Alice Childress 1920-1994
American playwright, screenwriter, novelist, prose writer, editor, and author of children's books.
Childress is considered a pivotal yet critically neglected figure in contemporary African-American literature. Because she wrote about such topics as miscegenation and teenage drug abuse, some of her works have been banned from schools and libraries in various regions. In her dramas as well as in her novels for children and adults, Childress drew upon her own experiences and created relatively normal, everyday protagonists.
Childress was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but grew up in Harlem in New York City. She was raised primarily by her grandmother, who was an early influence on her writing, and attended high school for two years but left before graduation. She held several jobs while acting as a member of the American Negro Theatre in Harlem; as part of the company, she performed in A Midsummer Night's Dream and other works. Childress began to write dramas, later attributing this decision in part to her grandmother. She received a Harvard appointment as playwright and scholar to the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study from 1966 to 1968. In 1977 she received the first Paul Robeson Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Performing Arts from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. She died on August 14, 1994.
Childress's first play, Florence, was produced in 1949. Set in a segregated railway station, the play explores the profound impact of racism on an African-American woman and a liberated white woman. Wedding Band (1966), which focuses on South Carolina's anti-miscegenation laws and an interracial love affair, was both controversial and difficult to produce. Despite praise accorded to its initial 1966 production in Michigan, Wedding Band did not reach a wider audience until 1973, when it was performed in New York. In Wine in the Wilderness (1969), Childress explored intraracial hostilities and prejudices. Although she devoted most of her career to drama, Childress was also a noted author of children's literature. She wrote two plays and three novels for children, including A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973) and Rainbow Jordan (1981). By far her best-known work, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich is the story of thirteen-year-old Benjie Johnson's emerging addiction to heroin. His story is told from many points of view, including those of his stepfather, teachers, and drug dealer.
Childress was instrumental in the genesis of African-American theater in America, and throughout her career remained a vital, uncompromising force in contemporary drama. Her plays and children's books have received much praise, yet many critics believe her work deserves even more attention and recognition. Although Florence was produced on a small scale in Harlem, the critical praise it received launched Childress's career. With Gold through the Trees, (1952) she became the first African-American woman to have a play professionally produced on the American stage, and with Trouble in Mind (1955) she was the first woman to win an Obie Award for best original off-Broadway play. A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich was Childress's most controversial work and accounted for the majority of her critical attention. Despite overwhelming praise for its realistic treatment of a sensitive issue, several school districts banned the book, apparently on the grounds that its theme was inappropriate for young readers.
Florence (drama) 1949
Just a Little Simple [adaptor; from the short story collection Simple Speaks His Mind by Langston Hughes] (drama) 1950
Gold through the Trees (drama) 1952
Trouble in Mind (drama) 1955
Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic's Life (prose) 1956
Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White (drama) 1966
The Freedom Drum (drama) 1969
String [adaptor; from the short story “A Piece of String” by Guy de Maupassant] (drama) 1969
Wine in the Wilderness: A Comedy Drama (drama) 1969
Wine in the Wilderness (screenplay) 1969
Mojo: A Black Love Story (drama) 1970
A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (novel) 1973
Wedding Band (screenplay) 1973
When the Rattlesnake Sounds (drama) 1975
Let's Hear It for the Queen (drama) 1976
Sea Island Song (drama) 1977
A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (screenplay) 1978
A Short Walk (novel) 1979
String (screenplay) 1979
Rainbow Jordan (novel) 1981
Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne (drama) 1987
Those Other People (novel) 1989
SOURCE: “Whose Name, Whose Protection: Reading Alice Childress's Wedding Band,” in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990, pp. 184-96.
[In the following essay, Wiley examines feminist and racial perspectives on Childress's Wedding Band.]
In the first act of Wedding Band, a scene of reading and performance occurs that lies at the center of a feminist interpretation of the play. Mattie, a black woman who makes her living selling candy and caring for a little white girl, has received a letter from her husband in the Merchant Marine and needs a translator for it. Her new neighbor, Julia, the educated outsider trying to fit into working-class surroundings, reads the sentimental sailor's letter aloud. After her performance, in which the women listening have actively participated, Mattie tells Julia that, in addition to his love, her husband gives her what is more important, his name and protection. These two standards of conventional love are denied Julia because her lover of ten years is white; and even Mattie learns that because she never divorced her first husband, she is not now legally married and cannot receive marital war benefits. Neither woman enjoys a man's name or his protection, in part because the chivalry implied in such privilege was unattainable for blacks in the Jim Crow society of 1918 South Carolina. The women in Wedding Band learn to depend on themselves and each other rather than on absent men, a self-reliance born painfully through self-acceptance.
Wedding Band received mixed reviews when it opened off-Broadway in 1972. It was described both as “the play about black life in America that isn't a ‘black’ play”1 and too much “like a story wrenched from the pages of what used to be known as a magazine for women.”2 Interesting for their racist and sexist connotations, these comments betray the reviewers' uncritical assumptions about who constitutes a theater audience. The play doesn't look “black” because its integrationist subtext surfaces only occasionally and its political urgency is dressed safely in realistic period costume. New York theater patrons of 1972 applauding the drama as entertainment alone could assure themselves that the play's World War I setting depicted a reality long past. The first reviewer assumes that a “black” play, one that speaks primarily to a black audience, is implicitly alien and uninteresting to a white audience. Representations of so-called minority lives told from a minority point of view cannot interest the rest of us, if we are white. Likewise, the pages of a women's magazine would bore us if we were men, because they focus on the small, private issues of home and heart. And although none of the liberal reviewers profess any shock over the play's important theme of miscegenation, no New York producers would touch Wedding Band until 1972, six years after it was written and first performed, attesting to the subject's unpopularity.
My reading of the play argues that its subject is less interracial heterosexual relations than the relations between black women and between black women and white women in World War I—era South Carolina. That said, I must add that I perceive a certain danger in trying to read feminist rather than racial politics into Alice Childress's play. White feminists must take care not to offer our own invaluable “name and protection” to black women writers who do not need them. For a feminist criticism that is not limited to the privileged location of many of its practitioners, it is crucial that white feminists read the work of black women, especially those like Childress who have been all but ignored in academic theater. We might read in the same spirit of canon disruption inspiring the informal creation of a women's literary counter-canon, recognizing that in the same way white women writers were denied membership in the old canon on the basis of “greatness,” we may be guilty of blocking black women writers for the same reason. The value of a literary text cannot be defined out of context. White readers should try to decentralize our historically majority context—to see ourselves, for once, in the margins with respect to the Afro-American women's literary tradition. I recognize with dismay the truth of Hortense J. Spillers's statement: “When we say ‘feminist’ with an adjective in front of it, we mean, of course, white women, who, as a category of social and cultural agents, fully occupy the territory of feminism.”3 But does including Afro-American women writers in the canon, which seems to be my project in writing for this book, imitate a colonizing gesture? Am I offering the protection of the canon to Alice Childress, protection on the canon's (and for now, white women's) terms? Instead of attempting to answer these questions now, I can only say that I am beginning to learn to read black women's plays in the same way many feminists ask men to read women's texts. Rather than seeing myself reflected in their work, I want to understand why my difference makes these plays a challenge to read.
Difference has become a feminist catch-word, complicated by its dual usage as what makes women different from men as well as what makes women different from each other. Teresa de Lauretis and Linda Gordon have argued recently that the first definition, which makes women's primary characteristic the fact that we are not men, risks becoming a substitute for women's opposition to men's discriminatory practice. This opposition, however, has always differed from one group of women to another, because our discrimination as women has always differed.4 The various ways we have resisted male practice through history define women as much as what we have in common biologically. It is not enough for white feminists merely to tolerate women of color or invite them to join our canon, but to understand how we are different, to understand differences among women as differences within women. Because, in de Lauretis' words, “not only does feminism exist despite those differences, but … it cannot continue to exist without them.”5
Many of these differences, especially between black women and white women in the United States, have been constituted historically. As Childress writes in the Negro Digest of April 1967, her newest play, Wedding Band, serves as a reminder of the many promises made in 1918 that are still unkept in 1967.6 During the gap between the play's initial production in 1966 at the University of Michigan and today, most of the promises of integration have been fulfilled legally; however, we still have much to learn of the limits of the successes of the civil rights movement. Although the Negro Digest article refers specifically to the Jim Crow laws prohibiting intermarriage, Childress's play can be read today as a history lesson pointed at white women to remind them and us, in 1966 or now, that our vision of sisterly equality has always left some sisters out. Until the Civil War, the women's rights movement was essentially inseparable from the abolitionist movement. As Angelina Grimke, the southern white abolitionist, wrote in 1838:
The discussion of the rights of the slave has opened the way for the discussion of other rights, and the ultimate result will most certainly be the breaking of every yoke, the letting the oppressed of every grade and description go free,—an emancipation far more glorious than any the world has ever yet seen.7
But the interests of women fighting for decades to assure themselves a voice in the political process could not be reconciled to those of white politicians eager to take advantage of black men's votes. Despite their political training as abolitionists, most of the white suffragists were quick to forgo interracial solidarity as their own movement foundered in the Reconstruction era.8
Black women's frustration heard an echo a century later as the civil rights movement shifted from its origins in the rural south to the industrialized north. Hundreds of black women in the south led the grassroots movement for desegregation and voter registration in the late 1950s, and in the early 1960s they trained younger white women who had come down from northern colleges to take part in the Freedom Rides. The early civil rights movement had been affected most dramatically by an army of nameless women: black women who honed their leadership skills in the only place available to them, their churches. But in 1964, an anonymous paper about women's position in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) circulated at the Waveland Conference, although assumed to be written by a black woman, was written by two white women who were trying to inject the civil rights movement with theories of women's liberation. Although these white women had learned invaluable skills, including the courage to withstand jailings, beatings, and death threats, from the black women, their influence in the overall movement dwindled in the mid-60s, partly because of their sexual liaisons with black men. The Waveland Conference position paper, which criticized the assumption of male superiority at work in SNCC by comparing it with white superiority, marked the move of white women out of the civil rights movement and into the women's movement. Sexual discrimination in the civil rights movement forced white activists to confront their differences from black women in a way they had not since the struggle over voting rights a century earlier. The result of this confrontation, according to many historians, was the same: white women abandoned Afro-American liberation to pursue a goal closer to home, that of a race- and class-specific women's liberation.9
Set chronologically midway between the poles of Reconstruction and civil rights, Wedding Band describes an era when lynching presented one answer to demands for equality in the south, while Harlem flowered as a mecca for black culture in the north. In the 1960s, white women and black men's sexual relations generated tension in the black community, but miscegenation as the white master's rape of his slave retains deeper historical ramifications for black women. Childress's drama, subtitled “a love/hate story in black and white,” takes place on the tenth anniversary of Julia and her white lover in the small backyard tenement to which Julia has moved after being evicted from countless other houses. Determined to get along with her nosy but well-meaning neighbors, Julia seems to have won a guarded acceptance until her lover, Herman, visits her. He has brought her a gold wedding band on a chain, and they plan to buy tickets on the Clyde Line to New York, where Julia will proudly and legally bear Herman's name. But Herman succumbs to the influenza epidemic, and in the second act he lies in Julia's bed waiting for his mother and sister to take him to a white doctor. Julia's landlady has refused to help because it is illegal for Herman to be in Julia's house, and she cannot appear to sanction Julia's immoral behavior. Herman's mother sides with the landlady in preserving respectability even at the cost of her son's life, and she will not carry him to the doctor until it grows dark enough to hide him. In the last scene, Herman returns to Julia with the boat tickets, which she refuses to take because his mother has convinced her that blacks and whites can never live together. Finally she appears to relent so that Herman can die believing that Julia, even without him, will go north.
The secondary characters, however, more than the two lovers, underscore the drama's didactic politics. They are types, but not stereotypes, and their separate dilemmas and personalities describe the injustices blacks have endured in the south. The landlady, Fanny, the neighbors Mattie and Lula, Lula's adopted son, Nelson, and the abusive white traveling salesman give the stage community a historical idiosyncrasy missing from Julia and Herman's relationship. Fanny has proudly joined the middle-class by acquiring property and exploiting her tenants (in 1918 a relatively new possibility for black women) in the name of racial uplift. As homeworkers, Mattie and Lula exist bound to a variety of semi-skilled, low-paying jobs to feed their children. Nelson, as a soldier in the newly desegregated United States army, assumes that when the war is over he will be given the rights of a full citizen, even in South Carolina. He is a forerunner of the militant youth who would later provide the impatient voice to the nascent civil rights movement of the late 1940s, and whose dreams of integration would be realized only partially in the 1960s.
These characters who inhabit Miss Fanny's backyard tenement underscore the vexed issue of difference as explored by the feminist scholars cited above. Julia's problem throughout the play is less her white lover than her reluctance to see herself as a member of the black community. Although a mostly white theater audience would see her as a different sort of heroine because of race, her black neighbors perceive her as different from them for issues more complex than skin color. She assumes that her racial transgression with Herman will make her unwelcome among the women she wishes to confide in, but her aloofness from their day-to-day interests also serves as a protective shield. In this, Julia is similar to Lutie Johnson in Ann Petry's The Street, written in 1946.10 Both characters are ostensibly defined by their unequal relations with men, but their potential for salvation lies in the larger community that depends on the stability of its women. Lutie Johnson is so determined to move off “the street” in Harlem she thinks is pulling her down that she refuses to join the community Harlem offers her, a community that in some ways defies the white society keeping it poor. Neither poor nor uneducated, Julia finds herself defying the black community by asserting her right to love a white man, but this self-assertion is, in a larger sense, a more dangerous defiance of the white community. She wants her love story to be one of individual commitment and sacrifice, but it is that only in part. Julia's refinement in manners, education, and financial independence, which are middle-class, traditionally white attributes, make her and Herman available to each other. But theirs is, as the subtitle insists, a “love/hate” story, in which interracial love cannot be divorced from centuries of racial hate.
As Wedding Band opens, Julia sleeps on her bed in the new house while a little girl enters her yard weeping about a quarter she has lost. Her mother, Mattie, chases the girl, threatening to whip her unless she finds “the only quarter I got to my name,” the quarter that was to buy the ingredients to make the candy she sells (78).11 Julia tries to sleep through this scene, but she cannot hide from either the noise or the predicaments because the coin has rolled under her porch and Mattie is trying to knock it down to get at the money. When Julia tries to escape back into her private room after...
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SOURCE: “Alice Childress,” in The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, Rutgers University Press, 1995, pp. 48-69.
[In the following interview, which took place in 1993, Childress discusses her attraction to and experience in the theater, as well as the feminist and racial issues explored in her work.]
[Maguire:] This afternoon in the workshop you gave you spoke a fair amount about what you've written and why you've written it, but what specifically attracted you to write for the theatre?
[Childress:] I guess I explained in the workshop that my grandmother worked seemingly,...
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SOURCE: “Alice Childress's Like One of the Family: Domestic and Undomesticated Domestic Humor,” in Look Who's Laughing: Gender and Comedy, edited by Gail Finney, Gordon and Breach, 1994, pp. 221-29.
[In the following essay, Dresner identifies rebellion as the link between the humor of the white suburban housewife and the African-American domestic worker.]
What has been termed “domestic” or “housewife” humor emerged in post-World War II America in response to the back-to-the-home antifeminist sentiment engendered by the political conservatism that considered any threat to the status quo a sign of creeping Communism. Characterized as a body of...
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SOURCE: “Re-Reading Alice Childress,” in Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Maufort, Peter Lang, 1995, pp. 32-7.
[In the following essay, Schroeder surveys the reasons for the critical neglect of Childress's work—especially on the part of feminist critics—and urges a reassessment of her oeuvre.]
Until quite recently, playwright and novelist Alice Childress has received relatively little critical attention. When her plays attracted scholarly notice at all, it was often the sort that labelled her work in a limited way, thereby ghettoizing her plays and paving the way for further critical neglect. She has been...
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SOURCE: “The ‘Blight of Legalized Limitation’ in Alice Childress's Wedding Band,” in Law and Literature Perspectives, edited by Bruce L. Rockwood, Peter Lang, 1996, pp. 39-51.
[In the following essay, Billingslea-Brown considers the impact of anti-miscegenation laws on the lives of the characters in Childress's Wedding Band.]
Between American jurisprudence and literary expression by African Americans, there is multifaceted relationship, one that has at its center questions of freedom and identity. It may be argued, in fact, that the impulse to creative expression by African Americans arises, in part, from the need to legitimize the human and cultural...
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SOURCE: “Simplifyin': Langston Hughes and Alice Childress Re/member Jesse B. Semple,” in Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 37-48.
[In the following essay, Turner compares the history and nature of Langston Hughes's Simply Heavenly and Childress's Just a Little Simple in order to gain insight into the “complex nature of Black comedic representation.”]
Dream-singers all,— My people. Story-tellers all,— My people. Dancers— God! What dancers! Singers— God! What singers! Singers and dancers Dancers and laughers .....Loud-mouthed laughers in the hands of Fate....
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