I wish I could give this book a rating of 10 stars. The language in the book is crude, but it serves only to make the story more authentic. Although this book was published five decades ago, it is just as pertinent today as it was then. It is such a precise and honest appraisal of black life in the ghetto, it could have been written about Baltimore, Detroit, Newark or Ferguson, as well as Harlem. It is the quintessential book on racism, crime and growing up poor. The culture of the ghetto is self-defeating. The effort to get out is monumental. The need to provide a way to do so is paramount.
This is a novel, but it is also the autobiographical story of Claude Brown’s life in his own words. Claude Brown was born in 1937, before drugs ravaged Harlem. Still there was terrible poverty. Some kids never had food. Some were simply always hungry. Some simply stole to eat. There mothers were not home; mostly they worked in menial jobs for white people who could afford help in the home, and some sold their bodies. Fathers who were employed did pretty much the same menial work, or they were often absent or unemployed or out drinking. The kids did what they had to do in order to get by, and so did the parents. When betrayed, they punished the betrayers, when preyed upon, they tracked down the bullies and fought them to maintain reputations so they would not be bullied further. Pride was power. If you didn’t prove yourself, you were a target.
Claude Brown had little respect for law and order, and he fully expected to be arrested at some time in his life. He defied the rules and the police, and he accepted his fate as unavoidable. He described the environment in the early forties, in Harlem, as he grew up, in an environment in which he revered those who would teach him to be a hustler. By the age of four, someone had already offered to school him in breaking the rules. The offer was made to teach him how to play hooky once he began school. By six he was already a thief. At 13 he was shot and wounded. At 14 he was in reform school. It was in these places that these young criminals were sent, that they honed their skills and learned more and more about shake-downs and breaking the law. They learned that cops would not always arrest them, fearing outcries of racism and brutality. They learned how to push that envelope to the breaking point. These places they were sent were also where many neglected and abused kids wanted to go for a time, to get three meals, a place to sleep that was warm and a roof over their heads. Their friends were all in the same place. It was better than home for some.
By the time he was a teenager, Claude was an accomplished criminal. He took what he wanted, abused others who didn’t’ agree with him and committed crimes with abandon, protecting and preserving his image. He had pride, above all, and it was important to show that to all in the world in which he lived. No matter what rules were in place at home, in school or in the community at large, he could defy them. He followed the rules of his friends, good or bad, because they were his mentors; they had his back. So, from the get-go, Claude, known as Sonny to his friends, was doomed. He had to grow up, when he was still just a child. By the time he neared the end of his teens, he had lived a lifetime. But, also by that time, he discovered that he had to get out of Harlem. He had always stayed away from habit forming drugs, fearing the consequences. That eventually was his saving grace. He did not want to be an addict.
Junkies were overrunning the community. Getting high with friends was a social event. Junkies committed crimes wantonly. The habit controlled them completely, and the habit destroyed them. Hospital beds in Bellevue filled with junkies who had committed crimes and were going mad with the desire for the drugs. Once a junkie got clean, even if he stayed clean which was rare, he still went back to the street and sold drugs turning others on to that awful habit and a life destined to failure. These victims of themselves and of the failure of society, blamed everyone but themselves for their addiction, their criminality and their poverty. The belief that they were continuously being oppressed was ingrained into the culture.
Various groups rose up to exacerbate the situation. Instead of encouraging hard work, they encouraged a belief in a black culture that was superior to the white culture, essentially trying to create a society that would be just as lopsided, but one in which they would be in control. Some groups wanted revolution, but there were also some that wanted to educate the young so they could get out of Harlem, break free from the culture of crime and poverty. That was largely the church effort, not the effort of groups like the Coptics, or the Black Muslims or the Black Panthers. Those groups seemed to want power, not progress. At first, it was believed whatever would create pride in being black was good, and some groups attracted large followings. Some of the men who joined them straightened out their lives, but many slipped back as they lost faith in the preachings of the groups, or saw through their arguments and recognized that they were self-defeating. Some groups taught hate and anger and anti-Semitism. Most taught hatred of the police whom they believed oppressed them. Unfortunately, it appeared from what I read, that violence and brutality to show strength, power and conrol, was respected far more than integrity, intellect and/or honest achievement. Gangs ruled with authority using fear and their own kind of justice to create obedience and unity. No slight could be ignored without retribution in order to maintain one’s reputation so as not to make one a continual target. The children of Harlem were sucked into the criminal culture at an early age by those hanging out in the neighborhood, by brothers and sisters and their friends, by the idea that this was the way of life to aspire to, this was all they would be able to accomplish in life, so why fight it. They became sexually active at a very young age. They “played”. They learned to simply take what they wanted and never look back. This was just the way their life was; you needed to get a reputation that made others fear you or you would be someone else’s prey.
For Claude, “real jail” was not an option. By the time he neared legal age, he knew he was going to have to make a change. He realized that a permanent mark on a police record, which could never be expunged, would condemn him to the ghetto for the rest of his life. He realized that he had to get out of Harlem because he couldn’t get Harlem’s way of life out of himself in any other way. He moved to Greenwich Village where all kinds of people were accepted. He went to work for a Jewish couple. The wife gave him books to read. His options broadened as his view of the world widened. He worked pretty steadily. He went to school and earned his High School diploma at night. Eventually, Claude even wanted to go to College. He passed the exam for Columbia, but he couldn’t afford to go to school. He became involved with a group from a church that promoted higher education and helped qualified students get a higher education. He learned to play the piano. He recognized that he no longer belonged in Harlem. This is not to say that he did not face obstacles or prejudice. He did, but he managed to forge on. He learned to control his temper. He visited different places of worship, trying to find a fit. He saw prejudice on both sides, white on black, black on white, and he was aware of anti-semitism, of the view that the “Goldbergs” were taking advantage of them. Some even vowed to shop only in black owned businesses, so no whites could fleece them any longer. They promoted the beauty of being black, they promoted their superiority, but It was no longer good enough to be equal, they wanted to be better. The problem seemed to be that they didn’t want to have an opportunity to get better, they simply wanted it to be that way. Everyone blamed someone else for the ills in society that they faced. He tried to influence others to escape from Harlem, including his brother, by making changes in their lives. He understood that there were too many funerals and too many young men locked up in prison from Harlem.
This was written in 1965 about the preceding 25 or so years, and, yet, today, some 50 years later, not much has changed. There are still some Claudes, but there are also those who continue to perpetuate that self-fulfilling prophecy of doom, just like his brother Pimp who never got out. As Brown took me on his journey from boyhood to manhood, dreams of crime to college dreams, in a story suffused with some tongue in cheek humor, I wanted to believe that progress does not have to be so elusive. I wanted to feel hope, Yet, the stereotypes still abound; as Claude writes in the book “whites are mean and stingy, if he is more stingy than mean he is a jew, if he is more mean than stingy, he is a cracker!” In a culture that reveres stealing and believes it is fun, that believes rioting is exciting and adventurous, is it any wonder that most wind up with lackluster lives, with little education and few accomplishments? Blame need not be assigned. It is unproductive, but solutions to this monumental failure of society have to be found before chaos reigns. It has to begin at the beginning. In a paraphrase of a common saying, “doctor heal thyself,” I say, people heal "thyselves", and that means all people!