When Manchild in the Promised Land was first published in 1965, it was praised for its realistic portrayal of Harlem—the children, young people, and hardworking parents; the hustlers, drug dealers, prostitutes, and numbers runners; the police; the violence, sex, and humor. The book continues to resonate generations later, not only because the struggles of urban youth are as deeply felt today as they were in Brown’s time but also because the book is affirmative and inspiring. This memoir of Claude Brown’s childhood spent as a hardened, streetwise criminal trying to survive the toughest streets of Harlem has been heralded as the definitive account of everyday life for the first generation of African Americans raised in the Northern ghettos of the 1940s and 1950s. Here is the story about the one who “made it,” the boy who kept landing on his feet and became a man.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Claude Brown was born in New York City in 1937 and grew up in Harlem. At age seventeen, after serving several terms in reform school, he left Harlem for Greenwich Village. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Howard University and attend law school. Manchild in the Promised Land evolved from an article he published in Dissent magazine during his first year at college. Brown died in 2002.
To what does the “promised land” in the book’s title refer?
1. When Claude Brown is admitted into Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric division as a child, he is comforted by the fact that he will be away from his father for a few weeks. How would you characterize Claude’s relationship with his father? How does it compare to Claude’s relationship with his mother?
2. How do Claude’s parents explain his misbehavior as a youth? Why do they see “root working” and “the devil” as the core causes of Claude’s delinquency?
3. How does the shell game that Claude’s father plays with him before he leaves home for reform school at Wiltwyck enable Claude to see his father in a different light? What does Claude’s father understand about his son?
4. How does Claude’s early friendship with K.B. at Wiltwyck bear fruit later in life when he is enrolled at Warwick?
5. How does the arrival of Ernst Papanek, the new director of Wiltwyck, forever alter the course of Claude’s life? Discuss his influence on Claude and the other inhabitants of Wiltwyck.
6. How does the court award that Claude receives for his bus injury raise his awareness of social injustice? What roles do race and class play in Claude’s experiences of inequality?
7. Discuss Claude’s first use of the drug he calls horse, heroin. Why does this experience change his feelings about using drugs?
8. Consider the examples of masculinity in Claude’s young life: his father; Ernst Papanek, the director at Wiltwyck; Johnny, the older drug dealer in his building. How do these older men shape Claude’s sense of self? To what extent does he model his own behavior after these men?
9. Discuss the hopelessness that Claude feels about his future on the street. What opportunities are available to him if he remains in Harlem as an adult?
10. Describe the culture at reform schools like Wiltwyck and Warwick. How effective are these schools at reforming students from their criminal pasts?
11. At Warwick, Claude encounters music and literature, seemingly for the first time. Why are these discoveries so significant to his adolescence? How do they have an impact on him as an adult?
12. Claude’s parents are migrant farmers from South Carolina who move to Harlem to seek a better life. Claude grows up knowing how to navigate Harlem and little else. To what extent are Claude’s early conflicts with his parents grounded in the differences that arise from their rural and urban backgrounds?
13. How does Claude’s determination not to see jail time, or to get “a sheet,” propel his move from Harlem to Greenwich Village?
14. Describe the role religion plays in Claude’s life. To what extent is he a believer in God?
15. How do Claude’s feelings about Harlem change as he applies himself to working at his job at the watch repair shop, working out at the gym, and practicing his piano day and night?
16. Discuss how Claude feels as he watches his younger brother, Pimp, get swept up in petty crime and drug abuse.
17. Why do Claude’s parents encourage him and Pimp to get jobs rather than stay in school? What does this focus on employment over education reveal about their dreams for their children?
18. Discuss Claude’s casual encounter in Harlem with a little boy walking his dog who tells him, “I want to be like you.” Why does this experience resonate so powerfully for Claude?
19. Discuss Claude’s friendship with Judy Strumph. Claude writes of Judy: “[S]he was the best thing that had ever happened to me.” How does his relationship with Judy differ from his prior romantic attachments?
20. How does Claude make sense of his decision to choose education over life on the street in Harlem? How does he explain it to his old friend from the neighborhood Reno and to himself?
21. Discuss the rise of the Coptic faith and the Nation of Islam in Harlem in the 1950s. How does the popularity of these religions affect Claude Brown?
22. What themes of friendship does Manchild in the Promised Land explore? How do the bonds of friendship that Claude establishes in Harlem with his neighbors and fellow delinquents, in his various reform schools, and in Greenwich Village factor into his childhood and into his development as an adult?
23. Discuss the attitudes about race in Manchild in the Promised Land. How does Claude Brown experience race as a resident of Harlem? How does he experience race in other places?
24. If Manchild in the Promised Land had been written as a novel inspired by Claude Brown’s childhood, rather than as a memoir of events that actually transpired, how might its impact on readers have differed?
25. Of the many episodes from Claude Brown’s life described in Manchild in the Promised Land, which do you feel were most instrumental in helping him escape the life that awaited him if he remained in Harlem?
Guide prepared by Julie Cooper, a graduate of Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Washington.