The character of Thelonious Ellison offers an object lesson in the difficulty of establishing an individual identity. Accused time and time again of being “not black enough” because he does not conform to popular cultural expectations, Ellison is the product of generations of education and economic privilege. Even as a child, he did not think, feel, or speak like his peers.
Like the nameless main character in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Thelonious Ellison is engaged in a struggle for self-definition. By virtue of his “brown skin, curly hair, wide nose, and slave ancestors,” he is African American; by virtue of the fact that he comes from three generations of medical professionals and graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, he lives a middle-class existence whose attributes often do not match contemporary stereotypes regarding African Americans.
Other characters in the novel also struggle to define themselves. After fifteen years of living a lie, Bill Ellison finally tries to accept his sexual orientation and learn to navigate the treacherous waters of contemporary dating. Lisa Ellison sacrifices a personal life for a medical career marked by social activism and becomes the unwitting target of a pro-life fanatic. The matriarch of the Ellison clan turns her back on her blue-collar roots when she marries Ben Ellison and chooses to live in service to his vision of the world.