Sunday, August 13, 2017

Manchild in the Promised Land (1965)

Claude Brown grew up in Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s. He survived it and his story is in this book. His survival is due chiefly, but not only, to his instinctive aversion for heroin, which he calls a plague for that part of New York City in those years. He published this memoir when he was 28, in 1965. By then he had worked as a cosmetics salesman, a jazz pianist, and other assorted jobs. He left Harlem and lived in Greenwich Village for a few years after he was 17. He also survived because he had the wisdom to stop doing crime after he turned 16. Before that he dealt reefer, pulled con jobs, fought a lot in gangs, and was generally a part of street culture. He died in 2002, at the age of 74. He only wrote one more book but also went on to get a college degree and work all his life as a community organizer and public speaker. Brown's voice is his own but his narrative skills are mostly limited to anecdotes, which don't always connect up well. He has many stories about his mother and father, his two sisters, and especially his youngest brother, nicknamed Pimp from an early age. But there's no consistent through-line or development, beyond escape and/or survival. Maybe that's enough—it certainly was for me when I first read this in the '80s. The stories are even more cloudy regarding his pals through the years, because there are so many names and generally not enough information to sort them. I knew I was in trouble when one character was named Danny and another Dunny, and sure enough, I never quite got them straight. Still, Brown obviously has a lot of heart to make it through everything he does. Many others didn't. He has lots of interesting points about street slang and street life of the times, and lots of intriguing encounters with people and with racism too, of course. I was glad to find out he lived a long and productive life beyond this memoir. He has interesting views of the times too, such as the rise of Black Muslims in the '50s. There is also a Christian sect called Coptics, with roots in African and black culture. "Black" itself was a relatively new term at the time of this book and Brown regards it with some skepticism. He doesn't like "Negro" either but seems most comfortable with "colored." So there's also a lot of innate interest here related to the times it chronicles. My old paperback of it sold it as "A Modern Classic of the Black Experience," but at this point it's actually much older.

In case it's not at the library.

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