Young Adult Fiction: A Hero ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1973)- Alice Childress

hero-2As part of my dissertation; on the function of heroin use in literature, I decided to research young adult fiction and how you might write about drug abuse when your audience is specifically teenagers. Despite winning numerous awards, A Hero ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich was banned by the Board of Education.  It seems the relationship between teenagers and drug abuse is somewhat controversial. However, it is happening, and it is never going to stop. Literature opens up discussion and helps address the issues that have plagued the last century through until now. So why ban it?

Despite what you may think, I read that the book was not primarily banned because of it’s discussion of illicit drugs. In a reference book by Herbert N. Foerstel: Banned in the U.S.A.: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries, he informs that it was deemed unsuitable for having the word ‘ain’t’ in the title and  because’George Washington was identified as a slave holder.’ Its bizarre when you think of it nowadays, but during the 70s when this book was originally published, America was still battling with racism and the rise of minority groups. I spose as heroin was not primarily concentrated in the black communities, the board may have let it pass?

A Hero ain’t nothin’ but a Sanwich is a series of short chapters that reflects the internal monologues of several characters who are affected by Benjie, a thirteen-year old boy who falls into the clutches of heroin addiction.  Some character’s include Benjie’s grandma; his teacher; his step-father and of course, Benjie himself. Childress identifies each characters through colloquial language; each having their own individual voice; a technique I think is important in portraying the anxieties of living inside a ghetto in New York during the 1970s.

Particularly one of Benjie’s teachers, Nigeria, is an avid and passionate spokesperson in promoting black history. The contradictions thrown at him by Nigeria, and the need to fit into a white America is perhaps particularly daunting thus pushing Benjie to experiment with heroin. Similarly, his home life is particularly unstable; Benjie’s overtly religious grandmother and contradictory step-dad provide him with the excuse to find escape.

This novel is an easy read in the way that it is fast paced, however the content is though-provoking and particularly controversial as a part of 1970s America. Race, class and religion are all interrogated and Benjie’s easy-going view on his addiction is perhaps a warning sign to parents. As ever, this sort of literature is undoubtedly relevant in the twentieth-century. Alice Childress herself was recognised as being: “the only African-American woman to have written, produced, and published plays for four decades”- its a startling comparison to the world as we see it today and whether young or old; it is a must-read for those curious about the many issues raised within the novel.



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