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Alice Childress

Author Jim Haskins
Air Date 10/12/1999

Alice Childress Transcript

Alice Childress was a woman of firsts. Born on October 12th in Charleston, South Carolina in 1920 and raised in New York City, in 1952 she went on to write the first play by an African American woman to be professionally produced in New York, and in 1956 she became the first woman ever to win an Obie award for a best original off-Broadway play. Along with being a playwright, she was also an actor and a director. But she didn’t stop there. She wrote screenplays and a newspaper column, essays and feature articles, and fiction for young people and for adults. She acknowledged that it might look like she got “caught up in a fragmentation of writing skills. But an idea comes to me in a certain form and, if it stays with me, must be written out or put in outline form before I can move on to the next event. I sometimes wonder about writing in different forms; could it be that women are used to dealing with bits and pieces of life and do not feel as compelled to specialize?”

She is perhaps best remembered today for her novel for young adults, A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich, which was published in 1973. It received wide-spread critical acclaim at the time, including a nomination for the National Book Award, and was almost as quickly, she reported, “the first book banned in a Savannah, Georgia school library since Catcher in the Rye.” And the book is still being contested or banned somewhere in the country every year because of its unflinching portrayal of the life of a teenage drug addict who is trying to kick his habit. This book was decades ahead of its time, and it is still as powerful today as it was when it was written over a quarter of a century ago. The novel did not oversimplify its view of the life of a troubled teenager, but rather depicted the complexity of his world and the difficulty of finding authentic heroes who will inspire real change.

For me, Alice Childress was one of those heroes who worked tirelessly on behalf of the image of African Americans, literature and the arts. What I remember most about Alice Childress, who I met numerous times in New York was her total commitment to young, in-city youth. So happy birthday, Alice. We all miss you and your work.


Posted in Authors, Literature