Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Until recently, Alice Childress’s reputation depended primarily on her achievements in the theater. With Gold Through the Trees (pr. 1952) and Trouble in Mind (pr. 1955), Childress became the first black woman to be recognized as a major American playwright. Therefore, critical discussions concentrated on those plays and on later works such as Moms: A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne (pr. 1987). Comments about her fiction often were limited to discussion of A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1973), which has even been mistakenly referred to as Childress’s first novel; by the 1970’s, Like One of the Family had long been out of print and was difficult to obtain. It was not until the reissue of Like One of the Family in 1986 that this novel, originally published thirty years before, began to receive the attention it deserved.

Like One of the Family is now seen by critics as a work of inherent value and of historical importance. In Mildred, critics have noted, Childress created a kind of independent, assertive African American woman who in the 1950’s was new to fiction. Moreover, by drawing upon her own experiences as a domestic worker, in Like One of the Family Childress presented the first accurate description of the lives of a large group of women who had long been ignored.

Admittedly, Like One of the Family has flaws, such as the sermon-like quality of the less dramatic chapters and the lack of a structural plan for the book as a whole. It has also been argued that Mildred’s high success rate in converting her employers is implausible and that the novel is thus somewhat less realistic than it might have been.

Despite such minor shortcomings, however, Like One of the Family is now considered an outstanding work. Despite the book’s often comic tone, Childress’s opinions, delivered through Mildred, have a solid philosophical foundation. Furthermore, Mildred herself is more than merely an interesting and sympathetic character; she represents the “many others,” the heroic black women, unnamed in history books, who have for centuries transmitted a sense of self-worth to later generations.