The majority of Negroes during the time of Douglass and Washington spent their lives in the fields, gutters, and ghettoes of America. They continue to do so today. Two recently published autobiographies clearly indicate that Negro degradation and deprivation are confined neither to the South nor to earlier times. Claude Brown provides dramatic accounts of life in urban Negro slums. Both are highly readable, although Williamson’s seems less complete and less authentic. Brown tells the story of “Sonny,” a Harlem “corner boy” who went to college.
His childhood and adolescence included chronic truancy, prolonged friction with his parents, gang fighting and assorted delinquencies. Sonny was intimate with personal danger and suffered severe bodily harm. He was well known to the courts and the youth correctional houses. Although Sonny’s childhood and adolescence appear to have been those of many Harlem youth, he was spared the fate of many of his friends: violent death, permanent body injury, demoralization, and fanaticism.
Claude Brown’s account of his experiences growing up in Harlem in the 1950’s indicates it may be equally prevalent in a metropolitan setting.
One of Brown’s friends 1965: 425) asserts: The time I did in Woodburn, the times I did on the Rock, that was college man . . . Every time I went there, I learned a little more. When I go to jail now, Sonny, I live, man. I’m right at home. That’s the good part about it . . . Now when I go back to the joint, anywhere I go, I know some people.
If I go to any of the jails in New York, or if I do a slam in Jersey even, I still run into a lot of cats I know. It’s almost like a family. (425) For Brown and many of the revolutionaries, the slogan of black power seemed to have this content: • Negroes, by themselves, must assert their political and economic power through such methods as the creation of all-Negro political parties such as the Black Panther Party. Coalition with whites is either impossible or undesirable, for it would undermine Negro dignity. Integration with whites should not be a paramount goal.
Rather, Negroes should strengthen their own separate culture and society: “black is beautiful. ” At some future date, if a Negro so chooses, he might integrate with whites. Negroes must affirm their unique identity, learn of their African heritage, and identify with the “colored” peoples throughout the world. White society is both oppressive and decadent. Negroes should not fight “the white man’s war” in places such as Vietnam. Violence, at least in self-defense, can and should be used by Negroes to achieve their goals.
While Negroes are a minority in America, they can count on the support of Asian and African peoples. American man is now an urban man and he was recently a rural man. It would be strange if the psychological shock of trying to find streets as natural as fields or woods did not provoke savage explosions in the cities. Claude Brown’s brilliant examination of Harlem, Manchild in the Promised Land, showed just how much of the black ghetto’s barbarism came from the sudden transplantation of sharecroppers from shacks to tenements.
Robert Kennedy was using more than a politician’s rhetoric when he stated before his murder: ‘We confront an urban wilderness more formidable and resistant and in some ways more frightening than the wilderness faced by the Pilgrims or the pioneers. ‘ Being labeled a troublemaker is a danger of growing up in suburbia as well as in the slums, but the suburbs are more likely to provide parental intervention and psychiatrists, pastors, family counselors to help the youth abandon his undesirable identity. It is much harder for the inner-city youth to find alternatives to a rebel role.
Thus it is in the slums that youth gangs are most likely to drift from minor and haphazard into serious, repeated, purposeful delinquency. It is in the slums, too, that young people are most likely to be exposed to the example of the successful career criminal as a person of prestige in the community. To a population denied access to traditional positions of status and achievement, a successful criminal may be a highly visible model of power and affluence and a center of training and recruitment for criminal enterprise. As Ward (1998) describes it:
Among the social institutions which delineated black urban associational life, the one most closely related to the vocal group was the street gang. Sometimes the groups and the gangs even shared the same membership. In Baltimore, Johnny Page of the Marylanders doubled as a member of the Dungaree Boys gang, while Julius Williams had dual affiliations as a battling member of the Shakers and as a balladeer with the Royal Jokers in Detroit. “Julius Williams was the terror of the school”, recalled his classmate Woodie King. “He was sixteen.
He enjoyed fighting teachers and singing in class”. When Claude Brown returned from a juvenile detention centre in upstate New York in the early 1950s, he noticed that many of the old gangs from his Harlem neighbourhood had turned to doowopping in the wake of the Orioles’ inspirational rise from a Baltimore street corner, via an appearance on Arthur Godfrey’s CBS radio show Talent Scouts, to national celebrity (Ward 59) One of the most consistent patterns of emotional concern expressed by the disadvantaged child is for potency or power.
His heroes are the strong, invincible men, such as Hercules or Superman. We could speculate that the interest in Greek mythology expressed by disadvantaged pupils is also related to this concern. As a result, we would like to see the schools investigate, with the children, the power concept. This is a possible study topic for even the earliest grades. Can people be strong in ways other than physical strength? The teacher might begin by asking the youngsters who their neighborhood heroes are–who are the “top cats” on their block–and then asking why they are so.
We would guess that the responses will probably be in terms of physical strength. The objective then, would be to help the class begin to explore other routes of power. Staging points for such discussions might be derived from reading excerpts from the powerful autobiography of Claude Brown, Manchild in the Promised Land, the author’s experiences growing up in Harlem. 6 The most direct method, however, to help children feel greater potency is to let them experience it.
A way that combines such experience with the improvement of writing skills was demonstrated by one of our teaching interns. In a seventh-grade English class, required by the curriculum guide to study paragraph skills, the teaching intern asked the class, “How many of you can remember any of the things you had to read in school when you were in the third grade? ” Some hands went up, and names of books were reported. “How did you like them? ” Claude Brown’s memories of post-war Harlem churches similarly stressed their extra-religious appeal.
He attended one simply because he lusted after the preacher’s daughter and fondly recalled Father Divine’s 155th Street Mission, not for its spiritual nourishment, but because he could get all the food he could eat there for 15 cents. Brown also appreciated that the black churches of Harlem were commercial, as well as religious, enterprises. At Mrs Rogers’ storefront church, he recalled, “people jumped 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 for more”. (27-8)
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