(b. 23 February 1937 in New York City; d. 2 February 2002 in New York City), author of Manchild in the Promised Land (1965) and lecturer, freelance journalist, and social critic writing for Esquire, Life, The New York Times Magazine, and The Saturday Evening Post.
Like many African Americans before and after them, in 1935 Henry Lee, a railroad worker, and Ossie (Brock) Brown, a domestic worker, migrated to New York City from the rural South in the hopes of finding a "promised land" where they and their four children would prosper. Trading South Carolina and their families for a tenement at 146th Street and Eighth Avenue in Harlem, the Browns worked in menial positions. Brown, the third child, was born in a community characterized by extreme poverty, crime, violence, and drugs.
Early on, the young Brown's playground was the street; he reported being an accomplished petty thief by the age of six, and he was eager to start school so his older friends could teach him to play hooky. By 1945 he had joined a gang, and by February 1946 he had been expelled from four schools. A year with his grandparents in South Carolina did nothing to curb his wildness, and in February 1948 he was sentenced to two years in the Wiltwyck School for emotionally troubled boys in Ulster County, New York. There he met Wiltwyck's cofounder, Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he thought a "crazy-acting old lady," though he later dedicated his book to her. Importantly, he also formed a lasting relationship with the school's director and psychologist, Dr. Ernest Papanek, which later proved seminal in the course of his life. When Brown was released in August 1950, his primary goal was to try the drug everyone was talking about: heroin. A violent physical reaction spared him the addiction that cost so many of his friends their lives in what he called a "plague" attacking Harlem and its residents. His luck did not prevent him from getting shot in the abdomen during an attempted burglary, and he soon was serving time at the Warwick School for Boys in Orange County, New York. He was released briefly, then reincarcerated until July 1953.
Brown's release from Warwick did not mark the end of his criminal activity, but it did mark the beginning of his transformation from petty thief and dealer to educated writer. Exposed while in detention to history, art, and music, in 1954 Brown began attending night school at Washington Irving High School, enrolling in academic courses that he had been steered away from previously. After his younger brother's incarceration, Brown enrolled in courses at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1959. During his first year at Howard, Papanek requested that Brown write an article on Harlem for Dissent, an established quarterly political magazine. An editor at Macmillan read the piece and offered Brown a $2,000 advance on a book about his youth. It took two years—during which time Brown studied writing under the writer and scholar Toni Morrison and others—but in 1963 he finally delivered a 1,500-page manuscript, only to have it shelved for a year until a new editor uncovered it. Published as Manchild in the Promised Land in 1965, the book was an instant success. It is the second best-selling book that Macmillan has ever published, after Gone with the Wind.
Brown's childhood and teenage years provided the basis of his autobiographical novel, which has proved an American classic. Over four million copies have been sold, even though at the time of its publication it generated a variety of extreme reactions. The novel introduced most white readers to the intimate reality of the life of impoverished urban African Americans for the first time with compassion and insight. Many African Americans wrote Brown to thank him "for writing our story," and he did it often in the language of the streets. This language resulted in censorship and even the firing of teachers who insisted on introducing the book to their students, though some academics were entranced by the linguistic flow and rhythm of the contemporary urban black vernacular. In Manchild in the Promised Land, Brown paints a portrait of a child confronted with tremendous obstacles. His father, frustrated by circumstances, is violent and abusive, while his mother is exhausted by work and the difficulties of raising children in a hostile environment.
Lauded for its realistic portrait of Harlem life, Brown's novel is, in part, so compelling because of the detailed descriptions and compassion with which he treats many of his subjects. Pimps, prostitutes, junkies, and thieves are not defined by what they do but by who they are, who their families are, and how they treat people. As Brown asserts, "you can't stop loving a woman because she's a whore." Nor is the book a portrait only of those engaged in illegal activity: Brown also documents the rituals and beliefs of families transplanted from the South, the storefront religion in which many sought solace, the attractiveness of Coptic and Muslim faiths to urban African Americans, the jazz scene of late 1950s New York, and the struggle to survive debilitating poverty by whatever means necessary. His curiosity about the differences between people and their experiences allows him to learn a great deal, which he then shares with his reader. And while he expresses anger at the wrongs done to people, black and white, never once does Brown apologize for the criminal antics that seem inevitable given the story he tells of his upbringing. This matter-of-fact approach, combined with the urban black vernacular, has the potential to undermine the exceptionality of his experiences for the reader unfamiliar with his world; indeed, this seems exactly what Brown intended—to downplay the potential for sensationalism in exchange for the possibility of understanding. The result, for Brown's 1960s reader, was a portrait of an urban black man and his world in stark contrast to the image of the culturally bereft Bigger Thomas of Richard Wright's popular Native Son (1940). This black man did not struggle toward thought, as many whites still held; indeed, he was already there. Remarked Brown in 1965, "I'm trying to show more than anything else the humanity of the Negro … Somebody has to stop problemizing and start humanizing the Negro."
For many liberal 1960s readers, Brown's perspective and insights were earth-shattering in representing urban African Americans. Brown was invited to testify as an expert witness before congressional inquiries, lecture to national organizations, and write for a number of popular presses.
Brown graduated from Howard with a B.A. degree in liberal arts the same year Manchild was published, and studied law first at Stanford University, then at Rutgers University. But he gave up legal studies when he discovered that he could earn more as a lecturer, leaving him time to pursue his writing and ongoing activism for the reform of the juvenile justice system. On 9 September 1961 Brown married Helen Jones Brown; they had one child and later divorced. In 1976 Brown published Children of Ham, which detailed the lives of young African Americans in New York who successfully kick heroin. In 2000 a Los Angeles–based theater company that works with youth dramatized Man-child for a contemporary audience, many of whom would have read the book as a mandatory text in high school or college. Two years later Brown died of a lung condition, leaving unfinished his manuscript on the crack epidemic that further devastated Harlem in the 1980s. Brown left behind his companion, Laura Higgins, with whom he had one child.
Claude Brown, "The Language of Soul," in Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore (1973), edited by Alan Dundes, provides insights on black language and usage. Joseph Keller, "Black Writing and the White Critic," Negro American Literature Forum 3, no. 4 (winter 1969): 103–110, surveys 1960s perspectives on black authors, including Brown. Obituaries are in the New York Times (6 Feb. 2002), Detroit News (7 Feb. 2002), Time (18 Feb. 2002), and Jet (25 Feb. 2002).