Buddy was raised in poverty. His eldest siblings acted as his parents because his actual parents were working in the fields. Buddy is able to go to school and complete his education not because he is the smartest in the family but because he is the youngest. His older siblings shoulder the burden of maintaining the family. Charley is determined that Buddy ‘‘break the chain of poverty,’’ and he sacrifices his own childhood to allow this to happen. Here, the trappings of poverty are clear. Buddy lives in hand-me-down clothing that often has holes in it. He derives pride from outperforming the other students who are better off than he is.
Buddy’s poverty also leads him to join the army. Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill is the only way he can secure the funds for a college education. This decision costs him a few years of life, and he literally risks his life for the opportunity. The lasting legacy of poverty can also be seen in the basic odds of Buddy’s transcendence of it. Of five siblings, he is the only one to complete his education and enjoy financial success in adulthood. Lil’s family struggles when her husband is out of work. Alberta is rarely heard from. Charley drives a cab and lives with his family in a run-down apartment in a poor neighborhood.
African American History
Race is a considerable factor in the characters’ poverty. Buddy’s family is African American and living in the South during the early twentieth century. They are only a few generations removed from the abolition of slavery, and they live in a segregated society that has yet to be affected by the civil rights movement. Race and its role in the family’s reduced circumstances and opportunities are not overtly addressed in the story, but they are hinted at. One such hint is Charley’s residence in Harlem, a poor neighborhood that is predominantly black.
One of the main themes in ‘‘Sweet Potato Pie’’ is that of social class and the contrasts and gaps that divide members of different classes. This separation is largely illustrated through the figure of Buddy, the only character to bridge the divide. As a person who straddles these lines, he brings them into focus. This is especially true in Charley’s treatment of his brother. Charley would have made a big fuss over his successful brother’s impending visit if he had known in advance, so Buddy decides to surprise Charley. Charley frequently mentions that his brother is a somebody ,’’ implying by contrast that he is a nobody. Charley’s belief that he is a nobody is illustrated when he refrains from introducing himself as Buddy’s brother. He feels that his lowly status as a taxi driver will reflect negatively on Buddy. It is Charley, also, who insists that Buddy leave behind his humble roots, which are symbolized by the sweet potato pie wrapped in a brown paper bag. For Buddy to carry such an unimpressive package strikes Charley as inappropriate, not befitting Buddy’s improved circumstances. To some degree, Charley is correct, as no one else in the fancy hotel is carrying anything so modest.
The importance of family in the story is clear. Though Buddy’s childhood is marked by poverty, he is happy. Lil and Charley are loving and competent surrogate parents. Even Buddy’s parents, who are always working, clearly love their family. It is Buddy’s father who decides that Buddy should have an education. Buddy’s mother is prouder and happier than she has ever been when she attends her youngest child’s graduation. All of the members of Buddy’s family make sacrifices to ensure his success and the family’s day-to-day survival. Despite these hardships, though, the family is always portrayed as happy, loving, and without resentment. Buddy never looks down on his less-educated family members; he feels nothing but gratitude toward them. When Buddy visits Charley as an adult, he finds another happy family. Charley and Bea and their daughters welcome Buddy into their apartment and cook for him. To Buddy, ‘‘it felt good there.’’
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Eugenia Collier, Published by Gale Group, 2010