Manchild in the Promised Land

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Manchild in the Promised Land

by Claude Brown


An autobiography set in Harlem between 1940 and 1960; published in 1965.


An unruly child living in Harlem outgrows his enthusiasm for drugs and violence and leaves the streets to enroll in night school.

Events in History at the Time of the Autobiography

The Autobiography in Focus

For More Information

Born in 1937 in Harlem, New York, Claude Brown spent his childhood “roaming the streets with junkies, whores, pimps, hustlers, the ‘mean cats’ and the numbers runners” (Brown in Stine and Marowski, p. 33). Brown served several sentences in various reformatories until 1953, when after having seen too many of his friends die in drug-related crimes, he left Harlem for Greenwich Village, where he earned a living as a busboy and a watch repairman. Brown eventually enrolled in night school to earn his high school diploma, then in Howard University, where he began writing Manchild in the Promised Land.

Events in History at the Time of the Autobiography

Mid-twentieth-century Harlem

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, waves of black migrants from the South inundated cities in the North such as Chicago and New York. They came in search of a promised land free of racism and rich with opportunity. In the city of New York, Harlem became a mecca for black newcomers to the region. In Harlem—especially during the 1920s—they found a community in which their own art and music could thrive and one from which they would not be excluded by laws or customs. Migrants from the West Indies, Africa, and Latin America also streamed into the community, and black organizations (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, and the black newspapers Age and Amsterdam News) opened offices there.

Touted as a “promised land” for blacks, Harlem was “bound, in time, to become overcrowded; and this squeeze occurred during the nineteen-thirties, when it seemed as though blacks from every part of the country and every part of the globe were living there” (Anderson, p. 61). The Great Depression plagued the United States during this same decade, putting scores of black as well as other Americans out of work. Once well-tended apartment buildings suffered neglect as well as overcrowding, turning into rundown tenements with as many as six people dwelling in a single room.

The situation persisted into the 1940s, the decade in which Manchild in the Promised Land opens. Tensions rose in Harlem in the early part of the decade, erupting into a race riot in 1943, sparked by a dispute between a black soldier and a white policeman. Thousands of Harlemites rioted, breaking store windows and carrying off millions of dollars of furniture, food, jewelry, and clothing. The incident ended in at least six deaths and hundreds of injuries and arrests. As the decade

wore on, Harlem turned into a community in decline. By 1950 many of its famous residents had either died or moved away. The dispersal began in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “As the black middle class progressed and moved away, the community lost certain kinds of stimulating people and energy” (Clark in Anderson, p. 348).

Despite this loss, there were attempts by those blacks who remained in Harlem to improve their lot. They rose up with some success, in one example boycotting white-owned stores whose owners refused to hire blacks. In 1959 certain chains of liquor stores owned by whites agreed to no longer do business with other liquor stores that refused to buy from black salespeople. In another incident, a black child living in the filthy housing of the ghetto died from rat bites; tenants organized a rent strike to pressure their absent landlords into cleaning up and repairing the dilapidated apartments. The rent strikers withheld rental payments until landlords agreed to cooperate. In 1959 other tenant activists even brought a stubborn landlord to court for housing violations. They held a mass rally to broadcast their success and to encourage other frustrated tenants to act. Such efforts indicate that, although in decline, Harlem still housed a vital and vocal black community. Moreover, while notable residents may have moved away from Harlem, all the major churches of the black community still remained there.

Religion: The Nation of Islam

Many of the blacks who had left the South to resettle in the northern cities were devout Christians. Baptists, whose denomination predominated in the South, built a larger following in the North.

Alongside the Baptist branch of Christianity, black Muslim movements thrived. The most influential of these was the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist movement that, since before the Second World War, had captured the attention of thousands of blacks in the northern cities. Unlike Christian ministers who favored integration and peaceful demonstrations, leaders for the Nation of Islam advocated separatism and militancy.

In 1930 a mysterious peddler, W. D. Fard, roamed the streets of the black community in Detroit. He sold raincoats and umbrellas, but also silks and artifacts which, he explained to his clients, were the same kind used by the peoples of Africa and the Middle East. Along with his exotic wares, he carried a copy of the Bible, which he used to expound on the history of mankind.

Fard did not, however, preach traditional Christianity. He used the Bible because it was the only religious text with which his audience was familiar. Carefully interpreted, he explained to his listeners, it could serve until they were acquainted with the Holy Quran, the genuine text of the black man’s religion.

Fard enchanted his followers with tales about Asia and Africa and the first people, black people, to wander the earth. As his prestige grew, Fard delivered severe condemnations of both Christianity and white people. He declared that he had come to rouse the black people of the United States and vanquish the white “blue-eyed devils” who oppressed them. Awed by his daring, many poorer blacks living in the slums of Detroit joined his following in great numbers.

Fard called his movement the Lost-Found Nation of Islam. He contended that Islam was the true religion of the black race, and that Christianity had merely been foisted upon blacks to subdue them. In 1934, after having won over eight thousand adherents, Fard disappeared. He was succeeded by Elijah Muhammad, one of his most zealous adherents. Muhammad’s unrestrained condemnations of the white race and his assurances that the superior black race would soon rise to take its rightful place as the ruler of the earth equally captivated his audiences, just as Fard’s had.

Muhammad advocated the formation of a separate black nation. “To integrate with evil,” he warned his followers, “is to be destroyed with evil. We want, and must insist upon an area in this land that we can call our own” (Muhammad in Lincoln, p. 95). He demanded that the U.S. government cede territory to his followers in recompense for the historical crime of slavery. “[Black people] worked 300 years without a pay day,” he pointed out. “We feel that we’ve got something due us, and I don’t mean this phony integration stuff (Muhammad in Lincoln, p. 96).

The Nation of Islam grew to over one hundred thousand members. Inspired by spokesmen for the Nation who visited prisons and reformatories, rehabilitated criminals swelled the ranks of Muhammad’s following. Many heroin addicts, obeying Muhammad’s injunction against drugs, kicked their habits and began lives of moderation and restraint. Although many of the members of the Nation of Islam had seemed like hopeless criminals to social workers, once they came under Muhammad’s influence, few were ever arrested again.


The Black Muslim movement was closer to most Harlemites than any of the other organizations. They had on suits, but their grammar wasn’t something that would make the average Negro on the street feel ill at ease … [s]ince the leaders of this group had come from the community the crowd could identify with these people more readily than they could with anyone else (Brown, Manchild in the Promised Land, p. 336).

The Nation of Islam had many detractors. Yet even the most derisive critics could not deny that Elijah Muhammad had accomplished impressive goals. “Mr, Muhammad may be a rogue and a charlatan,” one black journalist wrote, “but when anybody can get tens of thousands of Negroes to practice economic solidarity, respect their women, alter their atrocious diet, give up liquor, stop crime, juvenile delinquency and adultery, he is doing more for the Negro’s welfare than any current leader I know” (Lincoln, p. 142). As Brown himself commented, even if the Nation of Islam didn’t do any more than let the United States know that “there are black men in this country who are dangerously angry, then [it has] already served a purpose” (Manchild in the Promised Land, p. 337).

Malcolm X and the appeal of militancy

In the early 1960s, the Nation of Islam won national attention when the eloquent and charismatic spokesman Malcolm X dared to challenge the nonviolent black champion of integration, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. His assertions that King, a leader revered throughout the country, had hindered the emancipation of African Americans, sparked debates that divided civil rights activists.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925, Malcolm Little fled to Boston after his father died. In Boston, Malcolm sold drugs and became addicted to cocaine. He was arrested for burglary in 1946 and sentenced to eight years in prison. In prison Malcolm encountered members of the Nation of Islam who encouraged him to read Muhammad’s writings. Following Muhammad’s teachings, Malcolm replaced his surname with an X so he wouldn’t be identified with his slaveowner’s name. Upon his release from prison on parole in 1952, he went to Chicago to join Muhammad’s movement.

Malcolm emerged as the Nation of Islam’s most prominent speaker. He toured the United States and even journeyed to the Middle East as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam. Although he had little formal education, he proved an eloquent orator whose speeches rallied his supporters and incensed his opponents.

Malcolm X decried King’s support of nonviolence. He alleged that King sought merely to appease white leaders who backed his organization. “You don’t have to criticize Reverend Martin Luther King,” Malcolm insisted. “His actions criticize him.... Any Negro who teaches other Negroes to turn the other cheek is disarming that Negro… men like King—their job is to go among Negroes and teach Negroes ‘Don’t fight back.’… ‘Don’t fight the white man.’… White people pay King” (Malcolm X in Clark, p. 42).

The essayist James Baldwin helped explain Malcolm’s appeal in the North. Although he applauded King’s use of nonviolence, Baldwin admitted, “you can only survive so many beatings, so much humiliation, so much despair, so many broken promises before something gives” (Clark, p. 58). Baldwin pointed out that the protesters represented only a fraction of the black population of the United States. “There [are] many, many, many, many more,” he warned, “who [are] desperate and whom Malcolm X can reach” (Baldwin in Clark, p. 59). In time King himself would come to better understand Malcolm’s appeal.

Narcotic addiction

To cope with the frustrations of urban life, many disillusioned blacks fell victim to mind-numbing opiates. Whereas only 362 blacks were arrested for possession of narcotics in 1933, 4,262 were arrested in 1950 and 11,816 in 1965. Harlem had its share of drug pushers, whose presence increased over the years. This increase has been attributed to urbanization. The majority of both black and white drug offenders came from the larger cities, where drugs could be easily acquired and where an addict could slip unnoticed into a crowd. As blacks settled in the cities, “the color of the faces in the tenement windows changed, [and] so did the color of the addicts on the street” (Courtwright et al., p. 17).

During much of the first half of the twentieth century, heroin addiction had been a problem among middle-class whites who had used the drug as a prescribed pain reliever. Addiction was considered a pathetic, but not a dangerous, condition. In the 1950s, however, perception of the typical addict as a pitiful convalescent changed. Whites began to imagine “ghettos … filled with black men mugging whites for money to pay for heroin” (Iliyama et al. p. 16). Statistics seemed to confirm this suspicion. In the early 1950s more than half of the narcotic arrests in the U.S. involved blacks.

Yet it should be noted that these statistics can be misleading. Crackdowns and raids were more common in the ghettos where blacks lived. Blacks also had little chance of appealing arrests based on illegal search or seizure. Nevertheless, whether or not drug abuse among blacks had increased proportionally to drug abuse among other ethnic groups, the black junkie became a stereotype.

Lawmakers responded to changing attitudes about narcotics by enacting severe policies. The Narcotic Control Act, passed in 1956, mandated prison sentences for criminals convicted of possession and sale of narcotics and permitted the death penalty for those convicted of selling narcotics to minors. The inflexible provisions of these laws doomed convicts to serve extremely lengthy prison sentences. A female stripper, for example, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for possession of marijuana, and a black veteran with no previous convictions was sentenced to fifty years without parole for selling marijuana.

These laws may actually have contributed to the number of drug-related crimes. Each time the police confiscated a stash of heroin, the drug became more precious. Addicts suffering from withdrawal would steal or kill to get enough money to buy more heroin. Some sociologists speculate that, had the drug been administered to addicts in small amounts by rehabilitation specialists, the drug-related violence that erupted in slums like Harlem during the 1950s might have been prevented.

The Autobiography in Focus

The plot

“I’m shot,” thirteen-year-old Claude Brown calls out to his friend Turk. Too concerned with his own safety to worry about Claude’s wound, Turk does not want the cops to find out he was with Claude at the time. “Turk [is]… hoping that I [will] die before I [can] tell the cops that he was with me,” Claude thinks. “Hell … I’m gonna tell ‘em” (Manchild in the Promised Land, pp. 9-10).

Turk and Claude are two of the many young delinquents growing up in Harlem who steal and fight to prove to their peers that they are brave. They spend their days dodging truancy officers and distracting shopkeepers so that their friends can filch cash from the registers. One day when Claude and Turk ventured to steal sheets from a clothesline, a spiteful woman had been waiting at her window with a shotgun. But a shopkeeper shoots Claude before the woman has the chance.

Claude’s wound heals. He returns to the street as heedless of danger as ever, skipping school and tormenting his parents by vanishing for days at a time. Knowing that his father will beat him when he returns home, Claude is content to sleep in alleys or on rooftops.

Claude’s parents are two of the many blacks who had left the South hoping to find work in the magnificent-sounding cities of the North. When they arrived in Harlem, however, they had found that alongside the lively jazz clubs and glittering theaters were also dismal slums overrun with crime. As Claude grows up, his parents spend their days working long hours, with only an occasional spare moment to give to their four children.

Left on their own to discover the promised land of the northern city, Claude and his friends amuse themselves by joining neighborhood brawls or stealing cash from careless vendors. They are sent to and from reform schools, fearing the day that they will be old enough to go to jail. Should one of the hoodlums kill a rival, he wins the admiration of the whole neighborhood. Claude, although a bit younger than most of the prominent gangsters, proves himself by starting, and sometimes winning, fights with older boys.

When Claude first receives word that heroin is the hot item on the streets, he is desperate to try it. All the kids have been smoking marijuana since before they can remember, but only the “coolest cats” have gotten their hands on some heroin, or “horse.” When he finally draws his first sniff of heroin, it nauseates Claude, and he throws the stuff to the ground.

Heroin takes hold of the neighborhood, turning the youth from raucous miscreants to downcast addicts. Rather than cause trouble, the junkies stumble into alleys and basements to enjoy their high. When they run out of heroin, they become dangerous. The young men steal to support their habit, while the young women sell their bodies for just enough cash to buy their next fix. Each week a junkie’s body is found rotting in a side alley or on a rooftop. Parents of addicts abandon hope. Although he never uses heroin himself, Claude joins his addicted pals as they cheat men looking for hookers out of their money and sell cocaine and heroin to younger kids.

Because of his first unpleasant experience with heroin, however, Claude survives what he names “the plague,” the spread of the drug and its deadly effects. At the age of seventeen, having watched his childhood pals die, some through overdoses, others from being shot while stealing cash to support their habits, Claude resolves to attain his high school diploma. He enrolls in night school and leaves his family in Harlem to find his own apartment in Greenwich Village.

On the occasions that he visits Harlem, Claude notices that Islam has taken hold. Reformed addicts have abandoned their habits to join a growing organization of black Muslims. Claude regards the new faith with suspicion. “All I knew was that these cats were building up this black superiority thing,” he thinks. “At the same time, these guys were tearing down anything that was white. As a matter of fact, they seemed to resent the clouds for being white” (Manchild in the Promised Land, p. 316). Claude notices, however, that many of the old junkies have kicked their habits to join the Muslims. This, he realizes, is a rare achievement.

When Claude discovers that his brother, Pimp, has been staying out, sometimes for several nights, he realizes that Pimp has started using heroin. Angered and distressed, Claude hunts Pimp down in one of the shady bars, then presses him to quit while he still can. Pimp’s indifferent nods convince Claude that Pimp may be beyond saving. But thankfully, when Pimp is arrested and imprisoned for trying to steal money to buy heroin, he begins correspondence courses, hoping to finish his high school diploma. “Mama said Pimp was better off,” Claude thinks. “He couldn’t use any drugs up there, and now she knew where he was” (Manchild in the Promised Land, p. 399).

When Claude runs into an old friend of his, one of the few who survived years of heroin abuse, the two reflect on how Harlem has changed. They recall their many pals who died of overdoses or were killed, and wonder how they themselves survived. After they part, Claude concludes that “despite everything that Harlem did to our generation… it gave something to [the survivors]. It gave them a strength that couldn’t be obtained anywhere else” (Manchild in the Promised Land, p. 408).

A misplaced generation

As Claude matures, he begins to speculate that his frustrations may have begun when altercations with his father drove him into the street. He wonders whether his first pranks were merely attempts to flee his parents’ influence. As he watches his brother rebel against his father, Claude realizes that, in a sense, decades of history separate his parents from the bustling city in which they live.

Claude’s parents were among the many destitute blacks who had fled the South hoping to find economic opportunities in the progressive cities in the North. Along with everything else, they had brought into the city all their habits, prejudices, and superstitions. Claude’s father, for example, hesitated to presume that a black boy could expect the same wages as a white boy, and felt for certain that any black boy who dared approach a white girl would be lynched. Claude’s mother never dared to challenge a white vendor when he sold her spoiled meat. “She had all that Southern upbringing in her,” Claude thinks, “that business of being scared” (Manchild in the Promised Land, p. 274).

Claude becomes increasingly exasperated with his parents. “It seemed as though the folks, Mama and Dad, had never heard anything about Lincoln or the Emancipation Proclamation,” he complains. “They were going to bring the South up to Harlem with them” (Manchild in the Promised Land, p. 275). When his mother tells his sisters tales about dead men coming to life and ghosts prophesying the future, Claude wants to say “Look, Mama, we’re in New York. Stop all that foolishness” (Manchild in the Promised Land, p. 275).

Claude is most disturbed, however, by his parents’ inability to understand their children’s struggles. The children’s frustrations are incomprehensible to the adults, who are content to have food during the week and a bottle of wine on Saturday. When Claude quits a job as a busboy, his father objects, insisting that Claude was earning good money. Claude realizes, “to him it was a good job because when he was nine years old, he’d plowed the fields from sunup to sundown” (Manchild in the Promised Land, p. 279).


When he was young and still buying and selling drugs, Brown was approached by a child who, for no apparent reason, stated that when he grew up, he wanted to be like Brown. Although Brown did not know the child, he felt unsettled and confused. Dreading that this boy should ever grow up to be a thief and a drug dealer, Brown felt for the first time a sense of creeping shame.

After he gave up his delinquent ways and moved to Greenwich Village to enroll in night school, Brown often returned to Harlem to visit his brother. During his many trips he always noticed the multitudes of addicts dozing in doorways and on curbsides. “I wish I could get out in Harlem in a truck with a loudspeaker on it,” he thought, “and just tell the story of [an addict who survived] to some of the cats out there on the streets nodding and scratching” (Manchild in the Promised Land, p. 407). Manchild in the Promised Land, became this story.


Manchild in the Promised Land won Brown the attention of eminent critics. They welcomed the autobiography as a book “written with brutal and unvarnished honesty in the plain talk of the people” (Linney in Stine and Marowski, p. 34). Critics applauded Brown’s ability to give a “devastating portrait of life without one cry of self-pity, outrage, or malice, with no sermons or searing rhetoric” (Linney in Stine and Marowski, p. 34).

Other critics, however, were less enthusiastic. Some insisted that, though interesting, the book was far too long; others simply found it tedious and difficult to finish. Many complained that the pivotal moment, Brown’s decision to abandon drugs and crime, was not treated with enough detail. “What should have been the core of his resurrection,” one critic wrote, “is hardly explored at all” (Hentoff in Stine and Marowski, p. 34). Contrasting Brown with other prominent black writers, however, critic William Mathes contended that Brown’s work offered the era a much-needed look at the details of black life. “The civil rights movement could certainly use [this] non-pious, non-furious spokesman” (Mathes, p. 460). Mathes believed that too many black writers offered only a shrill response to hurt and deprivation. “What is needed now,” Mathes suggested, are “words that convey [the] hurt and deprivation themselves,” as Brown’s autobiography does (Mathes, p. 456).

For More Information

Anderson, Jervis. This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982.

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

Clark, Kenneth. King, Malcolm, Baldwin. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1985.

Courtwright, David, Joseph Herman, and Don Des Jarlais. Addicts Who Survived. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

Iliyama, Patti, Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi, and Bruce Johnson. Drug Use and Abuse among U.S. Minorities: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Praeger, 1976.

Lincoln, Eric. The Black Muslims in America. Boston: Beacon, 1961.

Mathes, William. “A Negro Pepys.” Antioch Review 25, No. 3 (Fall 1965): 456-62.

Stine, Jean, and Daniel Marowski, eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 30. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984.

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Manchild in the Promised Land

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