First generation blacks in New York had the unique situation of being in the urban life for the first time, having come from slave work conditions on southern farms, they brought their experiences of living as slaves, they brought their religion and they brought hope that life in the city would be different, that life would be better in the promise land. As we seen in Manchild in the Promised Land, life in New York is hard, harder than the south in new ways that blacks could not have prepared themselves for.
Poverty, violence, and prejudice followed them where ever they went in America, including New York. Black children growing up in this urban setting are like weeds growing between the cracks in the pavement—they are hearty, they do what they have to do to survive. The streets are their playground, their school and hope is only in the luck one has that they won’t get busted. How did this lifestyle develop? A number of factors, namely poverty and prejudice caused other problems to develop such as violence, child abuse, drugs, prostitution etc.
One social ill that often stems from poverty is child abuse. In the book child abuse is seen in homes such as Claude’s friend Bucky whose mother, who is on welfare, is in such a state of despair that she chooses her drink and gambling over feeding her own four children. These children liked living in the child welfare house because at least there they had three meals a day and a place to sleep. Of his friend Claude says, “ Bucky was the only kid I knew who could stay out all night long and not be missed” (p 32).
This clearly instilled in these youth the struggle to survive at all costs whether it be violence or stealing. School also became something that hardly seems worthwhile when a child could be out “ catting” on the streets and come home withfood, money, clothes or other items when school only meant that you would probably get in trouble for something and get beat when you got home. Claude doesn’t seem to realize the benefits of going to school, learning to read etc. until almost his high school years when the prison warden encourages him and believes that he could do well.
Just as a master abused the slave, many a black parent abused their children under the pretense of “ spare the rod and spoil the child,” raising them up with violence in their hearts from the start. Black children in Harlem were torespecttheir parents and do what they were told or pay the cost.
For punishment for his various crimes and school skipping, Claude is beaten progressively more seriously until his father resorts to hitting him with his fists because it seems that no matter what punishment Claude is given, he continues to get into trouble and his father is frustrated to the point of serious violence. So from the age of six years old, violence is instilled in Claude as a means for upholding authority and for punishing wrong doing but interestingly enough, violence was not enough to make Claude respect his father and the day his father used his fists on Claude seems to be the day that Claude’s relationship with his father was severed.
Violence is a part of survival in Harlem. One must defend their manhood, their reputation or fear losing important alliances with other men who help make street life livable. In prison one must protect their rank of power, which is more clear cut than on the street. Examples of violence in the book include when Claude disowns his friend for allowing himself to be beat up by white men—to Harlem street youth this was the most disrespectful thing one could do to oneself.
Big Bill, a man in Claude’s neighborhood, encouraged the kids to fight because he knew they needed to learn how to defend themselves on those hard streets. Big Bill was preparing them for life, as he saw it. In order to survive, Claude learned, you had to be a “ bad nigger,” which meant that you had to be willing to do anything; you had to be willing to die. One time when Claude was beat up over a quarter he said, “ It wasn’t the value of money… It was just that these things symbolized a man’s manhood or principles” (p. 256).
Violence is used to keep racial segregation—Claude is raised being told that if he were to ever sleep with a white woman he would be lynched. The police use violence to control violence. Violence is also used by the everyday inhabitants of Harlem to protect themselves against the people who live the street life. Claude caught a bullet in the stomach from a neighbor who was simply trying to keep their sheets from being stolen. One man’s head was cracked open by a landlord for peeing in the hallway of his building. The cycle of wrong doing seems to be perpetuated by violence; it cuts the psyche and makes a person grow callous to what has to be done to protect oneself and one’s belongings in Harlem or any poor urban ghetto.
Role of Women
Black women in Harlem are the lowest on the totem pole so to speak and are treated as if they were objects to own or use. Women are considered to only exist to please men and men like Johnny, a pimp, treat women very badly in order to get what they want. Claude’s own mother is helpless to control her son, simply ringing her hands and saying, “ Boy, why you so bad?” (p 27). In the case of Sugar and Melvin, Sugar must step up when her man decides that he is not going to struggle to survive in hostile Harlem but simply give up—she must take on a more important role in the relationship and lead the household.
Drugs are another result of urban poverty in Harlem. Drugs are an escape, a chance to make a quick buck. Claude also said that drugs became associated with manhood, “ the young cats wanted to take drugs because they used to listen to the way the junkies talked, with a drag in their voice” (p 261). Many a black man in Harlem got caught in the web of Heroine, thinking that they were in control and selling it, the drug took control of them. Pimp, Claude’s little brother, was just such a character and Claude spent a lot of time trying to show his brother that this just wasn’t the way.
Religion in Harlem harks back to the spirituals of the South. Charismatic church services were held in old stores, apartments or where ever there is space to be had. The preachers, such as Mrs. Rogers, a jackleg preacher, have no formal training but lead theirfamilyand peers in a sermon and loud prayer sessions. Claude was very skeptical of his experience in Mrs.
Roger’s church and for years later he remembered church as a place where, “ somebody lined up a lot of kitchen chairs in a few rows, a preacher did a lot of shouting about the Lord, people jumping up and down until they got knocked down by the spirit, and Mrs. Rogers put bowls of money on a kitchen table and kept pointing to it and asking from more” (p. 27). Claude believes throughout the book that religion is just another distraction, like a drug, to take one’s mind away from the suffering of hard living.
Black Muslims in Harlem represented a little different form of faith that dealt with the issues of the ghetto by turning thephilosophyof prejudice around so that the black man was the superior race and the whites inferior and according to Floyd Saks, “ The time has come for all back men to rise up, band together and do something for themselves” (p 319). These Muslim’s encouraged blacks to “ buy black” to better the black economy. Although Claude recognizes the need for change in his community he quickly sees that Floyd’s faith is simply exchanging one hate for another.
The only role models that urban youth in Harlem seemed to have were negative ones. Those that worked hard did not make enough money to survive or live well. Those that seemed to have enough money and to have control over their life were the “ street heroes” or the men who were able to lie, cheat and steal their living. Claude was influenced by friends his own age such as Danny, who taught him how to steal from cash registers and skip school or Johnny who taught him how to hustle on the street.
Claude in turn became a “ street hero” and influenced his little brother Pimp who then ended up becoming a drug user. The influence of siblings was such that Pimp was expected to live up to his brother’s tough reputation so he had to be a “ bad nigger” and he had to get in as much trouble as possible to catch up to his brother’s years of street experience. Claude has to beat up an older boy for his sister Carole’s honor in order to preserve his own as well as hers.
Claude finds a positive influence only in the “ comforts” of the regimented prison where everything is clearly laid out with purpose. Mr. Papanek and Mrs. Coen are the only two people in Claude’s life who positively influenced his actions and helped him to realize that he was going no where doing the same things that got him in trouble before and got other men in trouble before and after him.
Papanek kept telling people that, “ Claude Brown is going to be a real success” and as a result, Claude believed it and made it happen (p 167). Doing something different had not occurred to Claude before this or to other youth like him because there just weren’t any successful young black men to be found.
Reverend James was a positive role model in the Harlem community that Claude sought to help his brother Pimp get off drugs and to find a track into college. Claude respected Reverend James because he was as intelligent as Mr. Papanek but he was black and he lived in Harlem with the rest of those struggling to survive and had found a way to survive outside of the mores of the street. “ Reverend James is a pretty hip guy for a minister,” Claude admitted to Pimp and it is the Reverend’s ability to be “ hip” that made him capable of really making a difference in the lives of Harlem youth (p 390).
The Ghetto Mentality
Poverty, violence, crime and the lack of any hope or any positive role models caused a “ ghetto mentality” to develop that made people have low aspirations and to focus on the appearance of things such as making sure to have fine clothes rather than planning ahead with finances for the future. Success was seen only in the street heroes: pimps and successful criminals.
Tilto, Danny and Mac are good examples of boys with no aspiration to ever do anything else but hustle and hope for a quick showy success. When asked what he was going to do with his life Claude’s friend Mac says, “ I don’t know man. I guess I’ll deal drugs” like every one else in the neighborhood was already doing (p 237). This ghetto mentality was re-enforced by the fact that men with a criminal record after the age of sixteen were unable to find gainful employment or become a successful citizen in society so there was a sense of, “ why try, I can’t do anything about it now.”
This mentality is broken only by the influence of someone like Claude, who everyone respects on the street and who decided to get out of the lifestyle and to find something more fulfilling in life. The likelihood of urban youth to come in contact with a Mr. Pancheck, like Claude did is less likely than for them to be impressed to change by someone like Claude.