A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich

by Alice Childress
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Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 250

Benjie Johnson

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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

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Latest answer posted August 30, 2007, 7:31 am (UTC)

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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

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

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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 in her skill. In one of the most joyful scenes in the novel, Benjie and Butler persuade Mrs. Bell to show them the dancing for which she had once been famous.

Nigeria Greene is a black nationalist who, without any sense of irony, wears tailor-made English suits. He is fervent in his desire to teach seventh-graders the part of their history that is missing from the school’s textbooks. Though often self-righteous, Mr. Greene (dubbed “Africa” by his students) has excellent intentions and is the first one who acts to save Benjie from addiction.

Bernard Cohen is, on the surface, Nigeria Greene’s nemesis. In reality, however, the two teachers are working for the same goals. Mr. Cohen cares about the education of his students and is appalled by the quality of their earlier education. Although he wants his African American students to know their own history, he does not believe that this should be all they learn. He attempts to teach black culture in a larger context, improving the skills that his students will need in order to succeed in the world. Mr. Cohen’s sincerity is proven by his unwillingness to be transferred to another school even though he could earn more money there.

The Characters

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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 more, something they cannot give him.

Childress clearly suggests that in many cases black men are better suited to nurture black boys. Benjie’s teacher Nigeria Greene, a Black Nationalist, tries to instill self-esteem in Benjie. He spends hours with Benjie, trying to shield him from the destructiveness of the streets. When Benjie comes to class in a daze and with needle marks in his arm, Nigeria turns him over to the principal and subsequently to the authorities for drug rehabilitation. He tells Benjie that it is “nation time,” a time for black people to save one another.

Benjie distances himself from his drug-free friends, especially Jimmy Lee. It is from Jimmy Lee that readers learn that Benjie started experimenting with heroin as a result of peer pressure. When Jimmy Lee tells Benjie to straighten up because heroin will kill him, Benjie merely dismisses Jimmy Lee as a would-be social worker.

Another character Childress uses to suggest that black men can and must take responsibility for other black men is Benjie’s doctor, who, in a fatherly manner, tries to give Benjie hope. He tells him to start over, noting that “the world ain’t perfect” but, nevertheless, “Hard as it is, life is still sweet.” It is these words of encouragement that Childress places strategically to anchor Benjie. The doctor is a significant character because he represents for Benjie the possibility of survival and success for black men.

While Benjie has Nigeria Greene, Jimmy Lee, and the doctor to bolster his self-esteem, it is Craig Butler who comes closest to saving Benjie. Butler accepts Benjie as his son, even though Benjie berates him and steals from him. Benjie resents Butler for loving Benjie’s mother. Benjie feels displaced. The harder Benjie tries to push Butler away, though, the more his stepfather demonstrates that he will not abandon him. When Benjie is hanging from the rooftop and Butler risks his own life to save him, Benjie comes to see that he is loved and that he can feel secure in his relationship with Butler. As the novel ends, Butler is waiting outside the rehabilitation clinic for Benjie to show up for a counseling session.

A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich offers a portrait not just of Benjie Johnson but also of a whole generation of young black boys who could be swallowed up by the ghetto. Childress makes it clear that the responsibility for these young black men rests primarily with older black men. She calls to black men to accept the challenge of “nation time.”

Themes and Characters

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The characters include thirteen-yearold Benjie, his friends and family members, his teachers and principal, drug pushers, and a fortuneteller. Benjie is the central character, but of almost equal importance is the boy's "stepfather," Butler Craig, who lives with Benjie's mother.

Benjie uses heroin but insists that he can stop whenever he chooses. He blames others around him for his problems, including his former best friend, Jimmy-Lee, who started Benjie on drugs and then stopped "using" himself. Benjie sees his mother, Rose, and his grandmother, Mrs. Bell, as overly critical and uninterested in him. Most of all, he blames Butler, who Benjie feels can simply walk away from the family if he chooses.

In school, Benjie idolizes Nigeria Greene, a fiery Black Nationalist who instills racial pride in his students at the expense of the prescribed school curriculum. Benjie also grudgingly admires Bernard Cohen, a Jewish teacher who resents being considered the "enemy," but who helps his seventh-grade pupils learn, at last, to read. The boy feels betrayed when the two teachers, usually at odds with each other, join forces to turn him in to school authorities for drug use. Benjie is an appealing character but is often unfair in his judgments of other people.

Rose Johnson loves her son Benjie but cannot articulate her love to him. She has had a hard life herself, bringing up the boy alone after his father deserted them. Benjie's grandmother loves the boy too but retreats from an increasingly combination of religion and superstition.

Butler tries to be a father to Benjie but is keenly aware that he has no official status in the boy's life. Butler loves to play the saxophone but cannot make a living doing so; instead, he works at a janitorial job he hates in order to support himself, Rose, her mother, and her son. The reader gradually comes to know and appreciate Butler but is surprised along with Benjie when Butler risks his own life to save the boy's. When Benjie then writes one hundred times "BUTLER IS MY FATHER," the reader finally realizes the depth of the characters' feelings for each other.

One chapter is told from the point of view of Benjie's high school principal, who comments that the students are better off for having both Greene and Cohen as teachers. But he himself has given up on finding a solution to the school's serious drug problem and longs to retire. In another chapter, a drug pusher rationalizes what he does, saying that if he did not supply junkies someone else would. No character is totally evil or totally good. Childress presents each with understanding and compassion, but with sometimes devastating fairness.

The title of the book suggests one of its major themes: the traditional idea of a hero—a person larger than life who performs deeds beyond most people's capabilities—is inaccurate. Real heroes, the novel says, are ordinary people facing ordinary problems. Other themes include racism and the need to confront it; the inability of the "system"—including social workers, teachers, even celebrities— to solve society's problems; the mutual dependency of human beings; the difficulty people in any one group or generation have in understanding problems of those in other groups; and the importance of personal commitment: "If you into somethin, be in it."

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