A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich

by Alice Childress
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 104

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.

Literary Qualities

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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 or her case without taking sides.

Childress's symbolic use of color heightens her portrayal of reality. In realistic novels, settings are often bleak, wintry and lifeless, reflecting the fact that many people live in far from ideal conditions. Benjie's world is primarily a black, white and gray one. When a character tries to rise above, or in some way relieve, the harshness of the environment, the attempt is associated with vivid color. Benjie's mother, called Rose, tries to cleanse away the boy's troubles by bathing him in indigo dye she has obtained from a fortuneteller. Benjie, encouraged to express his individuality by buying his own clothing, chooses a bright orange suit. And Nigeria Greene's description of the flag for the black nation he dreams of emphasizes the colors green, red, and black.

Some literary qualities Childress displays in her works include placing her characters' struggles in historical perspective by referring to important black leaders and recounting various anecdotes about black experiences with racism; introducing a variety of memorable characters, whose views offer a complexity of choices; drawing subtle characterizations, revealing individuals only through their own words and through other characters' sometimes changing judgments of them; and developing a suspenseful plot that builds toward an ambiguous, but hopeful, conclusion.

Social Sensitivity

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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 of the locale and subject matter. The novel emphasizes the endurance of the human spirit, even under extremely adverse conditions, and the power of love between people to make a difference. Another important issue the book confronts is the inability or unwillingness of individuals and groups to understand the viewpoints of others. Childress's multiple first-person point of view, which allows the reader to hear each character speaking with whatever word choice, tone, and bias may be appropriate, brilliantly makes this point.

For Further Reference

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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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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 who come in second . . . or not at all.” Childress also describes the way in which her work in the theater has influenced characterization in her novels.

Childress, Alice. Interview. In Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, edited by Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987. Childress comments on her fiction and drama and discusses attempts to ban A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich from some school libraries.

Draper, James P., ed. Black Literature Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the Most Significant Works of Black Authors over the Past Two Hundred Years. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991. Contains a thorough overview of Childress’ life and writing. Includes well-chosen excerpts from relevant criticism.

Hay, Samuel A. “Alice Childress’ Dramatic Structure.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Hay describes Childress’s process of creating a plot through the presentation of information in succeeding episodes. According to Hay, the plots of Childress’s works tend to be rather simple; it is only on the level of characterization and motivation that complexity is achieved.

Jennings, La Vinia D. Alice Childress. New York: Twayne, 1995. A biography of Alice Childress. Focuses on her writing career of “more than 40 years in which she examined with honesty and passion the meaning of being black, and especially of being black and female, in a culture where being white and male was what counted.”

Killens, John O. “The Literary Genius of Alice Childress.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Killens discusses Childress’s use of humor and satire as weapons against prejudice. Though Killens focuses primarily on Childress’ plays, he uses A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich as an example of the author’s ability to construct “awesomely beautiful and powerful moments” in her works. Killens notes the frequent appearance in Childress’s works of the themes of struggle and the need for African Americans to love their own people.

Koppleman, Susan. “Alice Childress: An Appreciation.” Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women 10 (Fall, 1994): 6. A tribute to Childress upon her death. Places A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich into the context of her other works and praises her work for “its powerful and frank treatment of racial issues, the compassionate but unflinching characterizations she created, and the broad appeal of her work.”

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