(1937–2002), autobiographer, writer, and social commentator.
Claude Brown was born in New York City on 23 February 1937 to Henry Lee and Ossie Brock Brown, South Carolinians who had come north in 1935 looking for economic opportunities unavailable in the South. Growing up in Harlem involved Claude Brown in crime and violence early in his life. By the time he was ten, he had joined the stealing division of a notorious street gang and had a history of truancy and expulsion from school. At eleven, Brown was sent to the Wiltwyck school for delinquent boys, where he came under the supervision of Dr. Ernest Papanek, whose positive influence in his life Brown would later acknowledge.
Back on the streets after two years at Wiltwyck, at age thirteen Brown was shot during an attempted robbery. A year later, he was sent to the Warwick school for boys, where he completed three terms before his final release in July 1953. From this point on, Brown gradually freed himself from the destructive street life of the Harlem ghetto. He began high school when he was sixteen and graduated in 1957. During these years, Brown held various odd jobs in New York and played jazz in Greenwich Village.
Claude Brown continued his education at Howard University, finishing a degree in government and business in 1965, the same year that Macmillan published his autobiography, Manchild in the Promised Land. The work originated from a piece Brown had written for Dissent magazine. Encouraged to expand the work into a full-length narrative, Brown produced a 1,537-page manuscript that became, after extensive editing, a hugely successful best-seller. Critics praised the vivid realism of Manchild and favorably compared Brown to James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. Like them, Brown was hailed as a powerful, relentless chronicler of the brutal reality of African American life in northern urban cities. Additionally, Manchild in the Promised Land was held up as an American success story, the narrative of one who beat the odds of his childhood and saved his own life.
The publication of his autobiography made Claude Brown a new authoritative voice in the African American community. He published a second book, The Children of Ham, in 1976. Much less well received than Manchild, this book records the stories of thirteen Harlem residents, focusing on their struggles against poverty, crime, and drugs.
Brown has largely dropped from public view since the publication of his books, but his work reveals his continuing concern for the problems facing people in the inner city. For example, his 1987 documentary “Manchild Revisited: A Commentary by Claude Brown” addresses urban crime. In it, Brown supports capital punishment; voluntarism in black neighborhoods to fight crime; more prosecutors, judges, and prisons; and the decriminalization of drugs. Although nothing Brown has done since publishing Manchild in the Promised Land has created the sensation that book did, Brown remains a thoughtful, sometimes controversial commentator on African American social issues.
“Brown, Claude,” in CA, vols. 73–76, ed. Frances Carol Locher, 1978, pp. 88–189.