The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Lafayette, the story’s narrator, longs for a life that no longer exists. He wishes for his mother every day, talking to her in his head when he feels troubled. He is slowly coming to terms with her loss, but he still longs for his family to be put back together in any way that it can be. Charlie’s behavior, however, makes Lafayette doubt that things will ever be normal again.

Ty’ree stepped into the caregiver role after the children’s mother died, giving up a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he intended to study in the hope of someday working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He still struggles with his sacrifice, although he makes it clear to Lafayette that keeping their family together is his highest priority. Ty’ree’s loving and gentle manner draws Lafayette out of his emotional shell, but Ty’ree’s good intentions merely glance off Charlie, who at first is primed only for confrontation.

Charlie desperately wants to reach out to his brothers, but the years he spent isolated in Rahway have made it difficult for him to communicate honestly or admit his vulnerability. Lafayette refers to summers spent with Aunt Cecile to develop an apt metaphor to describe what happened to Charlie, comparing him to the bitter shell of a watermelon whose sweet, juicy heart has been hollowed out. Despite the apt metaphor, Lafayette cannot truly understand the changes in Charlie. Charlie’s detention-center experience sets him apart from the overachieving Ty’ree and the innocent Lafayette. He views himself as the “screw-up” in the family, a perspective that is sometimes shared by Lafayette and Ty’ree.

Lafayette and Ty’ree fear that Charlie will do something else to put the family in jeopardy, but they do not know how to reach out to Charlie anymore. Though Charlie misplaces blame on Lafayette, Ty’ree believes Charlie’s own guilt is hurting him more. When Lafayette complains about Charlie ignoring him, Ty’ree asks Lafayette if he has ever tried just talking to his brother. Ultimately, Lafayette does just that, finally cracking Charlie’s tough exterior. During the weekend when the story takes place, Lafayette manages to reconnect to his brothers.