A Place to Belong: Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land

My personal copy of Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land was given to me in 2006 by an American woman whom I hardly knew, and whose name I have, ashamedly, now forgotten. It had been in her possession for several years it seemed, as the copy was published in 1999. In many ways it is similar to the copy you can now find on the bookstore shelves. Adorned as it is with the same image of a child climbing the fire escape ladder of an American building, with the same declaration that over two million copies are in print, and, just inside the cover, with the same glowing praise from celebrated writer Tom Wolfe.

Even before you read the date it was first published, a further three pages in, Wolfe’s praise tell you that in your hands is a memory from another era. “Incredible!” Wolfe enthuses, “No Negro writer ever told the whole street thing in Harlem: Claude Brown is the first”. It’s a strange thing for words of praise to be so confronting, but there it is. Wolfe’s praise is genuine, but he may now regret his chosen word. His praise carries with it the hallmarks of an institutionalised racism that framed the beginning of Brown’s life, and of this book.

Brown himself called Manchild in the Promised Land as the tale of the first northern urban generation of African-Americans. In the book’s forward Brown describes the mass migration of the children of sharecroppers, faced with no prospects in the southern United States, seeking out the rumoured “unlimited opportunities for prosperity” in the cities of the US north-east. This link is important for placing Brown’s book in time, and for reminding ourselves of the challenges faced by those we will find between its pages. History followed on the heels of these migrants. The African-Americans fleeing the south in the first decades of the twentieth century may have been the children of sharecroppers, but many of them would have been the grandchildren of people born as slaves.

As Brown puts it: “There were too many people full of hate and bitterness crowded into a dirty, stinky, uncared-for closet-sized section of a great city”

In a migration Brown describes in near biblical terms, African-Americans moved north to their ‘promised land’, where they had been told their future could be found. This great hope was soon swept away in the realities of urban life. As Brown puts it: “There were too many people full of hate and bitterness crowded into a dirty, stinky, uncared-for closet-sized section of a great city”. For many of those that arrived in New York, and other cities, they found lives of great disappointment, yet they knew that what they had escaped from had been worse. The children of these migrants, Brown’s first northern urban generation of African-Americans, had no such consolation. And so Brown begins with the question: “For where does one run to when he’s already in the promised land?”

Manchild in the Promised Land is Brown’s personal answer to the question of where escape can be found. It is a ‘thinly fictionalized’ autobiography, and as with the best of such works it is impossible to tell where Brown’s memory ends and his tale begins. This is a virtue in Brown’s writing, because the resulting combined story is engaging, enthralling, and enlightening. Brown writes from another time and place, and it can often seem he writes too from another world. The size of his world is starkly apparent throughout, from the closeness of his immediate neighbourhood, and the familiarity of the people that filled it, to the vast change in his life enabled by moving half an hour down the subway line to Greenwich Village. For those of us lucky enough to have been born into lives where moving cities, even countries, is possible, it can be difficult to understand a world as small as Brown’s was, yet his prose pulls us into, and through, the geographic confines of Brown’s promised land.

I remember Brown’s journey through youth and New York in fragments. The opening tumultuous introduction to the violence that surrounded him; the reverence with which he and his childhood friends regarded Sing Sing prison; his introduction, embracement, and ultimate departure from Coptic Christianity; the drugs which provided such a seductively easy answer to his initial question; the music that swirled around him; and his ultimate escape to Greenwich Village. More than anything though I remember finally understanding what made someone a ‘cat’.

The size of his world is starkly apparent throughout, from the closeness of his immediate neighbourhood, and the familiarity of the people that filled it, to the vast change in his life enabled by moving half an hour down the subway line to Greenwich Village.

These fragments are what I retain of Manchild in the Promised Land because, truth be told, I have not read it again since I was first handed it a decade ago. My copy has followed me, from house to house and shelf to shelf. I have not been, and more surprisingly am not now, tempted to again open its pages; yet I adore it. Its place on my shelf is not to await reading, but to remind me of how I felt the first time I opened it, how I felt submerged in Brown’s memory, and how I felt when it was over.

We have spoken before of the ability of books to be holders of potential, to remain unopened so that their possibilities may remain. So too can books exist, through their presence alone, to remind us of something now gone. Perhaps your own shelves hold such a vessel? A paperback thriller read once on a Mediterranean beach; a childhood novel, the memory of which you know will be better than the text; or the biography of an adventurer to remind you to take the fork in the path? Books are more than collections of ink on paper, they are objects that tie themselves to our minds until they become relics of our own life. Manchild in the Promised Land is special to me because it was read as the sun set over a strange ocean, because it showed me the power of autobiographies to move as well as educate, and because it was a gift from someone I hardly knew but who saw I would benefit from it.

Manchild in the Promised Land retains its immense power decades after it was first written, and it remains startlingly relevant. This is not a book to be thrust into the hands of the merely curious; it is to be quietly passed to those who might benefit from it, particularly those beginning to emerge from their own small worlds or from the exile of youth. More than most autobiographies it allows readers to see someone’s life as it was lived, to feel their world shrink and expand. This book is for those who wonder how others live.

Manchild in the Promised Land retains its immense power decades after it was first written, and it remains startlingly relevant.

The book’s description of urban life for young African-Americans would have been deeply confronting in 1960s United States, but the tale it tells of race relations and urbanisation, and of despair and hope, are not less confrontational or relevant today. As you read you will see, because you already know, because you suspect, or because Brown helps you see, that although Brown’s time has gone, this place of his has not. For many young urban dwellers, in the United States and across the globe, the promised land is still there; but there is still nowhere to run.

-H

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