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Manchild Critical Review

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Published in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and in the wake of the nationwide urban riots of 1964, Manchild in the Promised Land is a rare achievement: an autobiography written in clear, lucid prose without an ounce of self-pity, self-justification, or moralizing. Mr. Brown’s sprawling book, almost an archetype of American urban life, tells of Claude’s growing up in crime-plagued Harlem and struggling with race, poverty, sex, family, friendship, religion and education on his way to a soulful, mature independence. Focused by its personal narrative voice, ”Manchild” has an epic reach as it depicts the journeys of a generation of black families who traded one hard life for another in their move from the South.

Brown’s worldview and consequently his writing are “structured” by the ideology and language of the social sciences, disciplines that are primarily concerned with “the fakelore of black pathology”. Most of all, for me, Brown’s memoir is filled with regret for the many from his Harlem neighborhood who died, victims of crime, poverty, alcoholism and drug addiction. Indeed, one could say that one of the major characters of his story is heroin, which Brown describes as the scourge of his generation. The power of heroin to destroy is most poignantly described in Brown’s recounting of his relationship with his younger brother. Claude took his responsibilities as an older brother seriously, but his younger brother fell victim to addiction, and Brown was forced to admit that he had lost him.

Perhaps Manchild in the Promised Land can be described best as an “autoethnography.” It is not only the author’s life story, but it is also the story of an ethnic community at a particular moment in its history. Brown’s coming-of-age narrative is embedded in the larger narrative of life in Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s. His dual objective is explicit in the book’s foreword. He says he wants “to talk about the first Northern urban generation of Negroes.” He calls them a “misplaced generation”: They are the “sons and daughters of former Southern share-croppers…the poorest people of the South, who poured into New York City during the decade following the Great Depression.” Manchild in the Promised Land , Brown insists, is “a story of their searching, their dreams, their sorrows, their small and futile rebellions, and their endless battle to establish their own place in America’s greatest metropolis-and in America itself.

The terrible disillusionment of his parents’ generation provides a grim back-drop to his own story of growing up in Harlem. His father retreats into alcohol to cope with the bleak realities and disabling disappointments of his life. His mother, deeply injured by the racism that she had endured in the South, believes in black inferiority. Religious fundamentalism becomes her sanctuary. Brown grows up on the streets of Harlem, and at an early age he is introduced to drugs and sex. Crime becomes a way of life. The environment breeds a range of pathologies in the people; those pathologies, in turn, accelerate the deterioration of the environment. With chilling realism Brown documents the nightmarish lives of individuals caught in that vicious cycle.

Brown’s depiction of Harlem in acute crisis is relentless and at times overwhelming. People live in fear and in suspicion of one another. The white world intrudes in the form of greedy merchants, extortionist landlords, and brutal police officers. People attempt to cope, but often in ways that are self-destructive. Brown talks extensively about the success of the Nation of Islam in converting a significant number of the Harlem residents to its politicized, African American version of Islam. But Brown sees those conversions as merely futile gestures against the white power structure and as desperate attempts to mask deep-rooted bitterness and alienation. By the end of the narrative, many of Brown’s friends and accomplices are either dead or in prisons.

What remains unclear, however, is precisely how Brown extricates himself from the cycles of violence, crime, and drug abuse. How does his redemption come about? His discovery of music, especially jazz, and his own musical talent appears to be part of the explanation. But Brown does not explicitly link his music with his redemption. Certainly, his decision to leave Harlem at age sixteen and relocate in Greenwich Village is critical to the redirection of his life. However, his explanation for that decision is not entirely convincing: He says that one day he realized that he might have to murder an addict who had cheated him; that realization, he claims, frightened him into getting rid of his gun and moving to Greenwich Village. But such a realization hardly sounds like a life-altering epiphany. In the context of the many crimes he had committed with impunity, it is difficult to believe that the mere thought of murder could transform him in such a profound and dramatic manner.

In the Foreword to Manchild in the Promised Land, Brown writes that his own experience is, in fact, representative of the first Northern urban generation of Negroes. . . . a misplaced generation struggling to survive and adapt in an unfamiliar and often hostile environment. His autobiography is also representative of what Albert E. Stone describes as black “personal history”: interwoven narratives of individual and collective identity, history, and literature. Brown represents the generation of blacks who came of age in America’s cities after World War II – the first generation of the second Great Migration – as a group who found themselves in a dangerously liminal position: connected, through their parents, to life in the South but uncertain of their identity and of strategies for survival in the North, the “Promised Land” of the title. To Brown, the exodus of southern blacks to the North had “produced a generation of new niggers”1 in an urban New World: “There was nothing that was old. I really didn’t have any familiar ground. . . . my generation was like the first Africans coming over on the boat2. Brown’s autobiography delineates this movement across the historical threshold of black urban experience while it traces his personal journey from manchild to man.

The fact that “nobody gave a fuck about some niggers and some Puerto Ricans” is made especially clear to Brown when Harlem finds itself with few resources to cope with the heroin epidemic of the mid-1950s. While the theme of abandonment remains in the background of his autobiography, it is literally foregrounded in The Children of Ham . The young men and women whose lives the narrator documents live in a condemned Harlem tenement: “The air of abandonment is so pervasive . . . that every sign and sound of human life conforms to the motif . . . humanity had abandoned the members of the group. The “children of Ham” are, in fact, the children of Brown’s generation, now two generations removed from life in the South. A measure of their personal and historical distance from this reality is the incisive and comprehensive nature of their critique of the quality of black life, as they have known it, in the urban North. In his autobiography, Brown registers an implicit critique in his acts of personal “rebellion”3.

Brown argues that his anger at the control and indifference of the white world provoked his youthful criminality. To a black Muslim friend’s call for black “revolution,” Brown replies, “I’ve had that revolution since I was six years old”4. Having abandoned it in favor of school and a steady job, he argues that “that revolution was hopeless,” particularly in light of the increasing number of heroin addicts in Harlem: these “revolutionaries” are only “cutting their own throats”5. Brown, in fact, reaches a crisis when he realizes that in order for him to continue drug dealing – and living – in Harlem he must kill an addict who has stolen from him and take his “place along with the bad niggers of the community”: those who are willing to kill and be killed. Instead, he gives away his gun and moves to Greenwich Village, suddenly aware that his “positive anger” at the world is tainted by fear. As a result, for the first time in his life he experiences freedom.

Brown’s moment of recognition and his move to the Village are implicitly linked to the literal worlds of possibility that the exercising of literacy opened up for him while at Warwick: “I wanted to know things: and I wanted to do things. It made me start thinking about what might happen if I . . . didn’t go back to Harlem”6. He is able to imagine a new life narrative for himselfone that does not involve literal or figurative imprisonment, whether within an institution or his own fears7. The link between the experience of freedom and the power of the written word is an archetypal moment in African American autobiography: from the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass* and Harriet Jacobs* to Malcolm X’s education in black history while in prison.

Brown’s relationship to the white world remains, however, largely abstract. His place within Harlem and, specifically, his relationship to the migrant generation of his parents are the central themes of his autobiography. While Brown recognizes the disillusionment of the “colored pioneers” who left the violence and virtual slavery of the South only to be faced with the punitive realities of the North, his sense of bitterness at their de facto abandonment of his generation – “they didn’t know just what was to follow, so how could they tell me?” – is pervasive. Brown, in fact, is unable to see any positive or resistant adaptations to the North on the part of his elders; instead, like many of Richard Wright’s* migrants, they exhibit the ostensible pathologies of a generation that “didn’t seem to be ready for urban life”8.

The “Harlem tradition,” Brown writes, comes from the same southern “backwoods” his parents had fled: a “tradition” of “liquor, religion, sex, and violence. . . . a prayer that . . . somebody might hit the sweepstakes or get lucky”. His mother is a member of a storefront church who preaches that old crazy shit that should have been left down there in the woods. His father is aligned with the other aspects of transplanted southern life: his “religion” is liquor; he slit a man’s throat for insulting his wife, has a similar scar on his own neck, and beats his children; he regularly plays the numbers. The degree to which this picture is a distortion can be measured, in part, by the fact that Brown never mentions the working life of his parents. His home life drives him into the streets as an avenue of escape: “I never thought of Harlem as being in the house”. For Brown, life on the streets is a form of rebellion against the “personal” world of his parents as well as the historical dominance of white Americans: “when people start ruling people and they rule em wrong . . . they have to stop them. They’ve got to rebel”.

Brown’s father is rendered figuratively impotent in the text. Unlike his son, he cannot manipulate language, and his conversations with Claude almost always end in violence “because it came easier to him than talking”. In addition, in a seminal scene in the book, his father’s acquiescence to a white judge transforms him, in Brown’s twelve-year-old eyes, from “a real bad nigger” to “just a head nodder”. Brown’s relationship to his father reflects an angst about masculine identity that pervades much of his autobiography.

By the early 1960s, many of Brown’s generation are dead or in jail. However, Brown is spared the effects of “the shit plague” of heroin through the intervention of a then-drug-addicted friend, one of the few people in the book who subsequently kick their habit. Manchild in the Promised Land is Brown’s narrative of survival. He concludes by declaring that the “plague wave” has swept over Harlem, and, in its wake, the community will realize the collective dream “that all Harlem would be completely changed in about ten years”9.

A blend of reportage and fiction, it documents a second, more virulent drug “plague” sweeping the community. According to one of the book’s informants, its effects are “worse than slavery”. Harlem’s “promise” has been reduced to a state of virtual bondage. The characters in the book, each of them the subject and the vernacular voice of a chapter that bears his or her name, acquire disturbing insights into the power relations that drive the drug epidemic: Harlem is compared to a vast prison or to the slave quarters of an urban neoplantation; the operations of the nation’s drug economy employ as many Americans, “officially or unofficially,” as General Motors. The critical literacy skills that Brown exercises in his autobiography are matched by this generation’s ability to measure and claim the larger world through other media, particularly television: “We up here peepin’ everything that the white folks’re peepin’. . . . We peepin’ what’s happenin’ out there with whitey and the bucks”.

Black women assume a central place as well as critical subject positions within this unit, in contrast to the dominant construction of women as mute objects in Manchild. The group’s will to survive prompts the only adult figure in the book, other than the narrator himself, to declare that “for the first time . . . in more than two generations, there seems to be a relatively large group of kids who are going to make it”. Twice removed from life in the South, these “children” continue the struggle to survive in the urban North. However, the strategy of collective survival and resistance, signified by the fact that together the group’s voices form a critical chorus, is in an uneasy balance with the highly individual American dreams of each character. The last sentence in the book is indicative of this attitude: “You know, you go on out there and go along with the game, too, but only for what you want – Numero Uno”10. Several aspects of this attitude are illustrated in Manchild in the Promised Land.

When Claude is hurt by a bus, he thinks he is “bound to get a lot of money – we had a Jewish lawyer from way downtown.” When Claude is told by his friend Reno that he won’t work for ” Goldberg,” he asks, “Who’s Goldberg?” Reno explains: Goldberg “runs the garment center”; ” Goldberg ain’t gon ever get up off any money. Goldberg’s just as bad as Mr. Charlie. He’s got all the money in the world, Sonny, believe it or not. Look across the street. He owns the liquor store, he owns the bar, he owns the restaurant across there, the grocery store. He owns all the liquor stores in Harlem, ’cause that’s where all the nigger’s money goes, and he gon get all that.” And Reno concludes that he’ll “steal me some money from Goldberg, not . . . beg for it. . . . That cat’s got all the money in the world, and what he’ll give you is carfare back downtown for another day’s slavery.” Another young friend of Claude’s tells about being asked by “Goldberg,” “do you know where I might find some nice honest colored girl who could come in and help my wife clean up the house?” The “girl” who had just left “was about sixty years old.”

When Claude was a “boy” working in the garment center, “Goldberg” didn’t distinguish the younger militant Blacks from the older compliant ones. The author says that this “new nigger was something that nobody understood and that nobody was ready for.” Later Claude works for jewelers who live in a Jewish section of Brooklyn, and he reflects that they think the Emmett Till lynching is “terrible,” but “I knew that if I went out to the Flatbush section of Brooklyn or Brighton Beach, where all those cats lived, they’d probably lynch the landlord if he rented me an apartment. This was the relationship between the Jew and descendents of Ham.”11 Even though Claude is fairly treated, he quits his job. The upshot was not a feeling of “animosity,” he says, but only a feeling that neither understood the other; he was asking more of them than he could expect, just because “You’ve been close to me.

My mother been buying the pigtails and neckbones from you. . . . She’s been paying you the rent, she’s been pawning stuff to you . . . so if anyone should give us some kind of understanding, you should.” But this was expecting too much, he believes. When he meets a Black Muslim, who insists that Blacks must “revolt” and “get Harlem out of Goldberg’s pockets” by totally boycotting 125th Street as a shopping center and buying up 145th Street, the author is obviously out of sympathy with this viewpoint, but he fears its effectiveness. To the litany of justified complaints about poor pay, poor food, exploitation of Blacks by Jews, the Christians among his listeners assent, adding “Yeah! Yeah! Them goddam Jews killed my Jesus, too!” The narrator ends the book on an ambivalent note. He writes, “There is an epilogue to this book, but only time can write it.”

Finally, throughout Brown’s narrative you will experience the hardships of the ghetto life though a child’s eyes. It is an inspirational story about a young man who ovecame a life of poverty and crime, and who later became a successful lawyer. Although this book was written from a black man’s experiences’ in the 1950’s much of what he experienced still exist today. It will make you think about life, and the social and cultural situations that surround us today. This book will make have a meaningful impact on everyone who reads it. Brown is a masterful genius in that he does not sugarcoat his life experiences with prolific and monstrous words, but rather gives the reader an indepth view of what life was like in the ghetto of Harlem, New York. Moreover, Brown emphasizes the essential theme of this story over and over again to the reader and even proves it by becoming a successful lawyer despite the fact he came from a torn-broken ghetto induced with violence, sex, and drugs.


Manchild in the Promised Land. 1965. New York: Macmillan, 1971.

The Children of Ham. New York: Stein and Day, 1976.

Baker Houston A., Jr. “The Environment as Enemy in a Black Autobiography: Manchild in the Promised Land.” Phylon 32.1 ( 1971): 53-59.

Goldman Robert M., and William D. Crano. “Black Boy and Manchild in the Promised Land: Content Analysis in the Study of Value Change over Time.” Journal of Black Studies 7.2 ( 1976): 169-80.

Murray Albert. The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture. 1970. New York: Discus-Avon, 1971.

Rampersad Arnold. “Rev. of The Children of Ham”. The New Republic 8 ( May 1976): 2526.

Rosenblatt Roger. Black Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Stone Albert E. “After Black Boy and Dusk of Dawn: Patterns in Recent Black Autobiography.” Phylon 39.1 ( 1978): 18-34. Reprinted, with a postscript, in Aftican American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. William L. Andrews. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1993. 171-95.

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