‘‘Sweet Potato Pie’’ is set in both the present and the past, telling the story of the narrator’s day while he simultaneously recalls his childhood. The exact time in which the story is set is unclear, though it is likely the time in which it was written, that is, the 1960s or early 1970s. This estimate is further bolstered when one considers that sharecropping (a system in which tenants farm the land they live on and pay their rent with a share of the harvest) in the United States largely died out in the 1940s. Since the narrator, now an adult, grew up in a sharecropping family, it is fair to assume that he was a child sometime during the 1920s or 1930s.
The narrator, whose name is first revealed as Buddy halfway through the story, states that he is on the fourteenth floor, looking down at his brother Charley on the sidewalk. From that height, Charley looks small to Buddy, ‘‘an insect scurrying among other insects.’’ It appears that Charley senses that he is being watched because he looks up at the building, but he does not see Buddy. Instead, he walks down Fifth Avenue, headed toward his run-down taxi. It becomes clear that the story is set in New York City. The narrator remarks that Charley will be headed uptown any minute.
Buddy moves away from the window and plops down on the bed, still wearing his shoes. He hints that something out of the ordinary has happened and says that he rarely sees Charley. In a poetic turn of phrase, Buddy says of his brother, ‘‘My thoughts hover over him like hummingbirds.’’
The room that Buddy is in is neat and impersonal, sterile, a strong contrast to Charley’s apartment in Harlem (a historically poor black neighborhood in New York City). The room also presents a stark contrast to the shack in which they grew up. Buddy can see Charley now, as he was as a child, and he thinks of his Charley with love and thankfulness. Charley is the eldest and did not have much of a childhood because he was always caring for his younger siblings. Their parents sharecroppers.
Buddy was the youngest child, and he rarely saw his parents since they were always out working in the field. He mentions his other siblings as well: Lil, Alberta, and Jamie.
Buddy remembers that one of the few times he saw his parents was the day when the sharecroppers were paid. Each year, they would sell the harvest, and the family would gather quietly as Mama counted out the proceeds. They normally ran out of supplies toward the end of the year and needed the money to restock. Mama would divide the money into piles for each expense. When she deemed it enough, everyone would relax, secure in the knowledge that they would be able to survive for at least another year.
Buddy also recalls spending time with his parents on Sundays, when they would go to the Baptist church. He thinks of how small he was and how his parents looked like ‘‘mountains’’ as he sat between them. His father’s face was still, like a ‘‘mask’’; his mother’s face was serene, but it would grow more and more animated as the power of the religious service affected her. These are the only occasions Buddy can recall when his parents were not in the field. Mostly, he was raised by Charley and Lil, the eldest daughter in the family. He thinks of how each acted as father and mother to him. Buddy had a stutter as a child, and Charley was determined to cure it. Charley heard of a remedy consisting of hitting a stutterer across the mouth with a wet rag when they stuttered. He employed the technique with Buddy. Although it did not work, Buddy did eventually grow out of his speech impediment.
The family was poor and uneducated, but the children tried to go to school as often as they could. However, the demands of the farm and the family, of ensuring their basic survival, kept most of them from having any chance at a real education. Buddy, as the youngest, was the only child in the family who had any real opportunity to attend school. His father recognized Buddy’s intelligence and intended him to make use of it. Charley also wanted Buddy to make something of himself, to ‘‘break the chain of poverty.’’ In the narrative, this is where Buddy’s name is first revealed, as Charley admonishes him to succeed.
Buddy loved going to school, appreciating it all the more for the sacrifices his family made to ensure that he could complete his education. He took pride in outshining his other classmates, the same ones who teased him for the holes in his clothing. Over time, the family’s burden began to ease. Alberta left home at age sixteen to look for work and Jamie died at age twelve. Because the family had fewer members to support, Buddy was able to enter high school. His family was exceedingly proud of him when he graduated as valedictorian. His siblings and parents gave him the coins and dollars they had saved and told him to buy a new suit, the first suit Buddy owned that was not a hand-me-down.
Even now, years after Mama’s death, Buddy pictures her as she was on the night of his graduation. He states, ‘‘I realized in that moment that I wasn’t necessarily the smartest—only the youngest. And the luckiest.’’
Buddy comments that the war started, though it is not clear which war Buddy is referring to. Given the estimated time frame, it could have been the Korean War or the Vietnam War. Buddy joined for the G.I. Bill, an act that ensured former soldiers a college education at government expense. He says that since then, the years have passed in a blur. His childhood home is vacant and his siblings have gone their separate ways. In one sentence, Buddy relates that he has gotten married, gone to graduate school, had kids, and secured work as a professor. He is fatter and older and balder. The story now returns to the present. Buddy is looking at Charley, who is ‘‘still gentle-eyed, still my greatest fan.’’
Buddy is in town for a conference, and he surprised his brother with a visit earlier that day. He was afraid to tell Charley and Charley’s wife, Bea, that he was coming, because he knew they would have spent days cleaning and fussing in preparation for his arrival. Buddy was in town for a few days, staying at a fancy hotel, before he was able to break away from the conference and head to see Charley in Harlem. To Buddy, the neighborhood feels like home; it 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.’’
Buddy describes the people on the street and the general hustle and bustle. Some stores are still boarded up from the riots. Buddy can still feel ‘‘a terrible tension in the air.’’ He then goes on to describe Charley’s building, which is run down, like all the buildings in the neighborhood. He remarks upon the graffiti. Buddy then comments on surprising Charley and Bea and their joyful welcome of him. They call for Mary and Lucy, Buddy’s nieces. They are bashful at first, and Buddy hugs them.
The group sits merrily at the table while Bea cooks for them. Buddy comments, ‘‘It felt good there. Beautiful odors mingled in the air.’’ He tells the family about his conference, at which he gave a speech earlier that day. Charley and Bea are proud of him. They talk about Bea’s job at the school cafeteria. Buddy mentions his wife, Jess. Charley says the family is too scattered; they never get to see one another, especially since Mama and Pa have died. Charley comments that it has been years since he has seen Alberta. Bea points out that everyone is too busy to visit because they are all just trying to get by.
Charley mentions Buddy’s sending money to Lil’s family last Christmas after her husband, Jake, lost his job. Buddy tells Charley that he owes Lil and Charley far more than that. Charley then tells Buddy that he ran into one of his students, but he did not tell the student that he was Buddy’s brother. Buddy is a ‘‘ somebody and Charley sees himself as just a taxi driver. It seems clear that Charley is afraid his lowly status would sully the student’s perceptions of Buddy. Buddy then calls Charley crazy. He wants to tell Charley that he would be no one if not for Charley’s support, but he refrains because he knows it will embarrass his brother.
When the family has finished dinner, Bea serves Buddy a giant slice of her homemade sweet potato pie, Buddy’s favorite. Afterward, Buddy is sad to take his leave, and Bea insists that he take the rest of the pie with him. Buddy enthusiastically agrees. He comments, ‘‘I’d eaten all I could hold, but my spirit was still hungry for sweet potato pie.’’ Bea wraps the pie in a brown paper bag, and they all say goodbye. The love between them is evident. Charley drives Buddy back to his hotel in his cab.
Outside the hotel, Charley stops Buddy and tells him that he cannot bring a brown bag into the lobby. He explains that carrying a brown bag into a fancy hotel is not proper, that it is beneath Buddy’s status as a ‘‘ somebody .’’ Buddy tries to argue and says he has ‘‘nothing to prove,’’ but he eventually gives in, marveling at his brother’s crazy notions. The two men say their goodbyes, and Buddy enters the hotel. In the lobby, everyone is carrying expensive suitcases; no one is carrying anything close to a brown bag. Buddy notes, ‘‘I suppose we all operate according to the symbols that are meaningful to us, and to Charley a brown paper bag symbolizes the humble life he thought I had left.’’
As Buddy is thinking this, he looks behind him. What he sees inspires ‘‘tears of laughter.’’ It is Charley, ‘‘proudly carrying’’ the brown paper bag for his brother.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Eugenia Collier, Published by Gale Group, 2010