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'Manchild' resonates as strongly today

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002


"Run!"

Where?

Oh, hell! Let's get out of here!

"Turk! Turk! I'm shot!"

I could hear Turk's voice calling from a far distance, telling me not to go into the fish-and-chips joint. I heard, but I didn't understand. The only thing I knew was that I was going to die.

Thus begins Claude Brown's 1965 novel Manchild in the Promised Land. It is a chilling opening, a window into the violent world of Harlem's black children during the 1940s and 1950s.

Brown died on Feb. 2 in New York City. He was 64.

Given the drugs, crime and violence smothering many black inner-city communities today, Manchild's message still resonates. If I were teaching a literature course in 2002, I would require all students to read Brown's classic novel. Black students would read it to witness the folly of such a life, whites to better understand how the majority culture -- through physical isolation and institutional discrimination -- can create a class of permanent victims.

As I write, I am using the copy of Manchild I bought in 1965, when I was a sophomore at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. The book was required reading in our Black Literature course at our historically black college. I was an aspiring writer, and Brown's tales and writing style captured my imagination, a Southern boy whose parents had been farm workers, a migrant kid who had lived for three years in Harlem.

I had read the likes of James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, but their urbane style intimidated me, an unpublished 20-year-old who had several hand-written short stories and essays in his dormitory room.

Brown was accessible. His simple, profanity-laced prose appealed to me initially because the narrator's persona was authentic and funny.

On a deeper level, Brown's depiction of reality was compelling, his world familiar. In his foreward, he sets the tone for his fictional tale and establishes its value center: "I want to talk about the first Northern urban generation of Negroes. I want to talk about the experiences of a misplaced generation, of a misplaced people in an extremely complex, confused society. This is a story of their searching, their dreams, their sorrows, their small and futile rebellions, and their endless battle to establish their own place in America's greatest metropolis -- and in America itself."

Life for Sonny, the novel's teen protagonist and narrator, is a maze of individual challenges, existential observations and acts of raw survival. Here, God must wait in line like the other forces that show up to circumfuse the zest for individual freedom.

Indeed, societal boundaries trap Brown's characters in a world that has devolved since the vibrant Harlem Renaissance. Born in Harlem, Sonny was kicked out of school at 8, joined a street gang at 9, shot during a burglary at 13 and sentenced to reform school at 14.

Although published as a work of fiction, Manchild was a memoir, the real life of Brown himself. Brown's parents, like thousands of other blacks, packed into Harlem -- the promised land -- to "escape" the harsh life of sharecropping in the South. The promised land, however, proves to be a chimera.

Here, Sonny talks of how a relative misleads folks left behind about life up North: "It seems that Cousin Willie, in his lying haste, had neglected to tell folks down home about one of the most important aspects of the promised land: it was a slum ghetto. There was a tremendous difference in the way life was lived up North. There were too many people full of hate and bitterness crowded into a dirty, stinky, uncared-for closet-size section of a great city."

This existence spawned violence that was taken for granted. Listen to Sonny's deadpan description of murder in Harlem: "Mr. Lawson . . . was the meanest on the Avenue. He was said to have killed half a dozen men. Dad had killed a man too, but that was for saying something nasty to Mama." In another place, Sonny mentions the building "where Mr. Lawson had killed a man for peeing in the hall."

Young Sonny's sense of irony as he contrasts the North and the South is often scary: "Before the soreness of the cotton fields had left Mama's back, her knees were getting sore from scrubbing "Goldberg's' floor. Nevertheless, she was better off; she had gone from the fire into the frying pan."

Such irony and absurdity give Manchild a haunting humor that lets the reader accept -- without feeling guilty or ashamed -- the values of this bleak world.

After vicariously living with Sonny and his buddies on Harlem's mean streets, even the boys' version of hookey seems normal: "As we headed toward the backyard to hide our books, Danny began to explain the great game of hookey. It sounded like lots of fun to me. Instead of going to school, we would go all over the city stealing, sneak into a movie, or go on a roof and throw bottles down into the street."

Having sold more than 4-million copies and having been translated into 14 languages, Manchild in the Promised Land remains one of the most powerful portrayals of black life in the ghetto. When I spoke recently at the University of Florida about the relationship between reading and ethnic diversity, Manchild was one of the works I recommended for white students to read.

Black History Month would be an excellent time to read Manchild.

Its chilling message, its depiction of the aborted dreams, carry meaning today: "The children of these disillusioned colored pioneers inherited the total lot of their parents -- the disappointments, the anger. To add to their misery, they had little hope of deliverance. For where does one run to when he's already in the promised land?"

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