Childress, Alice - A Hero Ain't Nothin’ but a Sandwich (New York, Coward, McCann and Geoghegan Inc., 1973, 126 pp)
During the late 1960s and early 1970s authors and publishers began to finally realise that there was a huge, largely untapped market for novels aimed at teenagers that incorporated aspects of actual teenage life. While today’s teen novels regularly include references to drugs, music, alcohol abuse, sex, racism, bullying, loneliness, etc as part and parcel of their characters lives the tendency in the 1970s was make these issues the turning point on which the whole plot revolved. As a result many early "problem" teen novels, whilst marking a huge step forward from their predecessors, tend to come across as rather worthy and humourless nowadays.
Illicit drug use was an inescapable fact of life by the 1970s and most novels dealing with it were either keen to condemn what they saw as a product of the "new permissiveness" or to situate such behaviour within a social context. A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich defiantly falls into the latter category as it focuses on the realities of heroin addiction in the black community via the perspective of a number of people involved with a 13 year old addict. The despair and confusion at the failure of the civil rights movement is captured intelligently whilst Childress also brings into play a number of other issues such as the rise of the black middle class, the pacification of the ghetto and the ease with which many embraced heroin’s nullifying effects. Whilst the device of using a variety of first person statements to relate its plot becomes rather laboured at times the novel nevertheless rises above much of the pack due to its cleverly open ended denouement and fiercely political outlook.
A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich earned it’s author a number of prizes upon its publication in 1973, but also drew the distinction of becoming the first book to be banned in Savannah Georgia since the 1950s. Following this the book became the focus of a Supreme Court battle in which a student successfully established that school boards could determine the general curriculum, but not ban or withhold books from their general library. Despite this victory both this novel and a number of others continue to draw the ire of Fundamentalist groups who have increasingly been targeting the control of local and school government in recent years.
"Children got nothin to eat in the house... they livin offa Kool-Aid and crackers, plus what they can lift while moms is waitin for the ‘big hit’. Kids meanwhile coming down with ringworm and pellagra. Everybody lookin for a quick miracle... some kind of easy way to make it without buggin Whitey too much.
Don’t cha know that if a fix could fix things I’d shoot skag myself? Nothin is for free... not even a feelin. Somea those whiteys usin horse cause they feelin bad about how good it’s suppose to be for them but they seein how it ain’t goin down that way. The parents done sent big brother’s ass off to get murdered... smiled and said ‘Goodbye’ to the boys. ‘Send him to the Army, that’ll keep him out of trouble.’ They pushin war, dig it? Ain’t no way to live without pushin somethin. They ain’t stopped horse riding through the Army- or anywheres else.
Me, I say screw the weak and screw the power. If it’s called free enterprise then let it be free. Nother thing, if I had my way about it I wouldn’t be related to a Black-ass nigga on this earth. All them that want to die put a five in my pocket and I’ll help them slowly make it outta here, with a smile on their face... and one on mine. Less of them means more room for me. The hell with the junkie, the wino, the capitalist, the welfare checks, the world... yeah, and fuck you too!" (pp 63)