Book Review: Manchild in the Promised Land

As I supposed, the end of Manchild in the Promised Land came tonight to a bittersweet end. Claude Brown lived an intense life, dealing drugs, getting shot, robbery, and a life spent running away from life, all before was even a teen. He was one the lucky few growing up in Harlem in the fifties-- he did his crime and served his time before his problems become part of his permanent record. He somehow kept himself out of the haze of heroin all of his friends seemed to be caught up in. He somehow kept himself out of jail when all of his friends were being sentenced to time. He finished high school, went on to college, and made a life for himself. Sadly, because he was able to pull himself away from the scene and work toward a future, he had to pull himself away from everything he had known. He watched his friends get killed during petty crimes, watched them kill for drugs, and watched them kill themselves with their addictions. He saw his family for what they were, including his younger brother as a junkie.

The book is "thinly fictionalized." I'm not sure just how thin the fabrications are and it doesn't matter to me. Throughout the book I kept asking myself how this shit happens and how I'm so oblivious to it. If I didn't know better I wouldn't believe it. I don't want to believe it. One reason I left Utah was the gnawing feeling that even though I read about things, saw it on the news, or heard it through some talk show, that I just couldn't understand or grasp the reality of it.

This past February I took a beautiful train ride to Baltimore so I could wrap up some dental work. Twisting my schedule just right, I wound up in the city just before my appointment, caught a cab and had the work done, giving myself a couple of hours to walk around before I had to catch the 10 pm train back to Perryville. Choosing to wander my way back to Penn Station rather than waste my time and money in the tourist areas, I left the dental school with a numb face, empty wallet, and a map provided by google. I first walked up to Lexington Market in hopes of finding an ATM-- I just wanted some cash on my body in case I got too cold and wanted to catch a cab after all. No luck. I noticed as I left the University area the mood changed quickly from the hustle and bustle of college life to a sad and eerie silence. There were very few cars driving the streets on which I was walking and even the sidewalks were bereft of people. Knitting while I walked gave me comfort.

Hunger signaled itself in my stomach and choosing to find the nearest food stop rather than wander aimlessly, I ducked into a McDonald's on a random corner. I was the only white person I could see in this predominantly African-American part of the city, and across the street a bus stop on the corner was packed with people waiting on the questionable public transit. The fast-food joint was busy... or appeared that way. After ordering my food and sitting down to observe and eat, a young mother and her son sat across from me. The boy, surely no older then 4 yrs old, waved at me a few times, grinned, and then ran for cover to the man sitting next to them. It seemed like everyone there knew everyone else and I was just an intruder. The little boy started talking about Kanye West, Jay-Z, and other rap musicians. I laughed and his mom smiled at me. A man came up and asked for money; I politely declined. And suddenly, there was commotion. Employees hurried to the windows I was peering through, people started yelling, and someone was shouting for someone else to call for help. It took a few minutes for me to understand what really was happening: someone was dying.

All that I could make of the situation was some man across the street at the bus stop was on the ground, unconscious because of a drug overdose. It took a good 10 or 15 minutes for any emergency service to show... and the first on the scene was a fire truck. I've never understood why they dispatch fire trucks to scenes that are most definitely a medical emergency. The (white) men in the fire truck arrived, sat inside their over-sized vehicle for a while, got out, looked at the man and tapped him with their toes, and climbed back in. They did nothing for him but wait for the ambulance to arrive. Upon arrival the (white) men from the ambulance and fire truck got together, chatted for about 5 minutes, and finally one snapped on some rubber gloves and approached the man on the ground. I watched him lean over, shake the man, shake him some more, stand up and walk back the others. They walked slowly to the ambulance, retrieved a stretcher, and slowly loaded the man into the back of the vehicle. Nothing about the situation seemed urgent to them. Away they went.

I was mortified. Not only were people shouting at me "Look, do you see this?" "Are you watching your men let our man die?" "LOOK!" but my heart was racing because those men clearly did not value the life of the man on the ground, and I had to stumble for some response. I came up with nothing. I put my purse over my shoulder and walked away with my head hung in shame. I walked for a good while longer, encountering two men that grabbed my shoulders incoherently and asked something I couldn't understand, and me responding apologetically that I really did not know. I was lost and disappointed and enlightened. Only a few blocks beyond this part of town I found a ritzy historic district filled with jewelry shops, designer clothing, and "ethnic" food joints. Women walked by decked out in fur and men reeked of cologne. All I could feel was disgust for the flash of it all.

Stories about different groups in AmeriCorps witnessing violence and injustices have found their way to my ears. A team roofing homes in Philadelphia watched police randomly stop black men and search them, harassing them for no real reason. A team leader in New Orleans watched a man pull a gun on another man and shoot him point-blank. As terrible as the acts are, is it strange or wrong that I wish to understand through experience? It feels impossible to understand it without direct exposure.

I'm afraid of coming back to Utah and living complacently in the sweet little life I have. I don't want to be oblivious. Reading this book reminded me that I've got it good, and it's always been that way. I've never had to live my life in fear.


  1. wow. I am so intrigued with your life. I miss you so very much. I will remind whit to e-mail you as much as he possibly can. I have been really thinking about joining AmeriCorps. At first I didn't think I would like and it wasn't my thing. But the more I read your blog and hear about your life out there, I must admit I am a little jealous and I want to experience it also. Please post as often as possible. I love you!

  2. Mandy-
    How is life at the Boy Scout Camp? Meisha said that it is pretty bare bones there. I think it is so funny that you ended up there in your travels. You are doing amazing things, thanks for serving others. I'll be heading to Boy Scout camp in about a month, but I will have a cabin with running water, a washer and dryer, and a shower. I hope you get access to a computer again soon. Take care. Love, Camilla


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