The novel is set in Harlem in the early 1970s. The central character, Benjie Johnson, says that his home is variously referred to as "a slum," "a ghetto," or "the inner city," but that it is the same depressing place by any name. As the title implies, this world lacks heroes; drugs are readily available, and both home and school environments seem unstable. The novel takes place in the winter, and Benjie feels that the season's bleakness and coldness typify his life. Against the gray backdrop of poverty, pain, and separation, human efforts to triumph over circumstances stand out in brilliant, sometimes pitiful, contrast.
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A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich takes a realistic look at life in the inner city. An all-too-human Benjie confronts a situation that defeats him throughout most of the book. Society's usual answers to the problems of poverty, racism, alienation, and drug dependency fail him. Childress challenges the term "hero" itself. The suggestion by Benjie and his social worker that a hero is a movie idol or sports figure is rejected in favor of Butler's insistence that he is the true hero: an ordinary human being who each day does what he must do to endure and survive.
The realistic novel usually offers little optimism for a happy outcome. In A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, the ending is indeterminate, making Childress's point that many human problems lack easy answers. Characters in realistic novels typically display a fair share of weaknesses as well as strengths. Their experiences are presented in the often stark detail of real life. Childress relates her characters' experiences through a multiple first-person narration. Each character presents his or her own experiences and attitudes to the reader, using appropriate and realistic style, diction, and language. The reader seems to be participating in a series of one-on-one conversations, giving immediacy, plausibility and authenticity to the story. This technique makes for strong characterization; each speaker is clearly differentiated from all the others, and Childress lets each one make his...
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Childress treats racial issues frankly. Most of the characters are black and present a variety of black perspectives, ranging from those who distrust and blame "whitey" for black problems but who emulate white lifestyles, to those who blame blacks for their own problems, to those who see no possibility for reconciliation between the races. The author also portrays the nonblack perspectives of Bernard Cohen and the school principal, who speak as forthrightly of their experiences as do the black characters. The book does not moralize or preach one particular view but treats all the perspectives fairly and compassionately.
Childress also deals honestly with the problem of drug addiction. Some scenes in the novel depict Benjie seeking out and using drugs, and the boy gives various excuses to rationalize his addiction. But overall the book shows the dangers of drugs and condemns their use. The reader learns why traditional approaches to curbing drug traffic may be ineffective, why social workers often fail to influence the drug user to quit, and why schools and communities are frequently unable to unite to find a solution. The novel does not conclude that the drug problem is unsolvable but clearly shows the difficulties involved.
Depictions of violence and death appear in the story, and many of the characters use very frank language, the "language of the streets." But these elements are entirely appropriate, even essential, to an honest portrayal...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Benjie says in the first chapter that he hates for people to lie to him and that he does not "dig stealin," yet he admits in the same chapter that he has stolen and has lied about it. Throughout the story, we see him both lie and steal. What does this tell us about Benjie?
2. Jimmy-Lee blames only "skag" for the distance between himself and Benjie. Are there other differences between them that cause problems in their relationship? Why or why not?
3. Benjie relates that he used heroin the first time to show that he was not "chicken." Would it have taken more courage to say no to his friends? Why or why not?
4. Over and over, Benjie says that he is not "hooked" and that he can quit any time he wants to. Can he? Point out some details from the story to support your answer.
5. Walter tells us that if he did not sell drugs there would be plenty of others who would, so those who want drugs could get them just as easily. Is his reasoning justified? Why or why not?
6. Benjie sometimes delivers drugs for Walter to pay for his "fix." He says, though, that he is not the real pusher. Is he less guilty than Walter? Why is he glad he was not the one who gave Kenny the overdose?
7. Why does Benjie's grandmother put a lock on her door? Is she justified? What effect does her use of the lock have on Benjie? Why?
8. The novel is written in the language of the individuals telling the story, much of it...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. The novel mentions several black leaders from the past: Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Who are some other well-known leaders from the black community? Select one for a short research paper.
2. In his second narrative, Jimmy-Lee seems envious of the attention, especially extra favors, given to people who have been in drug detoxification or some other form of detention. He feels he should be rewarded for not being on drugs and for doing well in school. Should he, or is doing well its own reward? Do those who have reformed, or are trying to do so, get extra privileges? Is this just?
3. Mr. Cohen tells Benjie, "You can be somebody if you want to," and Benjie complains, "How does he know I'm not somebody right now?" Why do adults and young people see this issue differently?
4. Who are some of your heroes? What are their heroic qualities? On the next to the last page of the novel, Butler presents his own credentials for hero status. How do they compare with those of your heroes?
5. Benjie says that he wants someone special who believes in him. What does he really want? Does he know? Should anyone believe in him? Point out details from the book to support your argument.
6. The characters who speak throughout the novel often disagree with each other about the causes of, and solutions to, problems. How does Childress help you to make judgments about the believability of any...
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A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich has been adapted for a movie of the same title, with a screenplay by Alice Childress. The film was released in 1978 by New World Pictures and features Paul Winfield, Cicely Tyson, Larry B. Scott, Glynn Turman, and David Groh. The locale is changed in the movie to Los Angeles, and the point of view becomes dramatic objective, or the camera's eye, letting the story unfold in a straightforward style and eliminating the various characters' views of events found in the novel.
Benjie's motivation for using drugs, then for trying to quit, is less clear in the movie, and Butler's love of Benjie is more obvious throughout. The movie version adds a touching speech by Nigeria Greene at Carwell's (Kenny's) funeral and a powerful series of still photographs showing Benjie going through drug withdrawal. The movie's ending shows Benjie actually appearing at the drug rehabilitation center, in contrast to the novel's indeterminate ending. Because of strong performances by actors in all the movie's important roles, the viewer becomes fully involved with the characters and their struggles, as does the reader of the novel.
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For Further Reference
Donelson, Ken. "Performance and Good Intentions: Novels by Alice Childress." ALAN Review 9 (Winter 1982): 4, 6-7. Discusses three of Childress's novels, including A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, in terms of the importance of characters actually carrying out their good intentions. It also surveys the critical response that her books have received.
Hill, Elbert R. "A Hero for the Movies." In Children's Novels and the Movies, edited by Douglas Street. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. Discusses the novel itself, then compares it to the 1978 motion picture.
"Review." Publishers Weekly 204 (August 6, 1973): 65. Favorable review of the novel.
Sloan, Glenna Davis. The Child as Critic. New York: Teacher's College Press, 1975. Sloan applies Northrop Frye's plot structure analyses to children's books in chapter 4.
Sutherland, Zena. "Review." Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 27 (February 1974): 91. A favorable review that notes the effectiveness of Childress's dramatic approach.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. One-third of the book focuses on Childress’ plays and contributions to the American stage. This study represents the most comprehensive research available on Childress’ writings.
Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. Wines in the Wilderness: Plays by African-American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990. Contains substantial biographical information and analysis of Childress’ plays.
Bullins, Ed. Review of A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, by Alice Childress. The New York Times Book Review, November 4, 1973: 36-40. A highly laudatory early review from a noted playwright. Bullins praises the book for offering a “suggestion of hope” while still presenting “the unconcealed truth.”
Childress, Alice. “A Candle in a Gale Wind.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/ Doubleday, 1983. An extremely useful discussion by the author herself of her attitudes toward writing and the major factors that influenced her works. Childress mentions that she resists the urge to write about “accomplishers,” preferring instead to deal with “those...
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