A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich

by Alice Childress
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 345

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.

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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.

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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.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985

Benjie Johnson is a haunting character. At the novel’s conclusion, the question of whether he will survive his drug use goes unanswered. Benjie is appealing because he is a typical American boy. In some respects, he resembles Oedipus Rex, whose tragic flaw, his pride, leads to great suffering. Benjie spends countless hours thinking up ways to unseat his stepfather.

Each time Butler tries to reach out to Benjie, the young man recoils. Benjie is especially annoyed that Butler wants to help him with his drug problem. When Butler tells Benjie that he can make something of his life if he tries, Benjie ridicules Butler for calling himself a “maintenance man” and reminds him that he is merely a janitor. Benjie tells Butler not to offer him advice, because he does not see where opportunity has come for Butler.

As Benjie moves from marijuana to heroin, his resentment grows. Benjie becomes more and more alienated from his friends and family. When Butler tries to lend Benjie support, Benjie tells him to stop trying to be a hero.

Benjie’s feelings for Butler are compounded by his relationship with his mother. The closer Rose and Butler become, the more Benjie seeks drugs to dull his feelings. He feels as if his mother has abandoned him, too. Childress links Benjie to Oedipus in her characterization of him as an adolescent perhaps too attached to his mother and too resentful of her relationship with his stepfather. He is exceptionally sensitive about his mother’s pain when she and Butler begin to argue over his drug addiction. He is angry that his mother loves Butler, but he aches when he sees her crying after Butler moves out of the house.

Benjie’s guilt about his mother is exacerbated when he learns that his mother, in a state of desperation, has gone to a fortune-teller to find a way to end his addiction. While she bathes him in indigo water, Rose cries about Benjie’s problems and about her arguments with Butler. Benjie’s response to his mother’s crying is to wonder why someone thirty-three years old, essentially an old woman, is carrying on about some man. He cannot understand why she is not satisfied with simply being a mother.

Later in the novel, however, the young man comes to understand why his mother loves Butler, who is truly a hero. The day Butler risks his life to keep Benjie from falling from the rooftop is the day that Benjie realizes that he does, indeed, have a father. Childress uses a near-death experience to shock Benjie into a new level of growth, one that allows him to accept his mother and stepfather as parents. Childress leaves readers guessing about Benjie’s future. She suggests that the power of love may not be enough to reclaim him from the throes of drug addiction.

A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich delves into the complexity of parenting in a society where humans dull their senses with drugs instead of finding ways to heal themselves. The novel also examines a host of other issues. Poverty, for example, is a major theme in the novel. Childress portrays life in the ghetto of Harlem, where poor people struggle to survive in a stifling environment. She calls attention to the fact that children suffer the most from poverty and other ills such as drug addiction.

Childress’s novel also addresses racism, sexism, and ageism. Butler, in particular, seems to be the spokesperson for Childress’s views on racism. Essentially, Childress links poverty experienced by African Americans to racism. The world of her novel shows the have-nots as people who are doubly victimized because of their race and class.

Childress’s Mrs. Ransom Bell embodies the author’s belief that sexism and ageism run as rampant as racism and classism in America. Mrs. Bell, the mother of Rose and grandmother of Benjie, is an old, black, poor female. She recalls her days in the South before she came to the North looking for a better life. She points out that there were only two ways in her day for black women to survive: by doing housework for whites or by getting married. Childress, however, illustrates that the narrow, prescriptive roles for black women only empowered many of them to struggle harder to achieve against the odds. Mrs. Bell becomes a shake dancer, earning a living by shivering every part of her body at once or each part separately. She tells that she became a shaker because she promised never to let anyone starve her off the face of the earth. Even after her marriage, Mrs. Bell was not free from hard times. She tells of her husband’s inability to get a job because he did not belong to the all-white bricklayer’s union. Childress depicts a world where black people suffer but remain optimistic and confident in their own will to survive and succeed.

Childress’s treatment of the theme of ageism is perhaps one of the most passionate in contemporary literature. She demonstrates clearly that it hurts to be old. Mrs. Bell complains that her family treats her as if she is senile. Even more disrespectful are the young people who mug her and other elderly people in their Harlem neighborhood, robbing them of money, groceries, and dignity. Mrs. Bell sums up the misery of old age when she says that maybe old is more than pain; it is the loneliness that occurs when the mind goes one way and the body goes another. Childress speaks of the strangeness of living in a society that places no value on the wisdom that comes with age. Nowhere is Childress’s point more evident than in her depiction of Benjie, who is an anomaly to his grandmother because he does not see her for the resource that she could be in helping him survive adolescence.

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