Themes of race are very strong in Bud, Not Buddy. The Great Depression was hard on all Americans, but it disproportionally affected the African American community and left a lot of people struggling to survive in an unfriendly environment. The book shows how racism magnified the effects of the economic downturn on African Americans. That being said, many of the black characters in the book are doing fairly well, such as the Amoses and Herman E. Calloway’s band, and we see a very positive side of a situation that usually lacks a sliver lining. During his time in Hooverville, Bud sees a white couple that refused the other Hoovervillian’s help due to pride, but he also meets a number of perfectly friendly white characters, and the book avoids painting any race with too broad a brush.
When Bud sets out to find the man he believes to be his father, he does wonder at times why this man would have left his mother. Little does he know, Herman E. Calloway is his grandfather, and he still holds out hope that he will see his daughter again. When he finally learns of her passing, Bud’s grandfather feels deeply saddened by the relationship they had previously, and how his tough love attitude may have driven her away. However, when Bud tells him of the advertisements his mother kept from the band’s performances, he realizes that in a way, his daughter forgave him a long time ago; she just wasn’t sure he, for his part, would forgive her. Opening up to Bud as his only remaining family, even in little ways, lets him atone and find a way to forgive himself.
Themes of family are exceptionally strong throughout the novel, with the death of Bud’s mother placing him in the foster care system, and prompting him to embark on his search for his father. Bud isn’t simply searching for a better life, he’s searching for what is likely the last kin he has in the world, and upon finding Herman E. Calloway’s band, he finds a larger family then he ever could have hoped for. He finds a place with the band members, an identity, and that is as powerful as blood relation ever could be.
There are many examples of altruism in the text, something Curtis sees as truly American and certainly something that made the Depression more palatable. The Home makes a place for foster children; the Amoses agree to help with those children, a kindness despite the couple's personal flaws; the mission provides food to hungry people; and the Hooverville is a model of collective support both emotional and physical. Lefty Lewis also reaches out to the little black boy he sees on the road in the middle of the night, and the band members provide food and eventually much more to the family-less Bud.
Coming of Age
Bud doesn't age too much during the course of the novel but he does learn several lessons along his journey to find his father; thus, there are aspects of what's called the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, in this work. Bud is an independent kid but learns the balance between relying on himself and accepting help from others. Dealing with Herman forces him to be patient and respectful (though he doesn't always succeed). He also comes to terms with what family means to him—perhaps not finding the father he expected, but a new and loving family in his grandfather and the band—and how he can keep his mother in his heart always.
Curtis didn't choose to make Herman a musician simply on a lark; rather, jazz was an extremely important part of 1930s life and culture in culture at large, and especially in the black community. Jazz clubs were places where people could gather and forget their troubles (at least for a time). They were places for dancing and joviality and laughter and community; musicians brought more than just music to town. Jazz music was also a way for black men and women to distinguish themselves in a society that still treated them with hostility, racism, and even violence. Bud's putative future in jazz will give him the opportunity to move between both the black and white worlds, albeit in a limited way.
Bud as the main character is preoccupied with his survival, as are the other people on the fringes of his story. For some, survival means simply food and shelter; for others it is work, labor activism, or even retaining one's dignity. Bud's survival is finding a home and remaining true to himself while navigating a world that can be confusing and tough. When Bud makes a list of rules for his own conduct, he demonstrates his will to survive. In making the list he brings together what he's learned from the past and commits to using this experience to help him navigate and survive in the future. It may initially seem amusing or childish, but at its core, it is indeed a survival manual that adults could no doubt benefit from as well.
Bud, Not Buddy Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Bud, Not Buddy is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.