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Manchild in the Promised Land

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Manchild in the Promised Land is indeed one of the most remarkable autobiographies of our time. This thinly fictionalized account of Claude Brown's childhood as a hardened, streetwise criminal trying to survive the toughest streets of Harlem has been heralded as the definitive account of everyday life for the first generation of African Americans raised in the Northern ghettos of the 1940s and 1950s.

When the book was first published in 1965, it was praised for its realistic portrayal of Harlem -- the children, young people, hardworking parents; the hustlers, drug dealers, prostitutes, and numbers runners; the police; the violence, sex, and humor.

The book continues to resonate generations later, not only because of its fierce and dignified anger, not only because the struggles of urban youth are as deeply felt today as they were in Brown's time, but also because the book is affirmative and inspiring. Here is the story about the one who "made it," the boy who kept landing on his feet and became a man.

416 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1965

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Claude Brown

3 books14 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 371 reviews
Profile Image for Ted.
515 reviews744 followers
May 4, 2019
I started going to night school… Most of the cats who were out there on the corners dealing stuff now were the newcomers. Most of the cats I came up with were in jail or dead or strung out on drugs. I’d been out on street life long before these cats ever knew how to role a reefer. I could do what I wanted … and not worry about anybody naming me lame. I’d been through the street life thing. At seventeen, I was ready to retire from it. I’d already had ten or eleven years at it.

Claude Brown. Born in 1937. This “fictional” autobiography tells of his youth and young manhood in Harlem. If you’re like me, you spend time wondering, ‘what’s true’? Well the first person narrator, whose name is definitely Claude Brown, though he’s usually called ‘Sonny’ in dialog, is certainly the same age as the writer, 15 years old in 1952. The way Harlem ‘was’ when he was different ages certainly has the ring of truth to me, but I wouldn’t really know. The names of all the characters? Probably not true, maybe some are. The names and tales of his family? Who knows? The general experiences he had? Sure, probably the way it was. Specific things he did? Maybe some made up. Was he really in those reform schools at those young ages? I guess he was.

The first sections of the book find Sonny at a very young age. Before he was even ten he was on the streets, stealing, fighting, sometimes out all night. His dad would beat him if provoked enough, his mother fretted and worried but could do nothing with him. In this part of the book Claude Brown is not likable at all. I just sort of shuddered every once in a while.

Later in the book, reflecting back on his youth in the forties, Claude says this.
Throughout my childhood in Harlem, nothing was more strongly impressed upon me than the fact that you had to fight and that you should fight. Everybody would accept it if a person was scared to fight, but not if he was so scared that he didn’t fight.

As I saw it in my childhood, most of the cats I swung with were more afraid of not fighting than they were of fighting.
Thus the youngster fights, even though he’s afraid, and gains a reputation as a tough guy, way tougher than his age would warrant. So at the age of eleven he spends his first time in the Wiltwyck School for Boys (which does exist, in Esopus New York), where he makes new friends who then reenter his life back on the streets. As a young teen Sonny goes back and forth between Wiltwyck more than once.

But Sonny tells us that as he began to approach the age of eighteen, getting in trouble became something that he became more fearful of. He didn’t want to actually end up in jail for a serious crime, and he tells us that he resolved that he would never kill anyone, even though he carried weapons sometimes.

The book takes us up to around 1960, Claude in his early twenties. Over the last few years he’s moved out of Harlem, down to the Village, got a job or two, finished high school, started playing a bit of piano, had an eye-opening fling with Judy, a white Jewish girl, which doesn’t last - but still goes back to Harlem frequently, sees the plague that heroin brought in the late fifties, the coming of the Black Muslims, the way they take over a small section of Harlem and preach to the people about standing up, taking pride in themselves as blacks, rejecting the white merchants who suck all the money out of Harlem. They never rope Sonny into their movement, but he sees the good it does.

At the end of the book he’s still hanging loose, doesn’t really have concrete goals, but is no longer in the City, is off somewhere starting more schooling.

He’s a young man who looks back on the streets as his real home, but who somehow turned out different from most of his old friends. It’s a story that’s hard to take sometimes, but ultimately inspiring. And if you’re white, and lived through those times quite differently than Claude Brown did, it really makes you think.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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Older review: On Native Grounds lit. crit, social history

Previous library review: Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates
Next library review: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Profile Image for Tony Hynes.
Author 1 book21 followers
November 29, 2015
This is probably my favorite book. It impacted me in ways that are hard to describe. For one, Brown's account of what happened to those who used heroine stuck with me to this day. I wasn't exactly thinking about trying heroine or any other hard drug before, but reading Manchild in the Promised Land ensured I would never go down that path. Throughout the book it seems like Claude loses everyone he ever cared about to jail, heroine, or death. If anyone wonders where the anger of the Black Panther Party came from, they need look no further than this book, which chronicles how difficult it was to grow up in Harlem (and in any inner city really) for a young black male in the 40's,50's,and 60's. I'm not sure I would have handled it with as much class as Brown.
111 reviews7 followers
May 24, 2010
An extraordinary book documenting the impact of generations of cultural disruption, violence, and cruelty. This is the memoir of a member of the first generation after the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural south to the northern cities, in this case Harlem, but you can feel how directly the roots of this experience reach back through slavery and its aftermath. I felt very strongly the disjuncture between the rhetorical power of the text and the extreme cultural privation Brown describes in his childhood, and the story of the book is of how the two converge - how he became the man who wrote the book. His personality comes through very strongly. He seems to have cultivated detachment from childhood, and his ability to report without judging - a gang rape in which he participated, for instance - is extremely unsettling, and yet feels heroic at times, in his capacity for love and forgiveness. I won't forget this.
Profile Image for Anthony Keys.
38 reviews12 followers
June 20, 2015
This is a harsh book. This is a painful book. This is a funny book. This is a real book. Any teacher teaching urban children should read this book to understand the suffering and pain of street life. It is an accomplishment that the author was able to overcome his past to tell his story.
Profile Image for Nicki.
36 reviews14 followers
August 2, 2012
I read this book in high school. I had been deeply affected by the Watts riots in the mid-sixties. It upset me to see the violence and at the same time I knew that it came from hundreds of years of festering hurt, fear and anger among African Americans. It looked like the beginning of another civil war to me.

My father was a teacher and had taught us all about the real American history that was not being taught in the schools in those days. He taught us about slavery, the abusive treatment of the Native Americans, child labor laws and womens'suffrage, etc. Also, I had grown up hearing my mother's war experiences when she was a child in Europe and China. All this good teaching served to shape my values and my career plans.

So Manchild in the Promised Land was an important and powerful book for me to read as I had already decided I wanted to teach in the inner city. It was excellent preparation for my years in teaching in Watts.
Profile Image for Shay.
Author 12 books11 followers
March 7, 2009

Best book I've ever read. I'm from Harlem, so I can really relate to a whole lot he wrote about, even tho he wrote about a Harlem 30 years before my time.

I give this to all my male friends who get locked up. Yeah, I kno that sounds funny, but I just want them to see that other people have gone thru they what they've gone thru, lived the life they've lived, and managed to get thru it to the other side.
Profile Image for Frank Stein.
964 reviews121 followers
May 10, 2011
It took me forever to finish this book because it is very long and it has little or no structure. Overall, it's just an endless series of little vignettes, but it still may be one of the most amazing books I've ever read.

The book is a semi-fictionalized account of the author's life growing up as a small-time street criminal in Harlem in the 1940s and 50s (the narrator is, like the author, named Claude Brown). He eventually gets shot escaping from a heist, gets put in a juvenile detention center, and then starts working innumerable small jobs to help himself finish school and escape the pull of the streets. On one level, the book is a classic story of decline and redemption, though Brown wouldn't put it in such Manichean terms. He is, perhaps appropriately, more interested in the moments than the grand arc.

The one constant throughout the book, though, is what Brown calls "the plague," the descent of heroin on Harlem in the early 1950s. To Brown it seemed to transform what was already an impoverished ghetto into a permanent wasteland. Hopeless junkies with no concern for anything replaced the low-level hustlers and scared even the hardened criminals. His friends started talking about junkies robbing their own parents for money, which, as he said, nobody had ever heard of before. It was a previously unimaginable level of depravity. Eventually, most of his friends and some of his family succumbed to the plague, and ended up dead or in jail. He escaped to tell the tale.

The pull of the book is that almost all of the little stories Brown tells, from participating in a stick-up to watching the rise of the Black Muslims, are simply amazing on their own terms, and are relayed with such clear-eyed intensity that you can't help but be carried along by it all. Brown also has a perfect ear for dialogue and great insight into what makes people in extreme situations tick. If you have the time, I highly recommend it.

Profile Image for Maggie.
520 reviews12 followers
January 5, 2015
Damn. I mean daaamn. If this were made into a movie, it'd be called "Hard to Watch" and Tracy Jordan would star in it.

I do agree that this is an "important" book. The author's voice is not a voice that you will probably hear in any other reading circles, even if you look for other autobiographies about kids growing up in dire poverty. This is not "Angela's Ashes", or "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." This is not even "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" or "Black Boy."

The difference between those novels and this one is mainly that while "Manchild" is "important", it's not really..."well-crafted"? "Well-written"? "Good"? This would be an excellent book for reluctant readers in their teens or early twenties, because the vocab is not challenging and there is zero use of symbolism, metaphor, foreshadowing, etc. So for a crowd that enjoys the written word, the fact is that this author is not as polished of a writer (or at least had a shitty editor). There is enormous redundancy in "Manchild"'s stories, descriptions, introspection, etc. As a reader this can be trying, because you want the author to use more vivid descriptions and a more complex writing style (he refers to heroin as "The plague" five times in two pages, each time explaining it as if it were the first usage of the term. We get it, Claude). In some ways, though, this raw and imperfect voice is actually better, because the truth that Claude Brown experienced is not packaged into a nice, digestible Maya Angelou novel; instead he spits out random and seemingly disconnected anecdotes that seem to say, "I don't give a damn if you like this; this is just something that happened." As an upper middle class white suburban girl, I am thankful that this book reminds me that the 1950's Harlem world existed, even through all of its lens of underwhelming storytelling and grit. It is good that books like this are published and read, if for no other reason than to give the world a little shake and remind us of the diverse voices that actually exist and are often muted or ignored.

The narrator is also interesting because he's likable, but also repulsive and unreliable. He is part of a massive gang-bang against a white prostitute when he's only a teenager (like, 13 or something), and he never acknowledges the horror of his crime. Hell, he doesn't even consider it a crime at all -- the anecdote is discarded fairly quickly as an "and that was the first time I had sex with a white woman" token. The author's attitude towards women is creepy, calloused and unfeeling. You could easily read the text as the confessions of a sociopath where women are concerned. Even when he does begin to change his attitude it's not clear why. Another way that Brown is an unreliable narrator is in the way he describes many situations and conversations with friends. He emerges as the enlightened perspective, the open-minded and insightful voice of reason. The ease and degree of insight with which he responds to new ideas and crises is suspicious to the point where his own character becomes inconsistent or intangible -- he transcends it all to become an omniscient observer, saying just the right thing in just the right moment. There is clearly a lot of selective memory happening in these retellings, which is forgivable given that he is not really a character in this tale (even though its HIS autobiography).

Despite the fact that our author is a rapist, a former juvenile delinquent and a drug-dealer, you want to read his story. I'd also want to read a female version of this story, just to prove that not all the women in Harlem were "bitches and whores".
1 review2 followers
March 26, 2008
Manchild in the Promised Land (1965) is an autobiographical novel written by Claude Brown. It tells about the author's coming of age amidst poverty and violence in Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s and has frequently appeared on banned book lists.

I read this coming-of-age story when I was a kid growing up in a single family household living in the projects in the Bronx. It touched the core of my soul, and gave voice to a voiceless girl-child of color. This is a must read if one is to understand the history of oppressed people in the U.S. It remains timely and is why so many are warned against reading it.

If Malcolm X is a book that changed your life, or is a book you've been wanting to read then Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land should be your next one. It is guaranteed to be an eye opener.
Profile Image for Cynthia.
29 reviews1 follower
May 7, 2014
I first read Manchild on the Promised Land at 12 years old which started my love affair with urban fiction. Claude Brown, a first generation Harlemite, tells his journey as he navigates the streets of Harlem in the 40s and 50s; how he got started in the streets at the age of six, how he survived, and most importantly how he lived to tell about it.

MITP has all the urban elements - gangs, hustlers, drug dealers, number runners, pimps and prostitutes. Sonny Boy's introduction to "the life" started simply by sitting on his front stoop at five years old watching life in the "hood" unfold before he joyously stepped into it.

Simple, fast reading; a these are are the events and this is how they happened kind of book. Loved it as a teen and years later still love it; have the1966 edition.
Profile Image for Judy.
1,656 reviews273 followers
March 30, 2022
Another book from my 1965 list.

It seems as though I have always known of this book. Now I have finally read it. It made a huge splash in 1965. James Baldwin called it "a tremendous achievement." Toni Morrison was once one of Brown's teachers. Even Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer liked it.

Claude Brown was born and grew up in Harlem in the 1940s. His parent were part of the Great Migration, escaping Jim Crow and heading for the "promised land" of Negro spirituals. By the age of six, Claude was on the streets, learning to overcome his ever-present fears by fighting and then stealing. He became very good at both and by the age of eight was in a place for delinquent children. There he learned more skills for stealing but also met a great man who eventually influenced him toward a more positive way of living.

He put all of this experience into his book which has sold well for all the years since. He tells all there is to tell about life on the streets of Harlem, about how heroin transformed his neighborhood into an even more dangerous environment but how jazz brought life and light. He managed to avoid heroin, never to get a "sheet" which is a record for armed robbery and/or murder. He eventually finished high school, became a jazz pianist and a writer, went to college.

His eloquence about how he emerged from confusion about himself, about being part of a minority, about how to navigate between Harlem and the rest of New York City, is what raises the book above any hint of sensationalism. For those of us who grew up in relative safety, he brings an antidote for looking down on those who grew up in poverty and discrimination.

Martin Luther King believed that the moral arc of history tends toward justice. That is a hard concept to hold, especially in these times, but as long as stories such as this are published around the world, perhaps we can keep the faith a while longer.
Profile Image for Chrisl.
607 reviews87 followers
July 28, 2020
A foundation book for my perception of BLM.
When seeing reviews for books by James Baldwin, remembering my 1960s fascination with his worldview, I tend to think, too, of Brown's Manchild.
Here's what one less impressed reviewer wrote
"Manchild is a naturalistic autobiography which carries Brown through his Harlem childhood and adolescence to his middle twenties, Some of the names are apparently changed, but the detail and dialogue are authentically unsparing. The accent is on drugs and sex during the Forties and Fifties. Brown's ideal as a Child was to grow up and kill his father for beating him so often. Slum life was dismally sordid and murder common, though the author seems to skip the hallway smells, the garbage and the rats and settles for constant action and talk. He was involved in violence and robbery from about five on; hit reform school several times; got shot at thirteen during a trivial theft. He was fornicating before puberty, smoking reefers, and ready for heroin at thirteen. As in Farrell's Lonigan trilogy the passage of time is a major theme, and yet few pages are saturated with ""the times."" In some ways the author's insistent emphasis on vice overloads the dice. Though many of his companions die or turn into addicts, what's amazing is that so many survive with honor. Impressive as it is, this would have had an electric vigor if disciplined by more art and less memory."
Profile Image for Man O'neal.
61 reviews2 followers
December 23, 2010
Along with "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" this is without a doubt the most compelling book I've read. Quite simply, it's incredibly entertaining and damn near impossible to put down. You may very well find yourself awake at three o'clock in the morning satisfying your urge to discover what memories of Harlem Mr. Brown has to share on the next page. This desire to read was contributed to, for me at least, by the simplicity of the writing. There is no need for a dictionary when reading this book. The vocabluary is easy without sacrificing power, and allows the reader to flow through the pages instead of trudging through them like we do with many books. Along with the sheer amusement of the book I found a few lines here and there that spoke rather profoundly on the human condition, particulalry on affection, race and hopelessness, so it has something to say. A book most definitely deserving of five stars.
Profile Image for Brent.
40 reviews133 followers
May 9, 2011
An engaging and insighful read about a boy growing up and out of Harlem, though more out of the expected lifestyle than the neighborhood. Brown doesn't pull any punches, giving his own bad and good deeds freely, although never without thought later as to the why's. As much about Harlem itself and what it expected from it's youth, as it is about his own story. The landscape changes when heroin or "the plague" takes over, affecting everyone he knows in some fashion. Brown is able to find goodness as well, although a realistic sense of it, based on his ability to see beauty in people he encounters, as well as his own maturity. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Mister Jones.
92 reviews16 followers
April 8, 2008
I remembered reading this eons ago, and there are still parts of that fictionalized/non-fiction memoir I remember. Brown growing up in Harlem during the 40s and 50s is rough, but I like how he wrote in clear prose, and didn't shy away from the difficulties and the unpleasantries of being in a depressing environment; he perserveres, and I think there's a message here that transcends racial lines and time.
Profile Image for Suave Marve.
26 reviews2 followers
October 24, 2013
Excellent book for young black males going through adolescence! I made troubled children I worked with that absolutely refused to read or had never read a book in their entire lives agree to read 1 chapter and that's it. They tore this whole book apart fighting over it and I never got it back :( lol ! awesome!
Profile Image for snowgray.
85 reviews6 followers
January 28, 2010
This is the book for a student who *can* read but has trouble finding a book to stick with. At just over 400 pages, this will be a challenging read for any reader with low stamina, though the vocabulary is accessible. Rife with swear words and violence, the author tells the story of his juvenile delinquency, up through his decision to go to college and escape Harlem. He paints a vivid picture of his confusion as a youngster, followed by the fear and eventual disillusionment that he experiences as he grows older. His stories are thrilling. He was shot when he was only thirteen, and began stealing when he was five; the book includes realistic but humorous descriptions of several ways to steal.

Unfortunately, many anecdotes seem to repeat over and over again: "I knew this guy" "We had a fight" "That junkie died..." The book would have been more compelling had it been more rigorously edited. Furthermore, the narrator becomes increasingly unreliable as more and more of his acquaintances seem to fawn over him more than speaking to him as an equal. The author's reasons for leaving Harlem are not illustrated for at least the first half of the book, which seems to glorify crime; a student who gives up on the book without finishing it (and, as I said, it is long and prone to being abandoned) will miss the main lesson it imparts.

Please be aware that a commercial audiobook is not available, though Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic has a downloadable version.
Profile Image for Theophilus (Theo).
290 reviews24 followers
July 9, 2010
I read this many years ago whlie on active duty overseas in the Air Force. I had been assigned to read it in during the 1960's in high school and read it mechanically without much thought. I reread it while in service much slower and it was extremely influential in starting a lifelong habit of reading non-fiction as well as a good novel. People's individual stories are very useful in developing an adult feeling of empathy for others that most small children have naturally but seems to leave us us somewhere in our early teens. It is still one of the most insightful books into the poverty of the United States and its effects on those forced into compacted areas of our cities and towns. I think it can be applied more broadly to Native Americans, and other groups who through economic deprivation are living on the outside of the American dream. Still powerful reading.
Profile Image for Scout.
220 reviews41 followers
April 26, 2015
This is a personal, subjective, and very readable account of one Black man's experience in the New York City of the '40s and '50s. Boys grow up on the streets and learn to survive by stealing from the Whites who own the businesses. They are incarcerated in detention centers. The Plague (heroin addiction) is rampant. What saves Claude Brown is that he doesn't get arrested after the age of 16, and he has a bad reaction the first time he tries heroin. Like many of us, he's saved by accident. He goes on to get an education and find himself. Riveting reading.
Profile Image for Brittany.
Author 2 books6 followers
December 29, 2017
I wanted to like it because the first 40 pages were compelling. But I soon realized that there was no plot in sight. Every single vignette was all about how many people he stole from or beat up. How much he terrorized his parents. There seemed to be no inner reflection and character development. Blah!! On to the next book...
12 reviews
May 26, 2010
Its all to familiar; that which we never experienced but know all too well. A novel that I will always hold dear to me because it speaks not only for me but those who came before me. The promiseland is our intercity that we have lost our way in.
4 reviews1 follower
October 13, 2009
My favorite book, hadn't read it in years. Actually brought tears to my eyes this time. It's such a vivid portrayal of the world he grew up in, immensely inspiring.
Profile Image for Adrian Ennis.
13 reviews49 followers
July 14, 2014
great book, provided great perspective on this mans life and reminded me that in life it is worth fighting for success despite the many obstacles one may encounter
Profile Image for Alisha.
100 reviews
November 14, 2021
I used to agree with the idea that Black people could reclaim the n-word. That it could be used amongst ourselves and as we wish to use it.

I have to throw that idea out. You’ll see the n-word a lot in this book, used within the community but still in such a demeaning way. It hurt me to read parents so flippantly calling their own children that word.

This book exposes street life, mostly in how it affects Black males. Where grown men egg on little boys to get into street fights, placing bets on who will win. Boys feeling the pressure to fight, kill, go to jail, use drugs… ruin their lives, even when they don’t want to. Because that’s the pressure their community puts on them. Even those with “involved” parents grow up lost, because their parents don’t lead by example.

It hit me when Brown said that he always heard “be good” and no explanation what that means. So what’d he do? He became good… at being bad. Such heavy exposure to street life trumps empty threats of damnation from religious elders.

More than once, I felt Brown was a bit of a buttkisser when it came to criticizing the role of oppression from white people. His rationale was that they don’t owe Black people anything. They don’t owe it to Black people to try to understand them. It was useless to get angry when things wouldn’t change.

Yet, he was overly critical of and angry with his parents archaic, Southern thinking, about them not trying to understand the new youth and instead trying to raise farmers in Harlem. It sounded like he blamed the parental generation for why white people continued to carrying over paternalistic attitudes towards younger generations. He had misplaced anger and misplaced admiration. Leniency towards the wrong people.

Black women don’t get much grace here… the author seems to consistently discard how Black women feel and are treated in this community. He admits his dad is an a-hole (he basically hates him), yet immediately has understanding of his dad’s infidelity and no pity towards his mother who’s getting cheated on by an unsupportive partner. He claims the most feminine woman he’s ever met is the obedient, serving white woman with rose-colored glasses on. And said he would think it no different from if a Black woman did it if this white woman called him a n-word.
I think, throughout the whole book, theres only one Black woman he introduces who isn’t into drugs or prostitution, and who he doesn’t reduce to a description of her banging body. But this woman is talked about for just a few pages, then forgotten once he can’t hook up with her. That’s the most gracious story a Black woman gets in this book. Even his sisters are pretty much pushed to the side.

I don’t know. He felt cold to me several times, several times where he seemed unsympathetic towards his own. Like he simultaneously loved yet despised his roots and his people. He talks about the soul of Black people. One tale I liked was how the term “baby” made Black people feel connected to one another. Or how the numbers game was such a mainstay of the community. But he also is overly critical and doesn’t seem very forgiving towards those who are hurting and struggling to make their way the best way they can. He was chastising towards a man who wanted to marry a prostitute. He seemed to mock those who found religion. In a word, he was very uppity at times. Judgmental while trying to claim he loved the streets. Maybe that’s how he was raised… to call his people family and n*gger in the same breath.
Profile Image for David  Cook.
431 reviews
August 26, 2021
Wow, this is one amazing book. It is not for the faint of heart. It is raw, full of street language, crime, drug abuse, racism, street life, and pain. It is a story that has been repeated thousands of times. As black Americans began the northern migration to escape the oppressive racism of the Jim Crow south, they arrived in Northern cities with optimism and hope. What they found was limited employment opportunities, redlining, crime, and more. Parents watched helplessly as children lacking in opportunities were drawn to the street life, crime, and drugs.

Claude Brown was one of those children. He wrote: ''Going to New York was goodbye to the cotton fields, goodbye to 'Massa Charlie,' goodbye to the chain gang, and, most of all, goodbye to those sunup-to-sundown working hours. One no longer had to wait to get to heaven to lay his burden down; burdens could be laid down in New York.'' Yet life in the promised land of New York turned out to be much harder than the migrants had imagined. Claude, known as Sonny to his friends and in the book, was expelled from school at 8, admitted to a street gang at 9, shot in the leg during a burglary at 13, and confined to a reform school at 14. In reform school, he had made the acquaintance of Dr. Ernest Papanek, a psychologist and the director of the Wiltwyck School for deprived and emotionally disturbed boys. Dr. Papanek, treated Sonny with respect and kindness, encouraging him to get an education.

Brown describes the emerging plague of heroin. He strongly condemns “horse” but writes with compassion for the addicts, many of whom were his closest friends, including his younger brother. He describes with skepticism both the emerging Coptic and Nation of Islam movements. Manchild also offers an interesting analysis of class dynamics in Harlem. Brown is brutal in his early attitudes toward women but shows how he matured with introspection and education.

Brown eventually attended night classes and completed high school, while working as a busboy, deliveryman, and other jobs. Although, not covered by the book Brown attended Howard University, graduating in 1965, then Stanford and Rutgers law schools. Brown was one of the lucky ones who escaped the ravages of the time. The book ends poignantly with the death of his younger brother who is not so fortunate.


“For where does one run to when he’s already in the promised land?”
Profile Image for Dedra Muhammad.
Author 2 books62 followers
February 12, 2022
This book will have you on the edge of your seat. I appreciated the way the author outlined how the main character grew up amid horrifying conditions. It was based on a true story, so Mr. Claude Brown was able to tell a very rich story.
3 reviews
July 8, 2015
When this was published in 1965, I was 11 years old. By the time we moved in 1967 I had read this about 6-8 times completely through, and fully 30 times about halfway. Claude Brown describes his Harlem childhood and it seemed so exotic and dangerous, especially to a sheltered kid in a small, New Hampshire village. He escaped from the brutality, crime, despair that demoralized almost everybody around him, to become a lawyer. His achievement is the more remarkable in light of his early and steadfast determination to break more rules than almost anybody he encountered. He was not the pure soul stuck in a pit of hellishness who fought the evil he saw-more the completely irredeemable liar, fighter, thief who was "..kicked out of every school in the city.." who, by age 10 had been hit by a bus(on purpose-having been thrown in front of it), hit by a car, shot, and thrown into various jails, 'reform' schools, even exiled to South Carolina to older relatives, who sought to break his sinful predilections through religion, to no avail. On his return he relished even more the thieving, truancy, strife that thrilled him. Perhaps the only thing that saved him was when he first 'snorted' heroin. The event was horrific; the pain, possibly from adulterants, or from excess acetic acid used in manufacture, and the vomiting, scared him away from " dry highs" as he termed it, and he stuck to alcohol for a few weeks afterwards. It is a blessing when one loses big in the first gambling venture-those who hit big the first time are often doomed to a life of seeking that thrill evermore.
There are a few moments of comic relief; in his first riot he steals shrimp, and unaware of how to cook it he fries it without removing the shells, with pomade for grease, and decides he doesn't like shrimp. A truly honest, compelling and memorable book.
2,804 reviews254 followers
June 2, 2015
This is a tough book to read.

It's fascinating and hard to look away though. The writing is very straightforward, there's no mixing metaphors or prose-y approach to the truth. It's mostly a vivid retelling of one person's story that jumps around in his life.

What I really liked is it's a perspective that so often gets ignored. How many books about the experience of black men are actually written by black men? It's a heartfelt and honest retelling. No sugar coating life experiences or mistakes. But it also goes a step further into addressing why Claude felt so pressured to do these things - the need for respect, for defense, for his family. And not in a way that tries to justify his actions either, this book hardly reads like a memoir so much as a terribly gripping story.

It also provides an interesting historical perspective. Sure it's anecdotal, but I had no idea there was such a growing Muslim population during this time in New York.

There are definitely some tough moments but it's a great book.
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60 reviews
December 22, 2007
Read as part of AP English. So glad Lynch chose this for our read, because I might not have been able to appreciate it otherwise. Probably one of the first books that opened my eyes to the realities of the past, and not just their imagined states. Set in the 1950s, an era of soda shoppes and black and white TV, but facing significant urban issues that still plague socities today - breaking the mold of our contrived notions of the 50s - great, great read. Loved being able to get a glimpse inside of this world.
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