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Manchild in the Promised Land

February 6, 2002

Claude Brown, Manchild of the Promised Land, Dies at 64


Claude Brown, whose 1965 book, "Manchild in the Promised Land," chronicled his ascent from a harrowing childhood of violent crime and poverty in Harlem and became a classic of American literature, died on Feb. 2 in Manhattan. He was 64.

The cause was a lung condition, said Laura Higgins, his companion.

"Manchild in the Promised Land" quickly became a best seller, opening up a new world to mainstream audiences with its raw narrative of a boyhood spent among killers, drug addicts and prostitutes. Though not published as a memoir, it closely paralleled Mr. Brown's life in virtually every detail.

"What many of us talk about in abstractions," wrote the critic Irving Howe, "is here given the quivery reality of a boy's life, his struggle, his efforts at understanding. This book contributes to our sense of what America is today."

Published at the height of the civil rights movement, the book reached far beyond the traditional literary world, drawing new attention to the lives of urban blacks. It has sold more than 4 million copies and has been translated into 14 languages. Today, it sells more than 30,000 copies a year and is required reading in many high schools and colleges.

Many saw the book's direct, profanity-laced style as a challenge to the reigning generation of African- American writers.

"Claude Brown makes James Baldwin and all that old Rock of Ages rhetoric sound like some kind of Moral Rearmament tourist from Toronto come to visit the poor," Tom Wolfe wrote in The New York Herald Tribune when the book came out.

Claude Brown was born in 1937 in Harlem and grew up in a tenement on 146th Street and Eighth Avenue with his younger brother and two sisters. His parents, a railroad worker and a domestic worker, had moved up from South Carolina two years before, like thousands of other Southern blacks seeking opportunities in Northern cities at midcentury.

As he wrote in the book: "Going to New York was goodbye to the cotton fields, goodbye to 'Massa Charlie,' goodbye to the chain gang, and, most of all, goodbye to those sunup-to- sundown working hours. One no longer had to wait to get to heaven to lay his burden down; burdens could be laid down in New York."

Yet life in the promised land of New York turned out to be much harder than the migrants had imagined. Claude — known as Sonny to his friends and in the book — was expelled from school at 8, admitted to a street gang at 9, shot in the leg during a burglary at 13 and confined to a reform school at 14.

But by that time he had made the acquaintance of Dr. Ernest Papanek, a psychologist and the director of the Wiltwyck School for deprived and emotionally disturbed boys, which was in Ulster County, N.Y. Dr. Papanek, whom Mr. Brown described in his book as "probably the smartest and the deepest cat I had ever met," encouraged him to seek an education.

Eventually, he began attending night classes at a high school downtown, supporting himself by working as a busboy, deliveryman and other jobs. He went on to Howard University in Washington, graduating in 1965.

In his first year at Howard, Mr. Brown was asked by Dr. Papanek, his former mentor, to write an article for Dissent magazine. That article caught the attention of an editor at Macmillan, who took him to lunch and offered him a $2,000 advance to write a book. Two years later he delivered a 1,537 page manuscript in a grocery box. It was ignored for a year, and then a new editor, Alan Rinzler, was assigned to it.

"He had an authentic voice — violent, funny and optimistic," Mr. Rinzler recalled yesterday.

The heart of the book, to many, was its evocation of an astonishing culture of violence that gripped Harlem's poor children almost from birth. The book also bore terrifying witness to the way drugs had affected Harlem starting in the 1950's. Mr. Brown was lucky: his first experience with heroin, narrated vividly in the book, made him violently sick.

After the book came out, Mr. Brown went to law school, first at Stanford, then closer to home at Rutgers. He briefly contemplated a career in politics, and spent much of the following two decades writing magazine articles, lecturing and teaching. His second book, "The Children of Ham," published in 1976, told the story of a group of Harlem teenagers who escape from the influence of heroin. Perhaps inevitably, it was overshadowed and compared unfavorably with his first great success.

Mr. Brown always considered Harlem his home and continued to spend much of his time there even after moving to Newark in the 1970's.

His marriage to Helen Brown ended in divorce. In addition to Ms. Higgins, he is survived by a daughter, Denise Brown Hallum of Burtonsville, Md.; a son, Dr. Nathaniel Brown of Boston; and one grandson.

In later years, Mr. Brown worked on a book comparing his own childhood experience of those of children growing up in Harlem in the 1980's, during the crack epidemic. He never finished it, but he did publish articles on the subject.

"In the New York City teenage gang fights of the 1940's and 50's 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." He kept in touch with this group on his many visits to prisons.

Ms. Higgins recalled that he was just as at home talking to a senator as to a group of teenagers on the street. "He was one of the best negotiators of those two worlds," she said.

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