Themes and Meanings
While A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich does not glamorize theft or drug use, it does suggest that Benjie’s problems are not entirely of his own making. Benjie’s addiction has resulted both from his own poor choices and from the limited options that society has offered him. Childress reserves some of the harshest passages of the novel for the social workers who blame everything that Benjie has done on his “environment” and, in so doing, fail to help him. A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich suggests that, while a person’s problems may indeed be the result of poverty or injustice, it is up to each individual to take responsibility for his or her own life.
The title of the novel reflects Benjie’s cynicism and his belief that, in the modern world, heroism is no longer possible. Benjie learns, however, that real heroes are not those who are perfect. The heroes of the modern world are people such as Butler Craig who may be flawed and have troubles of their own. Real heroes are those who are willing to help others even when they themselves have nothing to gain.
In many ways, all of the people who surround Benjie share at least some of this heroism. Mr. Cohen and Mr. Greene overcome their personal differences in an effort to save Benjie from drugs. Benjie’s mother risks her own relationship with Butler Craig because of her devotion to her son. Even Jimmie-Lee Powell and the school’s principal would help if only they knew what to do. Nevertheless, Childress does not present these characters as stereotypical heroes. Like Benjie, all the characters have their own individual “addictions”: For Butler, it is jazz and his “name-brand bottle that can be tasted now and then”; for Mrs. Bell, it is religion; for Mr. Greene, it is politics. The temptation toward addiction, Childress suggests, is universal. The true hero (or perhaps the true adult) does not, however, permit this temptation to destroy what would otherwise be a productive and meaningful life.