Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402
Jim Harris, an African American who dreams of becoming a lawyer. The play introduces him at the age of nine and follows his development over the next fifteen years. In the opening scene, he is already in love with Ella Downey, whom he later marries. Jim is ashamed of his race, and his feeling of inferiority prevents him from succeeding.
Ella Downey, a white girl one year younger than Jim. As a child of eight, she admires Jim, but later she reveals a hatred of black people. Although she realizes that Jim is morally superior to her white associates, she can never fully accept her marriage to him. As much as part of her wants Jim to succeed so that he can prove his true worth, another part of her wants him to fail and thus to confirm her belief that African Americans are inferior to whites. This ambivalence drives her insane. Feeling tainted because of her interracial marriage, she refuses to associate with whites, and her bigotry drives potential black friends away.
Hattie Harris, Jim’s sister, a teacher in a black school. Proud of her race, Hattie tries to accept Ella and nurse her when she becomes ill, but Ella’s racism drives Hattie away. Hattie is somewhat prejudiced and is reluctant to associate with whites.
Mrs. Harris, Jim’s mother. Believing in the separation of the races, she regrets Jim’s marriage to a white girl. She and Hattie move from lower Manhattan to the Bronx to live exclusively among black people.
Mickey, a white prizefighter the same age as Ella. They are childhood friends and then lovers. Mickey abandons her after she becomes pregnant with his child.
Shorty, a white gangster and another member of the crowd that played with Jim, Joe, and Ella when they were children together. Shorty, who is a pimp, offers to add Ella to his stable of prostitutes when she is struggling financially.
Joe, a black gangster. He cannot understand why his friend Jim is trying to become a lawyer, because he sees them both as suited only for a life on the streets. He underestimates the abilities of black people. He recognizes that Jim wants to use money and education not, like Hattie, to prove that black people are equal to whites but rather somehow to escape from his black heritage.
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