Finding Claude Brown

I am currently working on a social, cultural, and intellectual biography of Claude Brown, whose 1965 autobiographical novel Manchild in the Promised Land won praise from critics upon its release and has sold millions of copies worldwide. Brown offered a gritty portrayal of everyday Harlemites’ struggles to survive during the 1940s and 50s, in the aftermath of the Great Migration, and recounted his troubled youth spent in and out of reform institutions. Brown published his novel just as Americans were struggling to make sense of urban violence and growing black militancy alongside the victories of the civil rights movement. Amid the growing urban crisis, Brown used the success of Manchild to carve out a role for himself as a commentator on gang violence and the War on Drugs.

Using archival, oral history, and literary research, this project will trace the afterlives of the Great Migration, of Brown’s best-known work, and of the author himself. Brown’s parents were among the millions of African Americans who fled the Jim Crow south to seek a better life in the urban north, but found that the “promised land” fell far short of expectations. How did they shape Harlem’s culture, and how did their disappointment shape the generation that followed? Brown himself spent much of his adulthood in the wake of Manchild, his defining achievement. How did he deal with the afterlife of his own success, and what does the arc of his career tell us about race and the politics of the public intellectual during his lifetime? Finally, Manchild found its own afterlife in policy discussions, first amid urban unrest in the 1960s, and later on during the War on Drugs in discussions of gang violence and juvenile “superpredators.” How did others mobilize Brown’s work in formulating the public policy of crime and punishment, and how did Brown respond?

African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project + Digital Archive

As part of my research for To Make the Wounded Whole, I launched both an oral history project among African American AIDS activists and an online archive of the fight against HIV and AIDS in Black America.

Digitizing Virginia Key Beach

From 2017 to 2019 I also served as the principal investigator on a federally funded two-year project to digitize the archives of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, which preserves the history of Miami’s “colored only” beach. As part of that project, a team of five FIU graduate students has digitized thousands of unique documents and artifacts that capture Miami’s African American history.

Virginia Key Beach Park in the 1950s