• Email
  • Print

Growing Up Black

In response to:

Growing Up Black from the August 26, 1965 issue

To the Editors:

Paul Goodman’s review of Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land is an excellent example of the chasm between the analysts of oppression and the oppressed. He writes with a paternalism that denies the possibility that the oppressed may have a clearer idea of the source and nature of their oppression than the analysts. In this case, Goodman views the reality of ghetto life through the prism of his a priori social theory. In so doing he misreads Brown’s book.

Goodman attempts to apply the thesis of Growing Up Absurd to Brown’s account of growing up in Harlem. His point is that although life in the ghetto is cruel and oppressive, white middleclass society constrains its youth in less obvious but equally ruinous ways. There is a good deal of truth in this assertion. However, there are important differences between the tragedy of Harlem and the tragedy of White America. Goodman ignores these differences and, in so doing, implicity romanticizes poverty.

To Goodman, the title of the book is only partially ironic. He seems to argue that Harlem offers the child the opportunity to explore, experiment and express his “animal behavior.” “…It seems to be only the out-castes who, as a group, have a chance for a free and exciting education.”

Claude Brown views his childhood quite differently. “I gave my gun away when I moved out of Harlem. I felt free…I didn’t need any protection because I wasn’t afraid any more. I had been afraid in Harlem all my life.” I am sure that Goodman will agree that his notion of freedom and this kind of fear are mutually exclusive.

The ghetto does leave scars. Harlem is not a perfect teacher, and Claude Brown is not quite the man Goodman would like him to be. (One wonders if Goodman considers him a man at all, since he refers to the author as “Claude” throughout the review.)

Goodman asserts that Brown is too constricted to abandon himself to creative experience. He develops a social-phsychological theory to explain the lack of aesthetic excitement and discovery surrounding Brown’s “study” of music. The theory is unnecessary. He simply has not listened.

I became more engrossed in the piano than in anything else I’d ever been involved with in all my life…I played the piano from four to eight hours a day, and I liked it. I really liked it. I felt I was into something. Every time I learned a new tune I would struggle and struggle with it, but I could see the progress. For the first time in ages, I felt as though I was really doing things, learning new things. I felt that now I was going places and doing something. I was ready.”

Goodman is also disappointed in Brown’s lack of political awareness. It is true that Brown makes no mention of the civil rights movement, or Cuba, or the threat of nuclear annihilation. But while all of these issues may be of paramount concern to radicals of leisure, they are largely peripheral issues in the ghetto. The reality is that the relevant issues in Harlem are the exploitation by “Goldberg,” the inhumanity of the landlords, and police corruption and brutality. These are the issues that confronted Brown and his neighbors, and they are the ones that provide a potential rallying point for effective organization and protest by the urban Negro…

One of the major strengths of the book lies in Brown’s ability to communicate simultaneously on a personal and social level. The trials of the individual and the community are inseparable, but somehow Brown makes us keenly aware of the boundary between the two. He dies a little for each friend who is lost in the ghetto…Goodman seems unconcerned with the toll the ghetto claims. He ignores the desperation and despair that turn those “free” youngsters into junkies, whores and corpses. He forgets that for the few who are not suffocated by the ghetto, hundreds succumb.

Janet Simon

New York City

Paul Goodman replies:

I am told that this letter is one of many making the same complaints. It is odd that people are so confident of the validity of their own education when they turn out so monotonously unable to read English. I guess they are liberals.

My review was not about “oppression,” because the lively part of Claude Brown’s book was not about oppression. I devoted my space entirely, as he did largely, to discussing a plausible method of growing up, without the usual preconceptions. I was applying the thesis not of Growing Up Absurd but of Compulsory Mis-Education, for the little boy was not so absurd and was somewhat escaping the compulsion. “Ghetto life” came into my analysis when it seemed to me to be itself un-educative, specifically, in this case when the going was so rough and unrelievedly dangerous that the child couldn’t lose his cool, and when the crowding and noise created too much pressure to conformity and consensus. (A third usual slum factor, malnutrition and sensory deprivation, seemed not to have been important in the case of little Claude.)

My bother about the account of school and music was that we were given no objective experience, of theorems or harmony, and I said, “It is possible that Claude felt no excitement about these things, but I doubt it. My guess is that he thinks these things would be too square or uninteresting to tell; and more deeply, that he is embarrassed and even ashamed to lose himself in objective values that are not ‘achievement’ and not under control.” The passage quoted by Miss (Mrs.?) Simon tends to demonstrate this. But I suddenly realize that the perhaps does not know what objective values are, nor the propensity of human beings to be lost in them and find themselves new. This is O.K., though not for students or musicians.

But this difficulty in understanding humanity becomes deadly when she writes. “The reality is that the relevant issues in Harlem are the exploitation etc…they are the ones that provide a potential rallying point for effective organization and protest.” No. To restrict issues in this way is to regard people as children, unable to grasp general (and inescapable) citizenly concerns. Therefore I was disturbed that the adolescent did not muse about social justice, standard of living, imperialism, nuclear war; just as I am appalled when certain Negro leaders, e.g. Roy Wilkins, steer clear of Vietnam. What is the effect of treating people as limited children? The liberal conclusion is to set up the patron-client relationships of the Great Society. The special-pleading Negro conclusion is to throw tantrums, genre of LeRoi Jones.

By contrast, I remember a conversation with Malcolm X, who did not at all think of nuclear war as irrelevant. He told me calmly, with lurid eyes, that he wished the atom bombs would rain down on New York, and he would be glad to die in the debacle. This was not childish; it was his way of being, at that time, the Scourge of God.

  • Email
  • Print