Brown, Claude 1937–2002
Claude Brown 1937–2002
Manchild in the Promised Land, author Claude Brown’s 1965 memoir of growing up on the violent streets of New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, was a crucial document in awakening the sensibilities of American readers to the conditions under which the urban African-American minority in their country often lived. Brown wrote of murderers, prostitutes, drug abusers, organized crime, and a dozen other ills of urban life, using a unique narrative voice that commanded sympathy and identification from readers even as they were shocked to learn of the conditions Brown described. In the decades following the book’s publication it found its way more and more often into the school literature curricula, and by the century’s end it was well on its way to being regarded as a bona fide American classic.
Brown was a New York City native, born on February 23, 1937, to Henry Lee Brown, a rail roadman, and Ossie Brown, a domestic worker. His parents had moved to Harlem from South Carolina two years before his birth and he grew up living in a rundown apartment building on 146th Street. “I never was close to my father,” Brown commented, according to the Washington Post. “He beat the hell out of me and that was it. He had too many problems, too many frustrations.” By the time Brown was eight he had been thrown out of school, and soon he was living the gang member’s life he would later write about. As a member of the Harlem Buccaneers, Brown became adept at street theft.
Constantly in trouble with the police, Brown was given several psychiatric examinations that did little to alter his destructive path. At age 11, he was admitted to the Wiltwyck School, a special-education institute in rural upstate New York’s Ulster County. The school had been co-founded by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Brown met and to whom he later dedicated Manchild in the Promised Land. But the person who made the strongest impression on Brown was a school psychologist, Ernest Papanek, whom he described in the book as “probably the smartest and
At a Glance…
Born on February 23, 1937, in New York, NY; died of lung cancer on February 2, 2002, in New York, NY; son of Henry Lee (a rail roadman) and Ossie (a domestic worker; maiden name, Brock) Brown; married Helen Jones (a telephone operator), 1961 (later separated); children: two. Education: Howard University, Washington, DC, BA 1965; further study of law at Stanford University and Rutgers University. Religion: Investigated both the Black Muslim and the Coptic (East African) Christian faiths.
Career: Member of Harlem’s Buccaneers gang, 1940s; drug dealer; worked as busboy, delivery man, cosmetics salesman and jazz pianist, 1950s; writer and lecturer, 1965-02, works include: Manchild in the Promised Land, 1965; The Children of Ham, 1976.
Selected awards: Metropolitan Community Methodist Church grant, 1959; Saturday Review Ansfeld-Wolf Award, for furthering intergroup relations.
deepest cat I had ever met.” Despite these positive influences, however, Brown ended up back on Harlem’s streets.
“I was growing up now, and people were going to expect things from me. I would soon be expected to kill a nigger if he mistreated me, like Rock, Bubba Williams, and Dewdrop had,” Brown wrote in Manchila in the Promised Land. “Nobody messed with them…. I knew now that I had to keep up with these cats; if I didn’t, I would lose my respect in the neighborhood.” But several events diverted Brown from the violent end this situation might have forecast. First, he was shot in the leg during a burglary at age 13. Shortly after, he tried heroin for the first time, and became extremely sick, limiting his activities on the street. Then during a stint in a New York reform school he was encouraged to read biographies of African Americans and others who had triumphed over tremendous odds. Finally, when police arrested a man who had cheated Brown in a street deal gone bad, Brown realized how close he had come to committing murder himself.
Brown finished high school by taking night classes and then worked for several years as a busboy, delivery-man, cosmetics salesman and occasional jazz pianist in New York’s Greenwich Village. Searching for meaning and structure in his life, he investigated both the Black Muslim faith and Coptic (East African) Christianity. Dreaming of a career in law or politics, Brown enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and graduated in 1965. At first he had financial help from the Metropolitan Community Methodist Church, but it wasn’t long before his gift for writing started to help pay the tuition bills.
Fame came in the form of a request from his former counselor Papanek to write an article about Harlem for Dissent magazine. That article was published, and Brown’s direct, profane, and often funny style caught the attention of an editor at the giant Macmillan publishing house. From an early twenty-first-century perspective, with hip-hop lyrics and other raw descriptions of ghetto life prevalent in modern literature, it is perhaps difficult for modern readers to appreciate how new Brown’s writing seemed at the time. It was far removed from the ambitious literary styles of such African-American writers as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. Brown was perhaps one of the forerunners of a realistic, autobiographical strain in black literature and music.
Macmillan offered Brown a $2,000 advance to write a book based on his experiences. Reading Wright’s novels for inspiration, Brown plugged away at what became Manchila in the Promised Land, delivering a 1,500-page manuscript to Macmillan in a grocery carton two years later. By that time, Brown’s original editor had moved on, and the manuscript languished unread for several more months. Manchila in the Promised Land was finally published in 1965 after a new editor, Alan Rinzler, discovered Brown’s work and helped trim it to a manageable length. “He had an authentic voice—violent, funny and optimistic,” Rinzler later told the New York Times.
Brown, for his part, was amazed at the attention he was receiving. “It’s hard for me to perceive what is so exciting to people in this thing,” he was quoted as saying in a Washington Post article. According to the Post, he did explain to a reporter that “I’m trying to show more than anything else the humanity of the Negro. Somebody has to stop problematizing and start humanizing the Negro.” And indeed it was the human quality of Brown’s memoir that set it apart from other similar books and made it a best seller over the long term. Though not billed as an autobiography, Brown’s book presented a straightforward account of his own life and of the people he knew in Harlem. Manchila in the Promised Land went on to sell more than four million copies and was translated into 14 languages.
Like Ralph Ellison, Brown remains a writer identified overwhelmingly with a single creation. But he remained active as a writer for the rest of his life. In the late 1960s he attended law school at Stanford University and Rutgers University but finally shelved his political plans when his lecture-circuit earnings reached $60,000 a year. For many years Brown was in demand as a lecturer. He wrote magazine articles on Harlem and other subjects, but completed only one other full-length book, the novel The Children of Ham, in 1976. That book depicted a group of Harlem teenagers who try to escape a world even more dominated by drug abuse and crime than was the Harlem in which Brown grew up.
A keen observer of the devastation wrought by the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Brown worked on but never completed a third book that compared his own experiences with those of children in modern Harlem. In later life Brown lived in Newark, New Jersey, but maintained strong connections to New York City. Married and divorced, he was survived by two children and one grandson when he died of lung cancer in New York on February 2, 2002. Manchila in the Promised Land, noted the New York Times, is still selling upwards of 30,000 copies a year.
Manchild in the Promised Land, Macmillan, 1965.
The Children of Ham, Stein & Day, 1976.
Boston Globe, February 7, 2002, p. B9.
Chronicle of Higher Education, April 12, 2002, p. 5.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), March 7, 2002, p. 31.
Jet, February 25, 2002, p. 55.
New York Times, February 6, 2002, p. B8.
Time, February 18, 2002, p. 27.
Washington Post, February 7, 2002, p. B7.
Contemporary Authors Online, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC
—James M. Manheim
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