Collier’s ‘‘Sweet Potato Pie’’ is a delightfully subtle, but optimistic, story that portrays the love between two brothers. At its heart, however, it shows the legacy of poverty that hangs over one African American family, even over the one member who has ostensibly escaped that legacy. The structure of the story is also quite remarkable. It begins with Buddy in his hotel room, watching Charley below on the street. This image already hints at the difference in the brothers’ respective statuses. From this final moment, Buddy recalls his childhood and the series of circumstances that have led him to that hotel room. Buddy’s thoughts ‘‘hover over’’ his brother ‘‘like hummingbirds,’’ and these poetic words lead Buddy to think of Charley as a child. As Buddy recounts the paternal role that Charley played then (and that, as the story later shows, he still plays), it is clear that Buddy loves Charley as a father.
This love for Charley can be seen both in Buddy’s adult behavior and in his childhood recollections. Buddy says that Charley was so tall that he seemed taller than God. Buddy literally and figuratively looks up to his older brother. He also thinks of Charley’s propensity to whittle, the toys he would fashion from scraps of wood, and the illustrations he would make with charcoal. Buddy also remembers the fabulous ghost stories Charley would tell to entertain his siblings. These memories make it clear that Charley is a talented and creative individual, but those talents are lost as he plays father to his siblings. They remain lost as he is forced to make his way in the world, working as a cab driver to support his family. Buddy is well aware of this loss. As he graduates from high school, he sees the potential in all of his family members, and he acknowledges that Charley has ‘‘the hands of an artist.’’ These observations lead Buddy to the epiphany that he is not smarter or better than any of them, ‘‘only the youngest. And the luckiest.’’
Although it was Buddy’s father, the elusive man with a face like a ‘‘mask,’’ who first decided that Buddy should be the child to attend school, it is Charley who ensures that it is possible. He is the one who is ‘‘determined’’ to see Buddy ‘‘break the chain of poverty.’’ It is Charley who insisted that Buddy become ‘‘ somebody ’’ and who continuously marvels at this fact when that goal is achieved. However, Charley’s joy at Buddy’s success does not counter his own lack of self-esteem. He feels himself to be nobody in comparison to his brother. This is both the spoken and unspoken aspect of Charley’s constant declarations pertaining to Buddy’s status. Charley says that he is ‘‘nothing but a cab driver.’’ He feels that his lowly status will reflect poorly on Buddy, and he does not tell Buddy’s acquaintances that they are brothers.
Here, Charley reveals his belief that being somebody ’’ is about more than simple accomplishment; it is about divorcing oneself from all that is connected to poverty. Buddy does not feel this way; he is proud of his brother, so much so that the only reason he does not acknowledge Charley’s role in his success is because he does not wish to embarrass his brother. Charley never acknowledges the part he played in Buddy’s accomplishments, not even, it seems, to himself. Later, when Charley refuses to allow Buddy to carry the modest brown paper bag into the expensive hotel, he again asserts his belief that Buddy should act according to his success. In doing so, Charley underscores how hyper-aware he is of status and of the proper and improper behaviors associated with it. This is largely because he has no status himself. By contrast, because Buddy is secure in his milieu, he tells Charley he has ‘‘nothing to prove.’’
Nevertheless, it is Charley who is correct in this instance. When Buddy enters the hotel lobby, dejected and without his beloved pie, he is surrounded by people with fancy suitcases and packages from the high-end shops nearby. Charley, however, is a man who has nothing to lose by appearing in the lobby with a brown paper bag, and he does so in a supreme act of love that is both paternal and brotherly. Charley once more puts Buddy’s needs ahead of his own. Buddy, though, is the one who ultimately must sacrifice himself, on a daily basis, to maintain his role as a somebody .’’ Buddy never has the opportunity to eat the modest foods of his childhood, such as the sweet potato pie Bea makes for him. The statement ‘‘I’d eaten all I could hold, but my spirit was still hungry for sweet potato pie’’ calls to mind the term soul food , often used to describe such dishes. This is the food that Buddy, in his success, lacks.
Buddy loves his family, but he is separated from them physically in order to pursue his career. In fact, he never mentions where he lives, only that Harlem feels like home to him. To Buddy, the neighborhood has an ‘‘epic’’ quality to it. It is ‘‘as if all black people began and ended there . . . as if in Harlem the very heart of Blackness pulsed its beautiful, tortured rhythms.’’ If one considers the old adage that home is where the heart is, it is clear that Buddy’s hear is in Harlem and with Charley. There is no indication that he experiences that sense in his own town. Buddy neglects to mention so much as the names of his own children, and he recalls little more than this of his wife. Buddy, then, lives in constant exile. The distance between him and Charley is also undeniable; no matter the love they have for one another, even their speech is at odds. Charley and Bea speak in dialect while Buddy speaks as the educated man that he is. This, then, is also the legacy of poverty. Of his five siblings, Buddy is the only one to escape poverty, but that escape is not without its own costs.
Leah Tieger, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Eugenia Collier, Published by Gale Group, 2010