I picked up A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich by Alice Childress at the Friends of the Library book sale one day, probably because I recognized the title and figured it’s a book I should have read by now. It’s a pretty classic problem novel about a kid named Benjie who is addicted to heroin. (The tagline on the novel is “Benjie is young, black, and well on his way to being hooked on heroin” lest there’s any confusion about its problem novel status or the topic of the book. But I digress. )
The story is told in alternating first-person POV chapters from Benjie and the people who his drug use affect, including his mom, stepfather, grandmother, teachers, and friends. The chapters really serve as character studies to let the reader know who populates Benjie’s world as well as how they view not only Benjie but the neighborhood and other people in it.
When I found out the book was made into a movie (starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield, no less!), I wasn’t very far into the book and was surprised because it didn’t seem like there was really enough plot to hang a movie on, but I was wrong about that. While the beginning is pretty light on plot and heavy on premise (Benjie’s on drugs and people notice–seriously, that’s it), as the book goes on, there’s actually a lot of stuff that happens between characters, and it’s all pretty deftly handled. The characters reflect more on how they feel about what’s happened than detailing what happened to get the characters to that point. I mean, we find out, but the chapters don’t follow the standard this happened and then this happened and then this happened progression.
While I ultimately found the book just okay (it’s super short but took me a ridiculously long amount of time to read it given the length), I really enjoyed all of the relationship stuff with the mom and stepfather, and I am 100% in love with the ending. THAT ENDING. Not to mention, all of the familial relationship stuff is ace. Yeah, so that was pretty great. Also, there’s a really interesting conflict between the white teacher Mr. Cohen (who has A LOT of contempt for his black students) and the black nationalist teacher Mr. Green across the hall. They are both effective teachers but they do not particularly care for each other and they have very, very different views of the children and neighborhood they serve.
Anyway, I’m going to end this by just quoting Mr. Green because, through him, Childress basically says what I was trying to get at in my diversity fatigue post:
Look around your city and let me know if you see coloreds represented fifty-fifty in the white community. No, it doesn’t go down that way. I’m sick of explainin and talkin race. Race is the story of my life and my father’s life, and I guess, his father and all the other fathers before that. As a kid, I was in on “race” discussions in school, at home, in church, everywhere. It’s a wonder every Black person in the U. S. of A. hasn’t gone stark, ravin made from racism…and the hurtin it’s put on us.
Also, for anyone doing any banned book challenges, this book was successfully removed from a school library in 1975.