Bud, Not Buddy Themes

The main themes in Bud, Not Buddy are independence versus community, systemic racism, family and belonging, and economic hardship.

  • Independence versus community: At the start of the novel, Bud is independent and distrustful of adults, but he learns to trust others and accept the value of community.
  • Systemic racism: Bud's journey is set during a time of widespread racism and prejudice against Black Americans. 
  • Family and belonging: As an orphan, Bud searches for a sense of belonging and finds himself accepted by ever more welcoming and familial groups.
  • Economic hardship: During his journey, Bud encounters the immense poverty brought on by the Great Depression.

Themes

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Last Updated on July 14, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1031

Independence Versus Community

For much of Bud, Not Buddy, Bud is instinctively distrustful of the adults around him. As a child who has been mistreated by so many of them, Bud’s hesitance is framed in the narrative as self-defense rather than prejudice. Indeed, his first notable interaction with new adults—the Amos family—ends in his being blamed for a fight and locked in a dark backyard shed, where he is attacked by wasps.

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In the absence of an overarching authority in his life, Bud becomes self-reliant and constructs a belief system of his own: “Bud Caldwell's Rules and Things to Have a Funner Life and Make a Better Liar of Yourself.” These rules are, for the most part, about how to negotiate his safety among adults. For example, in one rule he recommends misdirecting adults toward something trivial that they can take away from him to maintain their power. This, he explains, keeps them from taking away what he truly does value.

These guidelines give him a touchstone as he contemplates his own maturity and sense of awareness, which he does often. Through his deliberate opposition to the adults around him, Bud is constantly defining and evaluating his own identity as separate from them. "Most folks think you start to be a real adult when you're fifteen or sixteen years old," he muses in chapter 1, "but that's not true, it really starts when you're around six."

As his journey continues and he meets adults who treat him better—Lefty Lewis and his family, Miss Thomas and the other members of the band—he begins to relax and to trust adults more. As he makes room for that trust within himself, he matures enough to see the members of the band as not just adults but also friends. The novel ultimately suggests that even the most independent individuals can, in the right conditions, find a sense of belonging and community.

Systemic Racism

While Bud is, for the most part, spared overt person-to-person racism throughout his journey, Christopher Paul Curtis does not shy away from portraying the limitations and dangers imposed by systemic racism on the Black community during the Great Depression.

There are two instances where this disparity is made especially clear. When Lefty Lewis first meets Bud in chapter 10, Lefty is most concerned with Bud’s safety in the especially racist town they’re in. As a young Black boy, Bud isn’t safe in public in this area. “In fact,” Lefty tells Bud, “what is definite is that neither one of us should be out here this time of night.”

Later, when Bud meets Herman E. Calloway and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, he is introduced to the structural and regulatory impacts of systemic racism. “Mr. C. has always got a white fella in the band, for practical reasons,” Steady Eddie tells him in chapter 18. Despite his financial success and wide renown as a musician, it is illegal for Herman E. Calloway to own land in certain areas. Dirty Deed, the piano player, is named that for a reason—he holds the nominal title to some of the band’s property, because as a White man he has the sole legal privilege to do so. This, Steady Eddie tells Bud, also allows...

(The entire section contains 1031 words.)

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