The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The characters of Lila Mae Watson and James Fulton are central to developing the themes of the novel. Lila Mae’s father was an elevator operator in a department store. As a child, she was fascinated by her father’s uniform, which he brought home to show to her and her mother. The only African Americans allowed in the department store were those who worked there.

Lila Mae is an obsessively determined individual; nothing deters her. She adjusts to her room, a converted janitor’s closet, at the elevator inspectors academy. She remains calm and focused when she finds thugs ransacking her apartment, when she is kidnapped by Chancre’s forces, and when she discovers Natchez’s deception. Even when she realizes that her life may be in danger, she perseveres to uncover the truth. She is unwavering in her efforts to be the best elevator inspector and to be acknowledged as such.

Lila Mae has nothing in common with her only African American colleague, Pompey. He conforms and does what the “whites” want, because succeeding as an elevator inspector will enable him to provide the opportunity of a better life for his children. Lila Mae’s motivation, by contrast, is self-centered, and in this respect she resembles James Fulton, the father of Intuitionism. A light-skinned man, Fulton had been able to pass racially, but he had always known that his life was a lie: If his colleagues had discovered the truth, he would no longer have been accepted. Angered and wishing to get even, he created the concept of the black box as a joke. Lila Mae and Fulton are loners; both fight against a system that makes every effort to deny them the verticality (upward mobility) admired and sought by the society in which they live.