Poverty in African American Literature
Many African American writers address the issue of poverty in their works, usually as a subtheme. In A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1973), Alice Childress uses her main character, Benjie Johnson, to show that a major cause of the behavior of delinquent young black men is the environment in which they live. Benjie is a thirteen-year-old heroin addict who lives in a drug-infested poor neighborhood in New York City. He is eventually given an opportunity to get treatment for his problem, but it is unclear whether he accepts the help.
The Bluest Eye (1970), by Toni Morrison, tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, an eleven-year-old African American girl who becomes pregnant when her father rapes her. The Breedloves are an impoverished family living in a converted store with beaverboard panels serving as interior walls. Both parents work hard, but they are still unable to sufficiently provide for their family. As a result of their frustration with the white world they live in, they are violent toward each other and toward their children.
Both of these novels identify the leading cause of their African American characters’ unfortunate situations to be the history of oppression and domination by the whites, coupled with a cycle of self-degradation and frustration on the part of the blacks, which is a direct result of the oppression and lack of opportunity. These two things lead to a tone of hopelessness and uncertainty as to whether the characters will be able to endure. In Childress’ works especially, the reader is left wondering if the African American characters will be able to break out of their poverty and yet retain their identity. The Bluest Eye also addresses a related tension, which is common in literature about poor African Americans, of a conflict between the African Americans’ desire to raise their standard of living and a revulsion felt for the values and beliefs of the white-dominated society that they seemingly must embrace in order to accomplish this goal.