Alice Childress Essay - Childress, Alice (Vol. 15)

Childress, Alice (Vol. 15)


Childress, Alice 1920–

Childress is a black American playwright, novelist, nonfiction writer, and editor. In writing that is perceptive and unsentimental, Childress examines the complexity of black-white relationships. A strong theatrical sense informs both her drama and fiction, and she is generally praised for her realistic dialogue and convincing characterizations. A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich is her best-known work. (See also CLC, Vol. 12, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 7.)

James Park Sloan

Cora James's short walk through life [portrayed in "A Short Walk"] carries her from birth in 1900 through marriage to a dull man of property, flight to the then-forming Northern ghetto, love with a childhood sweetheart involved in Marcus Garvey's black-nationalism movement, middle age as proprietor of a traveling minstrel show and dealer in an illegal gambling house, and finally, death of a heart attack on the streets of New York….

There are fine set pieces here on the off-duty lives of Pullman porters, the rising black bourgeoisie and the maiden voyage of Garvey's flagship, the S.S. Frederick Douglass. Much of this terrain is already well-worked, but here the history of black struggle is enhanced by a meditation on time and change, and in this Alice Childress owes as much to Faulkner and Mann as to Wright and Ellison….

Like every life, Cora's becomes a chronicle of deaths—first of the old folks, then of contemporaries and finally of her own. Black fatalism runs through the book in the recurring lines, "God moves in mysterious ways" and "We know not the day or the hour."… Alice Childress brings to her story the rich proverbs and dialect of the Carolina lowlands, and this, her eighth novel, is a stately achievement.

James Park Sloan, "Three Novels: 'A Short Walk'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 11, 1979, p. 14.

[In "A Short Walk" Cora James] has learned some important rules: that whites bully blacks, that men bully women, that there are a few exceptions to these rules, and that (as her adoptive father says) it is a short walk from the cradle to the grave. In her search for those exceptions, Cora never hesitates to choose a new route to walk…. Cora's life ends on a bittersweet note in Harlem just after the war: despite the multiple frustrations that she has endured as a black woman, she has had good times in good company and has never disguised her contempt for tyrants and idolaters. Alice Childress is in full command of her material, and her way of shifting, from chapter to chapter, between the third and first persons (and from there into dialect when Cora becomes excited) keeps the story spirited and fresh.

"Briefly Noted: 'A Short Walk'," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 40, November 19, 1979, p. 233.

Alice Walker

The history covered fictionally in A Short Walk is impressive and important: minstrel-show performers in the twenties are shown to have authentic lives behind the masks; the grim years of the Great Depression are drawn with the accuracy of experience; and, best of all, Childress involves her characters in the Marcus Garvey Movement—the first fictional treatment of that movement I have read. And it is utterly engrossing.

One feels great respect for the writer's knowledge of the past and her fidelity to what she remembers and chooses to record. Childress's is a mature intelligence, and the novel is rich with the fullness of her experience as a black woman in America—and as an extremely aware and political person. Nevertheless, the novel disappoints.

The writing has a forced folksiness throughout that makes much of what is said between characters unbelievable, and the very maturity of mind that so admirably presents a balanced understanding of both male and female characters undermines the tension of the novel's activity by that very balancing and lessens our attention to all conflict…. It is a fact that in writing a novel passion counts equally with maturity—and it is passion (though not anger) that A Short Walk lacks, as well as, in some instances, originality. (pp. 46, 48)

Alice Walker, "A Walk through 20th-Century Black America—Alice Childress's 'A Short Walk'," in Ms. (© 1979 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. VIII, No. 6, December, 1979, pp. 46, 48.