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La Vinia Delois Jennings’s Alice Childress

La Vinia Delois Jennings‘s Alice Childress was published in 1995 as a part of Twayne’s United States Authors Series.

Born in 1916 and raised during the Harlem Renaissance under the watchful eye of her beloved maternal grandmother, Alice Childress grew up to become first an actress and then a playwright and novelist.  The influence of Grandmother Eliza– poor and uneducated, spirited and perceptive– cannot be discounted in Childress’s work.  Her sense of vocation as a writer may have originated in the days when the two would make up stories about passersby on the street beneath their apartment window, with Eliza telling young Alice to write down the good ones; her heartfelt respect for the struggles of ordinary black women likely has its roots in her relationship with the woman who brought her up.

A founding member of the American Negro Theatre, Childress became in 1952 the first African-American woman to see her play (Gold through the Trees) professionally produced in New York and in 1956 the first to receive an Obie Award (for Trouble in Mind).  She is perhaps best known today for A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, her 1973 novel for young adults about a 13 year-old black boy addicted to heroine.  At the time of her death in 1994, Childress could lay claim to a writing career of more than 40 years in which she examined with honesty and passion the meaning of being black, and especially of being black and female, in a culture where being white and male was what counted.  As Childress herself once said, “I concentrate on portraying have-nots in a have society.”

In this first book-length study of the author’s work, La Vinia Delois Jennings places Childress in the company of such novelists as Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor and such playwrights as Ntozake Shange and Sonia Sanchez.  Like them, Jennings writes, Childress created works that are largely female centered, populated with women “driven by the directives of their rage and convictions” to “embark on quests for self-determination, self-identification, and self-empowerment.”

Childress consciously used her writing as a vehicle for social commentary.  The issues that intrigued her had to do with sexism, racism, and classism and the way they could preclude, often make impossible, the development of a healthy sense of self.  Motivating her decision to become a playwright in the late 1940s was the lack of stage roles– in both the black and the white theater– true to the lives of African-American women.  She often ventured into controversial dramatic and literary territory, with the result that her play Wedding Band (1966), an interracial love story, was optioned for Broadway a dozen times but never produced and her novel A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich was banned by a Long Island school district.  A significant figure in the tradition of African-American theater, young adult fiction, and dramatic and literary writing by and about black women, Alice Childress merits the same heartfelt respect she proffered in her work to the characters who descended from her Grandmother Eliza.

“This careful, in-depth study is an excellent work of dedicated scholarship.”  Choice.  A. Costanzo, Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.

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