‘They’re Killing Over Radios and Eyeglasses’ : ‘Manchild’ Finds His Harlem Successor Is an Urban Monster
Two decades after the publication of “Manchild in the Promised Land,” the author walks the mean streets of Harlem and meets a new manchild more terrifying than anyone in his autobiography.
Claude Brown was the original manchild, a black youth growing up fast in Harlem. To a confessed liar, bully, thief, pothead, street fighter, truant and con man, a friend of pimps, whores and junkies, his mother’s favorite question was, “Boy, why you so bad?”
But that did not prepare him for the manchild of today, “a human paradox . . . more sophisticated, more knowledgeable, more sensitive, more amicable--and more likely to commit murder.”
“When I was coming up in the early ‘50s, we fought all the time, but we weren’t trying to kill each other,” Brown said. “Guys walk around now with sawed-off shotguns and .357 Magnums, and they’re killing over radios and eyeglasses.”
To people like Brown’s mother--rural blacks fleeing poverty and oppression in the Depression South--Harlem and other Northern ghettos really seemed like a promised land.
But, 50 years later, Brown, a stocky 48-year-old whose dark goatee and hair are flecked with gray, laments “a dreadful land” where the manchild has become an “urban monster.”
When driving through central Harlem’s streets, or standing on some of its corners, it is easy to see why. Since Brown’s manchildhood, almost everything has grown worse.
Signs of a New ‘Dark Age’
The population of the teeming, vital slum in which Brown was reared declined as those with enough money moved out. On some streets, lined by hollow buildings or rubble-strewn lots, a post-industrial Dark Age seems to have dawned.
But the youths who roam these streets are what concern Claude Brown.
They are largely uneducated, virtually homeless, chronically criminal and habitually violent, wanting money to buy athletic shoes or designer jeans. They are “kids who are making the city a terrifying place to live in,” Brown said.
Studies by Ohio State University and University of Pennsylvania sociologists have shown that these young urban felons are increasingly violent, sometimes taking victims’ money and their lives. “It was so callous, so cynical, that I had a difficult time grasping it for a while,” Brown said.
When he suggested to one teen-age convict the inevitable futility of a life of violent crime, Brown was stunned by the response: If I get caught or maimed, I become the state’s responsibility; if I’m killed, my problems are really over.
‘He’s Conned Himself’
“His attitude was, ‘What the hell?’ ” Brown marveled in his raspy voice. “It’s an attitude he had to sell himself on to do what he did every day. He’s conned himself into thinking, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m going for broke.’
“When I was coming up, a kid would be taken in by an older hoodlum in an apprenticeship, and he’d learn the do’s and don’ts of a stickup,” Brown said. “The first thing you’d learn from your mentor would be the reason for bringing a gun. So you can shoot somebody? No, man, wrong. So you won’t have to shoot somebody.
“If you killed someone, it was a grand faux pas. People would say, ‘What happened, man?’ You weren’t supposed to do that.”
Claude Brown started early. He was expelled from school at 8, admitted to a street gang at 9, sent to a school for wayward boys at 11, shot in the leg during a burglary at 13, confined to reform school at 14.
But the manchild matured. He threw away his gun, stopped stealing, went to night school, gave up drugs, got a job, moved out of Harlem, took up the piano and began to write.
Publisher Urged Book
The idea for “Manchild” was born in 1961 when an editor at MacMillan read a magazine article Brown had written. He took Brown to lunch and tried to persuade him to write a book.
“I’d never written anything longer than a 20-page short story, but, after the third scotch, I said, ‘OK, it’s your money,’ ” and accepted a $2,000 advance, Brown recalled.
Two years later, he had a 1,537-page manuscript “replete with slang, dialect and profanity,” which he delivered to the publisher in a grocery box.
“Nobody at MacMillan wanted to touch it, and no one knew what to do with it,” Brown said. “They sat on it for a year. They called it ‘Claude Brown’s box of groceries.’ ”
Eventually, a new editor, Alan Rinzler, was assigned to it.
“There was literally nothing like it,” Rinzler recalled. “Richard Wright and (James) Baldwin had written about this sort of thing, but they were writers. This was a street person, and it seemed totally authentic: funny, violent, optimistic.”
“Manchild in the Promised Land” was an immediate hit. The civil rights movement was cresting in 1965, along with white America’s interest in black America and black America’s interest in itself.
On Best-Seller List
With little advance publicity, the book reached No. 5 on the New York Times’ best-seller list and sold about 3 million copies, many to the high school and college students, for whom “Manchild” was must reading.
Meanwhile, Brown, who had enrolled at Stanford Law School, was overwhelmed by his sudden celebrity. “I was getting more mail than the President,” he said. “A lot of it said, ‘Manchild has changed my life.’ ”
The telephone rang constantly with speaking offers and requests for radio or television interviews. Prisoners at Sing Sing penitentiary in New York state staged a protest to demand copies of the book.
“He became quite a media star,” Rinzler said. “He was always being asked for his opinion about everything, even though he was young and relatively inexperienced. It was hard for him to handle.”
Brown slipped back East and quietly enrolled in Rutgers Law School. The media sought new black voices, and soon everyone was talking about Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice.”
Second Book Panned
Brown did not complete his second book, “Children of Ham,” for more than 10 years. The story of abandoned teen-agers living in an abandoned Harlem building showed that “Mr. Brown cannot write at all,” according to a review in the New York Times.
“ ‘Manchild,’ ” said Rinzler, “was a tough act to follow.”
It was an act Brown never really tried to follow. Although he has continued to lecture, teach and write--he is finishing a book on heroin’s impact on Harlem--his greatest creation is Claude Brown.
Brown, equally comfortable speaking at a congressional hearing in Washington or to a heroin addict on Eighth Avenue, is proof to Manchild 1985 of the man the child can become.
Unlike many Harlemites who made it, he still spends a lot of time in Harlem. Although he has an apartment in Newark, a legacy of his Rutgers days, “I sleep in Newark and live in New York,” Brown said. “My family is here, my lawyer is here, my friends are here, my church is here. My life is here.”
Called a Role Model
“Claude Brown is an inspiration and a role model for a whole lot of people,” said the Rev. William James, a minister who befriended Brown and urged him to attend college. “They say, ‘If he could do it, I could do it too.’ ”
“Here is a person who was just as bad as we were, or badder, and he ended up writing a book,” said John Wood, a 30-year-old former gang member and school dropout now preparing for the seminary.
“What he’s saying with his life is, ‘Look, I’m Claude Brown,’ ” said Calvin Presley, a boyhood friend of Brown who also went straight. “ ‘I grew up here. You don’t have to do drugs or rob people to have excitement. I feel I’ve put meaning in my life. You can do the same, and you’ll live a lot longer.’ ”