In Memoriam: Claude Brown (1937-2002)
Sonny is gone. That is, the conscious non-ideological voice that humanized the underside of modern day Harlem will no longer walk the streets that defined his early life like black defines night. The four million readers of Manchild in the Promised Land (1965) know that Sonny was actually the writer, teacher and activist Claude Brown. On Feb. 2, 2002, due to a lung complication, he joined our ancestors.
By the time he was 13, according to Manchild, his semi-autobiography, he had been schooled by Harlem’s pimps, whores, junkies, hustlers, mean niggers, numbers runners and gang bangers. He had survived being hit by a bus, chain-whipped and shot in the stomach.
Brown was born in Harlem but his mother, Ossie Brock Brown, and father, Henry Lee, migrated “up South” as John Oliver Killens would put it, far away from cotton pickin’ from sun-up to sun-down into another world 100 times more dangerous than anything experienced in South Carolina.
In Harlem of the 1950s there was a certain freedom of movement that was deceptive and took no prisoners. It was the freedom to self-destruct. Like too many young men without a strong and secure family structure and cultural community, Brown was pulled into the streets like roaches to honey, and the streets claimed him.
Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land is now recognized as a modern classic in autobiography. Translated into many languages, it stands strongly with Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Langston Hughes’ The Big Sea (1940), Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) by Malcolm X and Alex Haley.
Manchild was one of the first raw and uncensored accounts of growing up in urban America. Most Black readers immediately recognized its truths and identified with them. Most White readers were shocked into a Black reality that they created and of which they had little knowledge. The socio-historical significance of Manchild is that Brown’s description of Harlem is non-romantic and an accurate rendering of Black life confined and contained in a geographical location that is duplicated in every city in the United States.
Brown’s second book, The Children of Ham (1976), revisits the youth of Harlem 10 years after the publication of Manchild. He found few changes, and in many cases found life to be much worse for the young people he writes about.
However, it was Manchild that put Brown on the literary and cultural map. The book grew out of an essay published in Dissent magazine that he was encouraged to write by Dr. Ernest Papanek. Papanek was the school psychologist at Wiltwyck School for Boys in upstate New York, where Brown was to be “reformed” — and where Brown was first introduced to the power of reading and literature. It was there, for the first time, he came in contact with college-trained Whites attempting to do good work. He was impressed.
An editor at MacMillan, upon reading the Dissent article, asked Brown to write a book based on its content. By this time, Brown was a student at Howard University and in between classes and other responsibilities he started writing. By his senior year, he turned in a 1,500-page manuscript that sat on the shelves at MacMillan for more than six months. When it was finally read and accepted he was surprised, thinking he had not written anything that would excite readers. In 1965, he graduated from Howard University and experienced the publication of Manchild to great reviews.
After Howard, Brown briefly attended law school at Stanford and Rutgers universities. The call of the very lucrative lecture circuit, which paid him more than $60,000 a year, pulled him from his law studies, and he began to make his mark as a teacher, speaker and writer.
Manchild hit at the magical moment. In 1965, it was the most recent narrative of Black life and because it was non-ideological, honest, brutal, plainly written, tender, obscene, raw, direct and an authentic voice, Brown emerged as one of the legitimate spokespersons for Black people.
Brown threw a first punch and countered with great literature that was a clear, raw melody when it mattered most. We must continue to build upon his voice and legacy.
Brown was 64 and is survived by his partner and soul mate Laura Higgins; a daughter, Denise Brown-Hallum of Burtonsville, Md.; a son, Dr. Nathaniel Brown of Boston; and one grandson. His marriage to Helen Brown ended in divorce.
— Haki R. Madhubuti is a poet, publisher of Third World Press and the
Distinguished University Professor at Chicago State University. His latest
book is Tough Notes, A Healing Call: Creating Exceptional Young Black Men (2002).
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