Poverty’s Children

May 6, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


CLARENCE PAGE: When author Claude Brown died, it brought distinct images to my mind, images of poverty etched in the faces of children in the dark canyons of Harlem. Each decade changes the face on poverty in the public eye and mind.

ACTRESS: I remember when those families took off on the road. Never had to lose everything I had in life.

CLARENCE PAGE: John Steinbeck gave us the Joad family: Migrant farm workers knocked down in the Oklahoma dust bowl, yet trying mightily to reach California’s golden dream.Walker Evans and other photographers sent out by the Farm Security Administration brought back lasting images of real-life Joads, migrants with weary eyes and weather-beaten skin. In the early 1960s, Michael Harrington’s book “The Other America” would alert the media and the Kennedy Administration to those he called “the invisible poor.” Poverty still had a mostly white face in the TV reports of those days– usually an Appalachian face.

In 1965, Claude Brown gave poverty another face, a big city face, with his autobiographical novel “Manchild in the Promised Land.” Vivid, violent, and unsentimental, Brown called it a novel, but it was his story, beginning with him getting shot, and running from the cops. “I ran. There was a bullet in me trying to take my life, all 13 years of it.” He ran and the readers ran with him. The book has sold more than four million copies.

The ’60s were a turbulent decade. By 1965, the civil rights bill had been passed. Yet a new calamity of crime and riots was erupting in America’s cities. Young black males were becoming a new urban menace in the public eye. Brown painted a new American archetype: An urban Huck Finn with a black face fighting and hustling his way through dark, trash-filled canyons of American dreams. Brown’s Harlem was so brutal that his buddies could throw another kid off a roof and run away before the body hit the ground.

His journey is marked by cold steel– guns, knives, needles– and vehicles that take him, not once, but several times to reform schools. Yet, despite his violent life, Brown’s Manchild found redemption. He straightened out, went to college, attended law school, and wrote a best-seller. He dedicated his book to Eleanor Roosevelt, who founded the Wiltwyck School for boys in upstate New York, and to the Wiltwyck School, “which is still finding Claude Browns,” he said. If Claude Brown could be redeemed, he was trying to say, so could others. All they needed, it appeared, was someone who cared.

Claude Brown’s story seemed to both define and defy the culture of poverty argument that Oscar Lewis made popular in the 1960s and 1970s with his studies of poor Latino families. Poverty creates a debilitating culture, Lewis argued, one that the poor cannot lose even if they ceased to be poor. By the 1980s, the culture of poverty image seemed to prevail. Ronald Reagan advanced welfare reform to break the “cycle of poverty,” they said, for the “urban underclass,” a new label for the long-term poor, particularly black Americans left behind by the civil rights revolution.

Even Claude Brown grew dismayed with the worsening condition of the young gangsters and delinquents he came to know in the new hip-hop generation. His generation had it bad, he said, but this new one, in an era of drive-by shootings and crack cocaine, seemed worse off, even more tragically devoid of hope.

Claude Brown died in February of a lung condition. He was 64. He never wrote another best- seller, and poverty seems to have a new face in the age of welfare reform: The working poor, trying to make ends meet, trying to raise their kids with wages too low to lift them out of poverty. Others have fallen between the cracks, off the welfare rolls, but not onto anyone’s payrolls. The poor, it seems, are becoming invisible again. Yet, as Brown wrote, there are more Claude Browns out there, still trying to reach the promised land.

I’m Clarence Page.