Alice October Childress Critical Essays

Introduction

Alice Childress October 12, 1920–August 14, 1994

American dramatist, screenwriter, novelist, editor, and author of children's books.

For further information on Childress's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 12 and 15.

Childress is primarily known for her young adult novel A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1973). A highly controversial work that was part of a censorship case brought before the United States Supreme Court, the novel is set in Harlem and details a teenager's growing addiction to heroin. Each chapter of the book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 1974 and which earned Childress a Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1975, is told from the perspective of various individuals with whom the protagonist interacts, including his drug pusher, peers, teachers, and family members. Childress is additionally known for her work as a playwright. Although often characterized as a critically neglected dramatist, Childress was instrumental in the genesis of black theater in America in the twentieth century: with Gold through the Trees (1952) she became the first black woman to have a play professionally produced on the American stage, and with Trouble in Mind (1955) she became the first woman to win an OBIE Award. In her dramas, which include Florence (1949), Wedding Band (1966), Wine in the Wilderness (1969), Sea Island Song (1977), and Moms (1987), Childress frequently focused on such topics as African-American history, racism, miscegenation, drug abuse, and black-white relations. Many of these works, like A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, have been the subject of controversy. Childress, however, never sought notoriety and maintained that she drew her inspiration from everyday life and people. In a 1984 essay entitled "A Candle in a Gale Wind," she stated: "[I] write about those who come in second, or not at all … and the intricate and magnificent patterns of a loser's life. No matter how many celebrities we may accrue, they cannot substitute for the masses of human beings. My writing attempts to interpret the 'ordinary' because they are not ordinary. Each human is uniquely different. Like snowflakes, the human pattern is never cast twice. We are uncommonly and marvelously intricate in thought and action, our problems are most complex and, too often, silently borne."