“Manchild in the Promised Land” Still Depicts Our America

Claude Brown.Photograph from The Bettmann Archive / Getty

In January, 1965, one month before Malcolm X was shot to death in Harlem, two months before civil-rights protesters were brutally attacked in Selma, and seven months before riots overwhelmed the segregated Watts section of Los Angeles, Claude Brown published his first book, “Manchild in the Promised Land.” The book is, in name, a novel, but was always understood to be a memoir of Brown’s youth, a street-level portrait of post-Great Migration Harlem. Brown’s family came to New York from rural South Carolina, where his parents had been sharecroppers. They were, like many others they met in Harlem, ambitious people who’d left the Jim Crow South for the promise of upward mobility, only to encounter ruinous poverty and segregated isolation up North.

Brown was born in 1937, and nicknamed Sonny, which is the name that he gave to his book’s protagonist. When he was still young, he was expelled from school; in the years that follow, he was repeatedly arrested, and, at one point, was shot in the stomach. In the midst of this chaotic period, he was sent to Wiltwyck, an Ulster County school for delinquent boys, co-founded by Eleanor Roosevelt. (“Manchild” is dedicated to her.) He believed that the experience transformed him, but years of confusion still remained. Brown didn’t know anyone who finished high school until he eventually graduated himself, by going to classes at night—his friends hadn’t seen proof that a diploma could do anything for you. In his twenties, Brown went to Howard. While there, a beloved mentor from Wiltwyck asked him to write an article for Dissent, which led to a book deal, and then to the fifteen-hundred-plus pages that Brown ultimately turned in. (The book’s editor helped reduce them down to a four-hundred-page book.)

Coming of age follows no ruled line, and Brown invented an intricate structure for “Manchild,” with narrative motion eddying forward and then doubling back, every personal advance dramatic in its precarity. What’s revealed through Brown’s episodic approach is his determination to look outward as he looks inward. You can feel the emotional progress of someone struggling to grow up and evolve, that interior portrait set in relation to his picture of his neighborhood surroundings. Brown’s writing vibrates with picaresque pace and energy, even when Sonny is making general observations: “My friends were all daring like me, tough like me, dirty like me, ragged like me, cursed like me, and had a great love for trouble like me.” The early teens were the crossroads time, when boys like Sonny might turn toward serious crime. He tells of parents, helpless in the face of the attraction street life held for their sons. And he explains crime as the consequence of pessimistic boys growing up among unfulfilled adults who had no agency, the boys certain that an empty future awaited them, too. He understands their frequent decisions to “break bad” as having everything to do with being denied the opportunity that they and their parents had travelled North to find. “For where does one run to,” Brown writes, “when he’s already in the promised land?”

What made all this more upsetting for Sonny is learning, while working as a delivery man for a watch-repair shop, how well middle-class white people are living elsewhere in New York. He tells of discovering a residential Brooklyn neighborhood whose contrast with Harlem astonished him: “I’d never known there was such a pretty section in New York City.” He would go back there when he got depressed. “I liked being in a place where everything was so clean,” he recalls.

America offers Sonny and those he comes up with little but menial jobs and daily indignities, and so they locate different means of exhilaration and coping with despair. Some get high. “They seemed to feel good,” Sonny observes. “That’s what really made me want to use it. Those guys seemed to feel like they were flying, like they were way up in the air; they felt a way that they’d never felt before. And to see so many people going around on those streets feeling so good—I just knew I was missing out on something really big.” He explains hard drugs as a way to remove oneself from an intolerable hopelessness: “It seemed to me that the junkies were running from things. They were running from people and life. Nobody expected anything from you if you were a junkie.”

As Sonny sees it, addiction exists with faith and violence on a spectrum of varied responses to the traumatic frustration of having less and being considered less. “Everybody in Harlem needed something,” he says. “Some people needed religion. The junkies needed drugs. Some people needed to get drunk on Saturday night and raise hell. A lot of people needed the numbers. Me, I needed to get out of Harlem.” Leaving is difficult, even for those who want to go; so strong was the drag of the neighborhood. Eventually, Sonny moves downtown, but he soon misses Harlem, the “pot and the streets and stealing. This was my way of life. I couldn’t take it for too long when I was there, but this was all I knew.”

Part of what Sonny wants to get away from is fear. When he talks about guns, he tells of how frightening they are, how a .45-calibre pistol “would take your whole head off.” But weapons are also sources of protection and prestige. “The people in the neighborhood whom everybody looked up to were the cats who’d killed somebody,” he says. “The little boys in the neighborhood whom the adults respected were the little boys who didn’t let anybody mess with them.” Shooters are, if nothing else, people of action. In Sonny’s description, committing murder was the implosion of men who felt unvalued, and who had “let out all their hostility on everybody else.” In this corrosive calculus, when you died, you were liberated. If a man killed someone, Sonny thinks, “He’d done the guy a favor, because he’d freed him.”

Most hopeless people don’t become shooters. Instead, they wither. More pervasive than the fear of gunfire in Sonny’s Harlem is that of failure. He talks of men who “wouldn’t work,” concluding that “they were afraid of getting out there and not being able to make it.” Shooters felt some of that way, too. They came to terms with their fear through fatalism. Men who Sonny knows, Brown writes, in perhaps the book’s most crushing line, “seem ready to die.”

I was reintroduced to Brown’s novel while reading it with a young man named Bobby as part of a small book club. I’d met Bobby while working on my own book, about a segregated New Haven community, Newhallville, inhabited by Black families who came mostly from South Carolina to work in local industry. Those who arrived in the nineteen-fifties found well-paying manufacturing work and built a thriving Southern neighborhood in a Northern city. The next generations confronted locked factory gates. Bobby, like others in his teen-age cohort, grew up without significant future hopes and expectations, and assumed he’d eventually fall into the streets. By sixteen, he’d lost track of how many young people he’d known who’d been shot. He avoided the violence, but that ceased to matter when he was sent to prison at sixteen for a murder that he hadn’t committed. He spent nine years in prison before finally being exonerated and released.

It was during his ensuing reëntry period that Bobby encountered Brown’s book. In it, Bobby saw his own childhood, he said, and that of boys and girls he’d grown up with. Many, like Sonny’s classmates, came to school hungry; some of Bobby’s instructors bought food with their own money, just as Sonny’s teachers had done, and prepared it on classroom hot plates. Bobby said one way he could tell that his peers felt despair about the future was that nobody valued diplomas. “I don’t see no future here,” he explained. “I sit and try to visualize it. Doesn’t work to create something if nothing’s there.” And yet few people Bobby knew would ever leave the neighborhood. He said the inertia in Newhallville was similar to the dread Brown described: “A lot of people in the neighborhood feel that: fear if they step out of the box. A lot won’t take the chance. People been failing all their lives. It’s a big step, and failing at that level would be too much for people.”

Like Sonny in Brooklyn, Bobby discovered how the other half lived in New Haven. He’d ride his bike up and across the city’s Prospect Street dividing line, taking in spacious homes with immaculate gardens. There he recalled thinking, Why do such a small amount of people have all the money to do what they want? If God knows about that, why he allow it? That make God look spiteful. How many are praying to get out of a situation and they’re still in it, suffering, poor, broke, just getting by, scraping the plate.

Bobby also saw the kind of fatalism that Brown had described. “The saying about Newhallville,” Bobby said, “is whoever is born to it is doomed. You grow up in the Ville, you got to get accustomed to the streets.” For some, holding a gun mollified the fear and the rage, and might also bring agency and approbation. “If you grow up in Newhallville, people doing violent stuff get the most attention,” Bobby said. “Praised by women, dress the freshest, drive the best cars. You don’t see your parents having those things. What does it take to have nice things? You think about it—no other jobs can pay like that, that they can get.” Knowing the difficult journeys those parents had made to get where they were made this an especially grim revelation.

Finding, in “Manchild,” such a clear and vital portrait of the problems that he was living through seemed to be a kind of balm for Bobby, but it was also a depressing testament to how utterly we as a society have failed to address them.

“Manchild in the Promised Land” was an immediate success. James Baldwin deemed it a “tremendous achievement,” and Tom Wolfe called it “unforgettable.” Norman Mailer, a lifelong New Yorker, said that only after reading the book did he grasp what his childhood would have been “like day to day if I’d grown up in Harlem.” Many white Americans in 1965 were trying to understand the protests and the violence that were unfolding in streets across the country, and they helped the book become a best-seller—it has sold more than four million copies. When Brown died, in 2002, the Times reported that the book was still selling more than thirty thousand copies a year, and was on high-school and college syllabi across the country.

In the twenty years since then, the book has become no less relevant, but it seems, anecdotally, to have become less visible. I interviewed hundreds of people in the course of writing my book, and, though I brought up the novel often, almost nobody had heard of it. It may be that Brown’s perspective seems dated, to some; Brown makes little effort to portray anything uplifting or redeeming about Harlem, and this can seem pathologizing. Some of his observations about degraded men and women are unsparing. But it is difficult to separate such harshness from Brown’s clarity of vision with regard to the consequences of inequality and poverty and the despair and violence that follow from them.

In Brown’s later years, people would ask him about changes he’d seen, across his life, in communities like Harlem. By the turn of the century, gentrification had made parts of Harlem almost unrecognizably different from the neighborhood that he grew up in. But other sections remained destitute, and it was those places Brown kept in mind when he answered the question. He said that, across American cities, poor young men had much easier access to guns than he and his friends had, and were far more ready to use them. Their reasons for doing so, meanwhile, hadn’t really shifted. In this way, Brown’s book is of our time and his time, all the gunshots the echo of generations. ♦

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