Study Guide

Tambourines to Glory

by Langston Hughes

Tambourines to Glory Characters

Characters

Sister Birdie Lee
Birdie Lee is a “little old lady” who is called to God during one of the Reed Sisters’ street corner services. She had followed God in her younger days, but since then she “backslid, backslid, backslid.” Now she has determined to stay on the path of righteousness. As is typical in this kind of service, Birdie Lee shouts out her story, or “testifies,” right in the middle of Laura’s preaching. She grabs the tambourine, sings a song of praise, and shakes the tambourine “so well that the whole corner started to rock and sway, feet to patting, hands to clapping.” From that moment, she is a member of the church, and from that moment Laura resents her, because Laura perceives Birdie Lee as competition. Birdie Lee is a faithful member of the church, helping with the scrubbing when they move the church into the apartment, and joining in the rejoicing when Crow-for- Day is converted. In the end, her weak bladder proves Laura’s undoing, when a need to rush to the toilet puts Birdie Lee in a position to witness Buddy’s murder. Birdie Lee saves Essie from prison and makes up for all her past sins by promising to testify once more and tell what she saw.

C. J.
C. J. is a young Christian boy who plays guitar in the band at the Tambourine Temple. He is in his first year at City College, studying chemistry, and is sweet and polite if a little dull. When Marietta comes to Harlem, he is the natural one to court her. As the two fall in love, C. J. struggles, with Marietta’s firm insistence, to keep his lust under control. By the end of the novel, the two are engaged to be married.

Chicken Crow-for-Day
Chicken Crow-for-Day—tall, thin, and aged sixty-five—is the first person converted after the Reed Sisters open their church indoors. By his own account, he has been a life-long sinner, who spent his time drinking, gambling and chasing women. Dramatically, as he announces his salvation before a crowd, he pulls a pistol and a knife out of his pockets and flings them through the window into the street. With the support of the congregation, he apparently does change his life. Crow-for-Day stays with the church as it grows, eventually earning the titles “Brother” and “Deacon.”

Essie Belle Johnson
Essie Belle Johnson is an unemployed woman of about forty, living on welfare in Harlem. She came up North from Richmond, Virginia, years ago, and has been trying ever since to get together enough money to bring her daughter to live with her. Essie does not have much education or many skills, and she is passive, prone to sitting and staring at the wall in “long, long, very long pauses,” but she has a beautiful singing voice. When she and her friend Laura start to joke about starting a church as a way to raise money, Essie thinks and prays about it and makes a sincere connection with God. She and Laura do form a church, with Laura preaching and Essie singing, and they make a success of it. Even before she decided to pray, Essie lived a quiet life. She did not drink or gamble or chase men. Her only close tie was with Laura, who lived quite a different life. For five years, Essie and Laura have been neighbors and friends, sharing scraps of food and looking after each other in spite of their differences. Now that they are the Reed Sisters, partners in the church, Essie is less comfortable with Laura’s sins. She prays that Laura will find God, and she scolds Laura about her behavior, but she does not try to exert any control over Laura’s actions. Essie refuses to take any of the money from the phony Holy Water, but neither does she speak against the scheme.

The church grows larger and more successful, and Essie sees this as a sign that her work is blessed by God. With every hymn she sings, her faith grows deeper. She turns her energy inward, into private study of the Bible and of religious writers, and withdraws emotionally from Laura. After Buddy starts sleeping at the new apartment with Laura, and Marietta arrives, the distance between the women increases until Essie and Marietta take a small house outside Harlem. It is not until Laura kills Buddy and frames Essie for the crime that Essie realizes her passiveness has worked against God’s plans for her. “I should have riz in my wrath and cleaned house,” she thinks, instead of “just setting doing nothing but accepting what comes, receiving...

(The entire section is 1804 words.)