August 11, 2021 7:34 AM EDT

Set in Harlem in the early 1970s, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich explores the impact of racism and poverty on drug addiction through the story of a Black middle schooler who becomes addicted to heroin. Told from the distinct first-person perspectives of 13-year-old Benjie Johnson and a number of significant people in his life—including his mother, stepfather, drug dealer and best friend—the acclaimed 1973 novel, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, chronicles Benjie’s descent into addiction and subsequent struggle to get his life back. Pioneering playwright and novelist Alice Childress, one of the first Black women to have a play produced professionally in the U.S., reckons with what it really means to be a hero in a society that so often fails its most vulnerable. As Benjie’s stepfather tells a social worker, “I’m supportin’ three adults, one child, and the United States government on my salary… So, explain me no heroes.” Five years after its release, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich was adapted into a movie starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield as two of the novel’s most important characters, Benjie’s mom Sweets and his stepfather Butler. —Megan McCluskey

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