I started reading Manchild in the Promised Land after struggling to get through the first chapter of Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. Some herald Soul on Ice as being an important work of Black literature. Yet, others regard it as being utter tripe. I am of the latter opinion.
Going into Soul on Ice, I knew that Cleaver was a predatory rapist. He planned to take revenge on White men through the “revolutionary act” of raping White women and practiced by first raping Black women. This convoluted plan reflects his rambling writing style and misogyny masquerading as manhood.
There are and have been many despicable people in the world, some of which I’ve read books about. But, Eldridge Cleaver was a terrible person and his writing was appalling. I gave up on that book during the first chapter.
I often keep a book on standby in case I need a break from or give up on my first choice. Manchild in the Promised Land came through in the clutch.
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In some ways, this is a book about a rambunctious boy and his group of friends coming of age in the 1940s-1950s. In a different place and if Claude were a different race, this could have been an innocent and heart-warming story. But, on the gritty streets of Harlem, Claude’s life is rife with violence, crime, and despair from a young age.
Claude and his friends chase new opportunities to prove they’re bad and/or to have fun moving down the path to self-destruction. Grade school hooky and petty thefts progress to more delinquent behavior and serious punishments. Nights at children’s centers give way to lengthy stays at detention centers. Childish scrapping leads to rumbles, stabbings, and shootings as teens. They mimic the older guys drinking, smoking reefer, and sniffing coke. Many of the boys graduated to experimenting with and becoming addicted to heroin.
Many of the kids have no guidance and struggle to survive due to their alcoholic or otherwise absentee parents. Their struggles as hopeless and in some cases forgotten children reminded me of the kids from The Corner.
One major difference that threw me off was that Claude, unlike many of his peers, had both parents in the home. Neither parent had a criminal record or addiction issues.
At a few points in Manchild in the Promised Land, Claude hints at his behavior being a result of emotional issues. Claude also seemed to respond best to adults who spoke with him and also listened to him.
It was obvious that Claude’s parents cared about him but they had a hard time understanding and relating to him. Especially his father. Claude’s father attempted to instill discipline in his kids. But, he went to extremes with beating his sons which pushed them further into the streets.
It became obvious that Claude and many of his peers were trying to find themselves and some peace through misguided means. Their parents—those who stuck around and tried to actually raise their kids—couldn’t help them navigate Harlem. Their parents were migrants from the rural South with limited experiences and opportunities. Living in the North even with all its squalor was a step up for many so their other expectations were low and few.
The relative freedom of the North satisfied their dreams after the South’s oppression. Their lives revolved around liquor, sex, religion, and violence so they pushed this on their kids. Yet, their children had grown up in the North near endless possibilities. The kids wanted more and their parents couldn’t understand why. This tension coupled with vices that their parents had never dealt with. Their parents couldn’t understand what they were facing in society, Harlem, or even within themselves.
I went back and re-read parts of the book while I was writing this review. It’s hard to pinpoint what changed but I saw more depth in the story the second and characters the second time around. Yet, I was able to better identify what made the book work for me more than Soul on Ice. Claude is a flawed individual much as Eldridge Cleaver. But, I was still able to get into the book because it’s well-written and there’s actually some growth and introspection.
The major thing that made me dislike Claude was his misogynistic attitude. Particularly his participation in a group attack on one woman and his treatment of the girls and young women he grew up around.
I also raised an eyebrow at him placing a young White woman that he meets outside of Harlem on a pedestal. He compares her lady-like behavior with the young women from his neighborhood. He refers to these girls and young women as bitches, whores, etc but seems to only sleep with prostitutes.
Claude complains about the women he’s had contact with in Harlem being uncouth. Yet, he’s a criminal who doesn’t seem to have many redeeming qualities. He treats women harshly but bemoans a woman deeming him unworthy.
Yet, as I re-read Manchild in the Promised Land, I came to see him and the men in his environment as misanthropes exhibiting antisocial behavior. They pose a danger to women in their environment and see them as objects for sexual or financial gain. But, they also view other men as objects to dominate and exploit. Most of their relationships are unhealthy and built on coercion or manipulation. And they don’t treat themselves much better.
Claude’s perspective changes as he begins to spend more time outside of Harlem. This results in a shift in the way he views and interacts with his Harlem acquaintances. He was hard and rough as a child which made him sometimes laugh at others’ misfortunes but there were glimpses of his sensitivity. As he matures and catches up with old friends, their conversations are deeper and he appears more sympathetic to their hardships.
I thought Manchild in the Promised Land was well-written the first time that I read the book. Yet, revisiting the book allowed me to better appreciate Brown’s writing. I also came to understand what makes so many people hold it in high regard as a life-changing book. Claude is flawed but imperfect characters have never gotten in the way of my appreciating a good story.
You might enjoy Manchild in the Promised Land if you’re interested in coming of age stories such as Coming of Age in Mississippi. The book would be an especially good read for fans of The Corner. In some ways, the book picks up where The Warmth of Other Suns left off by telling the stories of the children of The Great Migration.
I’m still not going back to read nor do I recommend Soul on Ice. Life is too short.
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