Alice Childress's A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1973) is a novel that explores the debilitating effects of drugs on a youngster, Benjie Johnson, his family, and his community. A product of the urban ghetto, Benjie is seduced into taking and selling heroin by neighborhood ne’er-do-wells. The issues of identity and the quest for wholeness that surround Benjie's use of drugs are significant in light of the fact that the novel is set immediately following the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when fragmentation and alienation characterized the period. Childress portrays Benjie as a strong-willed, iconoclastic teenager who believes he has to prove something to the world while simultaneously depicting him as a hurting, confused, overwhelmed, sensitive, and intellectually curious youth who craves love and security.
Childress writes Benjie as an anesthetized youth who is having trouble coping with the fact that his biological father abandoned him and that his mother has found a surrogate father for him in Butler Craig. While Benjie's mother and grandmother do their best to nurture him, it is the men in the novel who have the greatest influence on him. His teachers, Nigeria Greene and Bernard Cohen, try to put Benjie on the right track, but it is only when Butler Craig risks his life for Benjie that he begins to want to beat his drug addiction. Butler Craig proves to be the real hero, not the celebrities that the social worker offers Benjie in her attempt to give him hope. When Butler Craig sees Benjie hanging from the ledge and has to decide whether to put himself at risk to save an arrogant stepchild, he chooses to reach out to Benjie. While the novel ends with Butler Craig waiting for Benjie to show up for a counseling session, the point is well made that Benjie does not stand a chance at surviving without someone like Butler Craig, a strong African American male figure, reminding him daily that he is loved and that he can triumph.
A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich illustrates the pervasiveness of drug use not only in urban ghettoes but in society in general. Childress argues that the world has become a place where youngsters and adults rely heavily upon opiates to feel good about themselves. On another level, Childress boldly suggests that women can sometimes be powerless in saving their sons. She certainly implies that women alone cannot teach their sons how to become men. She forthrightly suggests that African American men must take responsibility for their youth and try to shelter them from destructive forces. Childress urges African American men to call for nation time, a coming together of black men and women to help preserve their community and build strong self-esteem in their children.
A Hero Ain’t Nothin but a Sandwich gave high visibility to Childress as a skilled author of adolescent fiction. For the first time in her writing career, she was able to reach the masses in a way that she had not been able to do with her Off-Broadway and community theater-produced plays. Childress's novel is a milestone because, unlike many of her female contemporaries, she creates a loving, sensitive, generous African American man, Butler Craig, taking responsibility for his family. Childress uniquely captures the beauty and pain of being African American, and she does so by showing that men as well as women are needed to keep the family viable.