a year away from Harlem would benefit him, his parents sent him to live with his grandparents in South Carolina. However, this just made Brown crave the violence of the streets. At the age of 11, he was placed in the Wiltwyck School for Boys, a reform school, which he cycled in and out of more than three times.
By that time he had made the acquaintance of Dr. Ernest Papanek, a psychologist and the director of the Wiltwyck School for Boys for deprived and emotionally disturbed boys, which was in Esopus, Ulster County, New York. Dr. Papanek, whom Mr. Brown described in his book as "probably the smartest and the deepest cat I had ever met," encouraged him to seek an education. Although Dr. Papanek had pushed him towards getting a better education, Brown still had criminal contacts at Wiltwyck and continued to be involved in street life. Brown had many brushes with the law and had to go to various juvenile detention institutions several times. In the course of one robbery, Brown was shot in the stomach and almost died. In Brown’s mid-teens, he made a living by dealing drugs and becoming a con man. In 1953, he worked in the garment district, but he quit the job after a short period of time. At this point, his younger brother, who he had always thought of as being innocent, had become addicted to drugs. In Manchild in the Promised Land, Brown blames his brother’s unhealthy lifestyle on the fact that he had not been exposed to the horrors of Harlem early enough in life.
Acknowledging the damaging effects of drugs such as heroin and gang violence on his community and his friends, Brown decided to change. He moved away from Harlem, heartbroken at seeing all his friends "strung-out" by drug addiction. After being one of the "hippest cats" (as he says in the book), he decided to turn away from it and move down to Greenwich Village, where he could start over. For the first time in his life, he decided to get an education and eventually began attending night classes at a high school downtown, supporting himself by working as a busboy and deliveryman and at other odd jobs. He began to take piano lessons and sold cosmetics as he was trying to make up his mind about college. Many of his old friends were in prison or had moved on from Harlem, so he felt like he no longer had a place in Harlem. A friend had told Brown about Reverend William M. James, who was interested in helping young men from the ghetto get into college. Reverend James later on tried to help Brown’s brother, but his brother was later arrested and sent to prison for armed robbery. Eventually, he went on to graduate in 1965 from Howard University (where his professors included sociologists E. Franklin Frazier and Nathan Hare), and later went on to attend Stanford and Rutgers law schools, but left when the lecture circuit proved more lucrative than law.
Brown spent most of his professional life as a full-time lecturer, but also became increasingly involved in critical urban issues, especially with respect to at-risk black adolescents. This lifetime concern led him to become deeply involved in criminal justice and rehabilitation issues, as he visited juvenile detention centers and prisons in search of answers to the question of what was motivating the much more violent, feral behavior of youth gangs and underage criminals prowling America's inner cities, a plague that seemingly became progressively worse with the passage of time. Essentially, Manchild in the Promised Land was written to demonstrate how someone could overcome great odds to become in his case, a lawyer.
His ultimate conclusion was that American society had abandoned these young individuals, causing a profound sense of alienation and ostracism, which in turn led to futile outbursts of excessive, wanton violence and criminality. He remained critical of what he perceived as the societal failures of addressing these existential crises afflicting African-American youth-especially those residing in urban areas-and more broadly, underserved, alienated American youth in general. Manchild in the Promised Land has sold over 4 million copies since it has been published and has been translated to 14 different languages. It is currently on the curriculum in many high schools and colleges. However, it has been banned in certain schools in the past. In 1971, Manchild in the Promised Land was used in a black history course at Northampton High School. A complaint was posted in the Chicago Daily Defender, claiming that the book is “pornographic literature,” and had “428 incidents of impure words.” The book was also banned at a high school in Massachusetts because the headmaster found the language “filthy.”
Brown would go on to publish a second book, Children Of Ham, which explores the lives of several black teenagers from Harlem who escape the clutches of heroin. By comparison to his first work, it was a failure. He also wrote several articles for national magazines, including Esquire and Look. In 1961, Brown’s article “Harlem, My Harlem” was published in Dissent.
Claude Brown died of respiratory failure in 2002.
- Brown, Claude. Manchild in the Promised Land. Macmillan & Co., 1965. Print.
- Washington Jr., William m. CliffsNotes on Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land. N.p.: Cliffs Notes, 1971. Print.
- David L. Dudley, Oxford Companion to African American Literature.
- Worth, Robert F. "Claude Brown, Manchild of the Promised Land, Dies at 64." The New York Times. February 6, 2002. Web. March 2, 2013.
- "Black History Book Rapped" Chicago Daily Defender (1960-1973); May 25, 1971; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender (1910-1975), p. 5.
- The English Journal, Vol. 63, No. 5 (May 1974), pp. 61-65.