Manchild in a Promised Land (1965) first appeared, I was a Columbia University graduate student, living as a Caucasian in a low-rent public housing project on the edge of Harlem. (My congressman was the legendary Adam Clayton Powell; the folks across the street were represented by Willian:t Fitts Ryan, less legendary.)
While Manchild was immediately hailed for its purported truthfulness in portraying the awful lives of young men in Harlem, I thought that the book was misleading. It certainly didn’t accurately describe most of the African-American teenagers around me, who were struggling to help their families while going to school or working entry-level jobs. Since most African-American males in those years did not get arrested or die young, we can now safely say that as social reportage Manchild was generally false, to put it mildly.
What the book did, I came to realize, was portray stereotypes of degenerate and dangerous African-American life – stereotypes no less popular then than now. What else would prompt Tom Wolfe to proclaim, “Incredible! No Negro writer ever told the whole street thing in Harlem: Claude Brown is first.” (The image of Wolfe researching Harlem streets in his trademark white suits was no less ludicrous then than now.) Or Norman Mailer to testify: “The first thing I ever read which gave me an idea of what it would be like day by day if I’d grown up in Harlem.” What other than confirmation of stereotype would prompt Irving Howe, always a schlockmeister, to submit this encomium, published at the time and even reprinted in Brown’s New York Times obituary: “The quivery reality of a boy’s life, his struggle, his efforts at understanding. The book contributes to our sense of what America is today.” Or Nat Hentoff, who should have known better, having actually set foot in Harlem upon occasion:” As a survivor among the dying and the dead, Brown tells it like it was – and like it still is.” So unanimous was this herd of independent Caucasian minds.
The black writers Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison, both of them a generation older than Brown, both lifelong residents of·Harlem, were among the first to suggest that Manchild was “a social science fiction,” whose credibility, especially to whites (such as those quoted above), depended upon its satisfying stereotypes. I learned in the Times obituary that Brown was asked to write his initial memoir by Dr. Ernest Papanek, director of Wiltwyck School for disturbed boys, who placed it in Howe’s Dissent. Its appearance there prompted an editor at Macmillan to give Brown an advance. The truth of this revelation is that a social scientist persuaded a former charge to provide testimony for those influenced by social science to appreciate, completing a circle enclosing more academic myth than social reality.
Actually reading the book to its very end, I questioned the memoir’s authenticity when I got to this remarkable exchange: “Dad would say, ‘Boy, why don’t you stop that lyin’? You know you didn’t see all that. You know you didn’t see nobody do that.’ But I knew I had.” Huh? What is this anecdote doing here – at the very end of Manchild, not, say, buried in the middle? Why does Brown have his own authority figure question his narrative at the point where the moral· of the story customarily belongs? Charitable perhaps, but sensitive to literary strategies, I have always thought this exchange a stroke of ironic intelligence reflect- ing Brown’s acknowledgment of a confection. (For a similarly undercutting irony, check out the concluding lines of Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, which mocks ornate style similar to that evident in his own book.) Though my paperback copy identifies Manchild as “Signet Non- Fiction,” I’ve heard the book categorized as “a novel,” the shift in genre-naming reflecting a general insecurity about its truthfulness.
Brown wrote only one other book in his remaining 35 years, The Children of Ham (1976). It told about Harlem teenagers who escaped the influence of heroin and were thus representative of his own life as not a jailbird but a survivor. So contrary to stereotype, Children of Ham didn’t do a fraction as well as Manchild.