`Manchild' author leaves a lasting message

February 14, 2002|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- "... I ran. There was a bullet in me trying to take my life, all 13 years of it."

With those startling words on its opening page, Claude Brown's book Manchild in the Promised Land opens a rare and riveting window into his dangerous journey from theft, drugs and juvenile detention on the streets of mid-20th century Harlem to eventual redemption and education at Howard University and Rutgers University Law School.

The 1965 semi-autobiographical novel sold 4 million copies and still sells more than 30,000 copies a year as required reading in many classrooms.

As one of the many readers tantalized and ultimately inspired by this racy but redemptive work as a teen in the 1960s, I felt as though I'd lost an old friend when I heard that Mr. Brown had died Feb. 5 from a lung condition at age 64.

If you have only one good idea in life, it is said, make it a really good one.

Mr. Brown did. His one best-seller was a doozy. Imagine a black Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield growing up with street crime and drugs and you'll get an idea of the book's flavor.

Maybe Mr. Brown couldn't match the literary artistry of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin or Richard Wright. It didn't matter. No one could beat his ability to make you feel the intense joy and pain faced by low-income and no-income black urban kids after the great black migration from the rural South to "the promised land" in the urban North.

As Tom Wolfe wrote in the New York Herald Tribune of Manchild: "Claude Brown makes James Baldwin and all that Rock of Ages rhetoric sound like some kind of Moral Rearmament tourist from Toronto come to visit the poor." Right you are, Tom.

In the late '60s, when everybody seemed to be trying to understand black people -- including a lot of us black people -- Mr. Brown was obligatory reading for many of us, right along with The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Young people loved Manchild because it captured our language and attitude. Older folks embraced it because they were trying to figure out us younger folks.

During those times of urban riots, the federal "war on poverty" and rising "supergangs" like Chicago's Blackstone Rangers, Manchild helped to shape the social debate on how to save America's poor inner-city kids.

With that in mind, it was particularly dismaying to read Mr. Brown's lamentations in the 1980s over how life for poor black kids had actually gotten worse 20 years after the civil rights reforms of the 1960s.

"In the New York City teenage gang fights of the 1940s and '50s, we used homemade guns, zip guns and knives," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1988. "Now America's inner cities have become the spawning grounds for adolescents who bear increasingly appalling resemblances to rabid, homicidal maniacs."

The new crack cocaine generation was filling jails with kids who made Mr. Brown's generation look like creampuffs. He visited many of these new offenders in prison but never finished the book he intended to write about this new generation of manchildren.

That's our loss. Yet, looking back at Manchild, I think it offers ingredients for success for today's hip-hop generation as much as it offered to ours.

Mr. Brown dedicated his book to the Wiltwyck School for Boys in upstate New York. That no-nonsense juvenile facility helped him turn his life around, simply by providing Mr. Brown and his buddies with the mentors, father figures and tough love they had not received anywhere else. Mr. Brown later lamented the demise of such schools for troubled youths "when they were most needed."

Yes, schools like the Wiltwyck are rare for the kids who need them most, but there are other ways that we, the elders of our various communities, can help fill the gap. Across the nation today, you can see numerous successful programs for troubled kids that provide the mentoring, ministering, motivation and monitoring our kids need.

Some are novel partnerships among the public, the private and the preacher sectors. Boston's Ten Point Coalition provided one of the more dramatic examples in the 1990s. Led by black ministers such as its founder, the Rev. Eugene Rivers, the Ten Point program brought police, preachers, politicians and parole officers together to help bring troubled kids back from the brink of disaster. Programs like theirs helped reduce Boston's teen homicide rate to zero for almost three years in the mid-1990s, and it has stayed encouragingly low ever since.

Much has been written since Claude Brown's heyday about teen "supergangs" and "superpredators" of all races. But as one tough Chicago cop once told me, "Yeah, they act tough, but take them away from their gangs and most of them are just kids like any other kids."

That's Mr. Brown's lasting message for us. Today's manchild -- and womanchild -- is still a kid searching for the promised land. More than ever, it's up to us, their elders, to help them find it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing company.

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