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Claude Brown: Telling The Harlem Story

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Claude Brown: Telling The Harlem Story

Claude Brown: Telling The Harlem Story

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next, to another in our series of Black History Month salutes.

We've invited members of the TELL ME MORE staff, some of our guests and our NPR colleagues to share stories about the figure or event from black history that they most admire. This time, a critically acclaimed writer's story about coming of age.

MARGARET LOW SMITH: I'm Margaret Low Smith, NPR's acting senior vice president for news. When I was 13 years old, Claude Brown transformed the way I saw the world. He wrote the book "Manchild in the Promiseland." It's a novel but really, an autobiographical sketch of his childhood on the streets of Harlem in the '40s and '50s.

Brown hung out with hustlers, drug dealers and prostitutes. His story sprung me from my suburban childhood, and introduced me to another America. When the story begins, the main character, Sonny, is 13 years old. He's been shot in the leg trying to rob a fish and chips joint. The character is the same age I was when I read the book. He'd been on the streets since he was 8, running from the cops, truant officers and storekeepers.

Claude Brown ultimately found his way off the streets, made his way to law school and to write "Manchild," shining a light on where he came from, revealing humanity and hope in a place where most people only see despair. The book has sold millions and millions of copies - a testimony to its resonance. Brown's story captivated and inspired me. It had heart and humor, and I felt a profound connection to this kid.

It made me think about my own privilege, and to wonder this: If I had nothing and the odds were stacked against me, would I be able to find my way out? I'll never know the answer to that question, but it has stuck with me my whole life. I find myself drawn to people who weren't born into comfort but somehow, created possibility for themselves.

Brown's greatest gift to me was that he sparked my curiosity about worlds and people I don't know. And he helped me see courage and desire, not only in people who are just like me, but in everyone.

MARTIN: That was NPR's acting senior vice president for news, Margaret Low Smith, saluting author Claude Brown.

To browse the full series of TELL ME MORE black history essays, please log on to NPR.org and in the search field, type black history heroes.

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