Manchild in the Promised Land – Claude Brown (1965)

“Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land appeared at a pivotal political and cultural moment in the United States fifty years ago. 1965 saw the murder of Malcolm X, the eruption of the Watts uprising, a great escalation of direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the issuing of the Moynihan Report, the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights marches, the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and the founding of the Black Arts Repertory Theater and School in Harlem, to name only a relative few of the major events that year. While the term ‘Black Power’ would not be popularized until the following year, the Black Power and Black Arts movements were clearly in formation by 1965. It was this milieu of social turmoil and the continuing, though uncertain, transformation of the racial regime of the United States that made it possible for Brown’s book, a sort of bildungsroman of the streets, to sell millions of copies and receive, for the most part, glowing reviews in The New York Times, The New York Herald Tribune, and other leading venues for popular criticism of the time. To a large extent the popularity of the book was due to a desire by a largely (though certainly not entirely) white audience to understand the reality and psychology of young black people in the ghetto, a desire made urgent by the obvious anger and desire for more rapid social change on the part of African Americans embodied in the Watts rebellion in 1965 and in the rebellions of 1964 in New York, Jacksonville, and elsewhere. After all, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act and other Civil Rights legislation, what could explain the apparently increasing rage of the urban black masses? Interestingly enough, Manchild did not offer much direct help in this regard. Brown says repeatedly in the last chapters of the book that he does not really understand the Harlem of the present moment, that most of his former friends and accomplices are either dead or in jail, and that he has lost touch with such radicals as he knew. … In that way, Manchild is as much a conversion story or allegory of redemption in which the individual separates him- or herself from the community as it is a bildungsroman. Much as in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, for that matter), there is the sense that the protagonist/author writes about the community in order to leave it, which, in turn, will give him the distance to write about it further. One might say that Manchild is the sort of narrative Baldwin might have written if the artist/writer protagonist had been John’s gang member brother Roy. …”
Manchild in the Promised Land at Fifty
W – Manchild in the Promised Land
[PDF] from Manchild in the Promised Land

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