“Let’s break shit.” Thus, in Silicon Valley CEO–speak, the epitaph for the New Republic, chiseled out a few weeks back. But quoth the fastidious New York Times, that executive “told the staff that he intended to break stuff—though he used a profanity.”
It’s not because no one swears or does adult things in New York that the Times circumlocuted, though it’s in good company in doing so. Only recently did the New Yorker allow words unbecoming to the proverbial little old lady in Peoria, and it was not so long ago that Lucille Ball had to keep foot on floor lest the bed she shared on television with Desi Arnaz appear too marital.
Half a century ago, long after I Love Lucy had begun its run, a book by a New Yorker shocked readers on several counts. One was its language, vigorously and unapologetically embracing the range of the seven words that George Carlin famously said could never be uttered on TV. More provocatively still, Claude Brown’s autobiography Manchild in the Promised Land followed up on Michael Harrington’s The Other America and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family to describe a country that Americans outside what was euphemistically called “the inner city” scarcely knew existed.
Manchild is aptly named. Its author, Claude Brown, was not yet in his teens when he became a familiar in the Harlem demimonde of drugs, prostitution and minor crime—minor at first, that is, for in time, smoking a jo int on the roof gave way to more serious undertakings, and people were hurt and killed in the bargain. It was an eye-opening upbringing for a pre-adolescent, a scene that made a person old before his or her time and that took countless victims. One young woman keeps getting into trouble, for instance, precisely so that she can go back to a juvenile detention center upstate. “She said she liked it there,” Brown writes. “It was the first place she’d been where people didn’t make her feel she was out of place.”
It was also safer than the streets, which Brown describes in unblinking detail. Yet, for all the crime and degradation and punishment, the dreams and values of the Harlemites were no different from those of Americans in the so-called mainstream. Says one of Brown’s friends, “I want to have me a refrigerator that’s always full of food, you know?” And, says Brown’s father, at about the time Brown himself lands in a spot of trouble with the law, “Hard work ain’t never killed nobody, unless they was so lazy thinkin’ about it killed ’em.”
Claude Brown got in trouble, and he pulled himself out of it, going on to make a life as a lawyer, counselor and writer. Published in 1965, Manchild in the Promised Land was shocking indeed, but it made people pay attention. More than that, back when Americans weren’t scared shitless of words and ideas, it made its way onto high school and even middle school curricula across the country, teaching us about unpleasant realities. It has lost none of its power to shock but only because the inequality and ethnic division that Claude Brown chronicled flourish half a century later. For that reason, among many others, it merits reading and rereading today.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.