View Full Version : Book Review Book Review: Manchild In the Promised Land

Oct 5, 2010, 10:33 AM
Manchild In the Promised Land by Claude Brown. ISBN 0-451-13445-1

An autobiography, with names of most people changed, about growing up in the black ghetto of Harlem in the 1940s and '50s: Survival in the streets, with all the vices--drugs, violence, prostitution, gambling. Frustration with the dad drove Claude out of Harlem to Greenwich Village, and probably saved him from the fate that befell the majority of its youth: jail or untimely death.

Claude and his generation were the kids of poor Southern sharecroppers, people used to being treated like servants by most whites. So while they were content to take low jobs and play subservient roles, these kids were not. As they watched their parents preaching for them to be good and yet not laying a reliable example for them to follow, these kids revolted by doing things their own way, stealing, fighting, using drugs, skipping school. They spent lots of times in juvenile centers, some even preferring such places to home, where they were either not wanted or cared for. As they grew up, they resented being called "boys" and "girls" like they saw their old people called by whites, they resented working long hours for what looked like meager pay, compared to the quick cash that came from activities like dealing in drugs or turning different types of "tricks," fraudulent means of getting money.

The level of violence that is depicted in this autobiographical makes it read like fiction to begin with. Claude was able to break out from this violence due to two reasons. He was smart. He met some nice influential people at a couple of the correctional facilities where he spent a lot of his young years. It was these people that made him realize life could be more than the street thing he was used to in Harlem, that eventually got him to go back to night school to get his high school diploma. And the positive change in him began with his moving out of Harlem, after he could no longer stand his dad in the same house.

For a long while the tale was about how drugs came to Harlem in the 50's and took over the youth. How everyone had a drug user or addict in the family, or knew one. How the youth got wasted and died from their addiction, either through an od (overdose) or some robbery in a bid to feed the habit. Then there were tales of different movements that came along, with their own solutions. The Coptic Christians that preached black superiority and a religion based in Ethiopia and a black Christ. Then came the Muslims preaching economic emancipation of blacks. Claude tried out all these ideas, from going to church to listening to the Muslims preach, but eventually none gave him the right answers he needed. When one Muslim convert was telling him about the need for blacks to revolt, he shot back that he'd already had his own revolution. That is, all the criminal activities he'd been into in his earlier days were forms of revolting against the status quo and the injustices in the system. And so he didn't see a sense in calling for or being part of a movement that preached revolution.

There was this account of a love affair between Claude and a white Jewish girl, after he moved out of Harlem. The girl was all for making him happy and being a good friend and all, telling him her folks were not racists and would treat him like any other guy. Claude was reluctant at first, but then let himself be convinced and so gave the girl his love and his heart. And then a few months down the line, the girl suddenly disappeared. It turned out her parents were not as open-minded as she had thought, and so had sent her away to break up the relationship. Claude was heartbroken, and in his hurt decided to run back to Harlem, away from the white people.

By then he discovered Harlem had changed. Drugs no longer had the strong pull it used to. Even cops now did their jobs better, unlike in his younger days when they were more interested in protecting whites. and best of all, he comes into contact with black minister that really inspired him, one different from the other men of god he used to despise. it was this minster that was instrumental in gaining him admission to college, in addition to also helping his younger brother.

Manchild In the Promised Land is a tale of the shift in expectations and priorities between black Americans of the old generation and the new, in the Harlem of the 50's. The old generation that emigrated from the South remembered the hardships of segregation down there, and so were more willing to stay in their expected places, doing lowly paying jobs, afraid to voice complaints to white landlords or bosses to avoid being thrown out. But the new generation had none of those southern setbacks. They saw no reason why they should go to church when the preachers were crooks, saw no reason to take insults from whites lying low, and saw more reason to go to college and aim for higher positions in life.