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Manchild - critical review

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Published in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and in the wake of the nationwide urban riots of 1964, Manchild in the Promised Land is a rare achievement: an autobiography written in clear, lucid prose without an ounce of self-pity, self-justification, or moralizing. Mr. Brown's sprawling book, almost an archetype of American urban life, tells of Claude's growing up in crime-plagued Harlem and struggling with race, poverty, sex, family, friendship, religion and education on his way to a soulful, mature independence. Focused by its personal narrative voice, ''Manchild'' has an epic reach as it depicts the journeys of a generation of black families who traded one hard life for another in their move from the South. Brown's worldview and consequently his writing are "structured" by the ideology and language of the social sciences, disciplines that are primarily concerned with "the fakelore of black pathology". Most of all, for me, Brown's memoir is filled with regret for the many from his Harlem neighborhood who died, victims of crime, poverty, alcoholism and drug addiction. Indeed, one could say that one of the major characters of his story is heroin, which Brown describes as the scourge of his generation. The power of heroin to destroy is most poignantly described in Brown's recounting of his relationship with his younger brother. Claude took his responsibilities as an older brother seriously, but his younger brother fell victim to addiction, and Brown was forced to admit that he had lost him. Perhaps Manchild in the Promised Land can be described best as an "autoethnography." It is not only the author's life story, but it is also the story of an ethnic community at a particular moment in its history. Brown's coming-of-age narrative is embedded in the larger narrative of life in Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s. His dual objective is explicit in the book's foreword. He says he wants "to talk about the first Northern urban generation of Negroes." ...read more.


As a result, for the first time in his life he experiences freedom. Brown's moment of recognition and his move to the Village are implicitly linked to the literal worlds of possibility that the exercising of literacy opened up for him while at Warwick: "I wanted to know things: and I wanted to do things. It made me start thinking about what might happen if I . . . didn't go back to Harlem"6. He is able to imagine a new life narrative for himselfone that does not involve literal or figurative imprisonment, whether within an institution or his own fears7. The link between the experience of freedom and the power of the written word is an archetypal moment in African American autobiography: from the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass* and Harriet Jacobs* to Malcolm X's education in black history while in prison. Brown's relationship to the white world remains, however, largely abstract. His place within Harlem and, specifically, his relationship to the migrant generation of his parents are the central themes of his autobiography. While Brown recognizes the disillusionment of the "colored pioneers" who left the violence and virtual slavery of the South only to be faced with the punitive realities of the North, his sense of bitterness at their de facto abandonment of his generation - "they didn't know just what was to follow, so how could they tell me?" - is pervasive. Brown, in fact, is unable to see any positive or resistant adaptations to the North on the part of his elders; instead, like many of Richard Wright's* migrants, they exhibit the ostensible pathologies of a generation that "didn't seem to be ready for urban life"8. The "Harlem tradition," Brown writes, comes from the same southern "backwoods" his parents had fled: a "tradition" of "liquor, religion, sex, and violence. . . . a prayer that . . . somebody might hit the sweepstakes or get lucky". ...read more.


My mother been buying the pigtails and neckbones from you. . . . She's been paying you the rent, she's been pawning stuff to you . . . so if anyone should give us some kind of understanding, you should." But this was expecting too much, he believes. When he meets a Black Muslim, who insists that Blacks must "revolt" and "get Harlem out of Goldberg's pockets" by totally boycotting 125th Street as a shopping center and buying up 145th Street, the author is obviously out of sympathy with this viewpoint, but he fears its effectiveness. To the litany of justified complaints about poor pay, poor food, exploitation of Blacks by Jews, the Christians among his listeners assent, adding "Yeah! Yeah! Them goddam Jews killed my Jesus, too!" The narrator ends the book on an ambivalent note. He writes, "There is an epilogue to this book, but only time can write it." Finally, throughout Brown's narrative you will experience the hardships of the ghetto life though a child's eyes. It is an inspirational story about a young man who ovecame a life of poverty and crime, and who later became a successful lawyer. Although this book was written from a black man's experiences' in the 1950's much of what he experienced still exist today. It will make you think about life, and the social and cultural situations that surround us today. This book will make have a meaningful impact on everyone who reads it. Brown is a masterful genius in that he does not sugarcoat his life experiences with prolific and monstrous words, but rather gives the reader an indepth view of what life was like in the ghetto of Harlem, New York. Moreover, Brown emphasizes the essential theme of this story over and over again to the reader and even proves it by becoming a successful lawyer despite the fact he came from a torn-broken ghetto induced with violence, sex, and drugs. ...read more.

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