Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Benjie Johnson, a thirteen-year-old black heroin addict. Benjie is rebellious and searches for meaning in his life while purposely disrupting the lives of his friends and members of his family. He believes that he caused his father to abandon him and his mother. Benjie longs for validation, particularly because he feels like an intruder in his own home, where his mother attempts to show love both to him and to her common-law husband, Craig Butler. Benjie rejects and provokes Butler, forcing his mother to choose between them.
Rose Johnson, Benjie’s mother. She is thirty-three years old and works odd jobs to support herself, her son, and her aging mother. She meets and falls in love with Craig Butler, who adores her. She is acutely aware that loving Butler exacerbates the friction in her home, because Benjie is jealous and resentful of Butler. Rose is a willful woman who tries to exorcise Benjie’s demon, an addiction to heroin.
Craig Butler, a struggling maintenance man who wants to marry Rose as soon as her divorce is final. Butler is faced with Rose’s mother, Mrs. Ransom Bell, who constantly chastises him, and with Benjie, who uses his drug addiction to punish Rose for loving a man who is not his father. Butler strives to show his two detractors that he can be a good provider and source of support for the entire family. An easygoing, even-tempered man, Butler gives balance to the Johnson household.
The Characters (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Benjie Johnson, though only thirteen, is old before his time. Having witnessed intense poverty, he gives the impression of being cynical, hard-hearted and indifferent. Yet Benjie’s attitude serves only to hide more tender feelings. Inside, he longs for someone to look up to and fantasizes about the great things that he would like to do.
Benjie’s pride is both his undoing and his potential salvation. The pride of showing off has led Benjie to use drugs in the first place. As Nigeria Greene repeatedly says, however, if African Americans developed a genuine pride in the history of their people, they would not allow others to destroy them through addiction.
Butler Craig proves to be the hero in whom Benjie had long ago ceased to believe. As Butler says late in the novel, true heroes are not the rich; they are ordinary people who work day after day to support their families. Butler is also capable of more traditional forms of heroism: He risks injury in order to save Benjie’s life and, in his youth, stood up to a racist when everyone else had been afraid.
Benjie’s grandmother, Mrs. Ransom Bell, is one of the most complex characters of the novel. At first appearing to be merely a religious zealot, Mrs. Bell gradually reveals herself to be capable of real tenderness. Mrs. Bell had once been a shake dancer (a performer who shook to a musical accompaniment). Though she now condemns her earlier life as immoral, she still takes pride...
(The entire section is 459 words.)
The Characters (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Benjie Johnson searches for love to fill the void left by his biological father, who abandoned him. He is angry, frustrated, distrusting, manipulative, and rebellious. He experiments with drugs because he believes that taking drugs will make him a man, especially in the eyes of his wayward friends. Childress suggests that without proper nurturing, Benjie and others in his predicament are on their way to becoming statistics.
Alice Childress’s use of multiple narrators in A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich vivifies the trauma, uncertainty, and dangers experienced by a poor, young black male growing up in the ghetto, where, as Benjie says, “a chile can get snatch in the dark and get his behind parts messed up by some weirdo.” The myriad narrators help to illuminate Benjie’s real problem: insecurity. Each of the narrators sheds light on a young man who is in dire need of someone to give him a sense of self. He deliberately tries to alienate everyone who offers him help because he does not see himself as a drug addict but as an occasional drug user. Benjie’s perceptions of reality are countered by his mother, his teacher, his friend Jimmy Lee, his doctor, and his stepfather.
Rose Johnson and her mother are presented as women who head the Johnson household but who are powerless to help Benjie. He sees his mother and grandmother as nervous women who make him nervous in turn. His inability to relate to them is exacerbated by their going to a conjure woman/fortune-teller to secure a potion meant to steer Benjie from drugs. With these two women, Childress suggests the ineffectuality of the efforts of women trying to teach boys how to be men in a society that strangles them. While these women love Benjie dearly and make sacrifices for him, he seems to need something...
(The entire section is 738 words.)