The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

As in any eponymous work, the author’s principal focus is on Banjo, whose name receives special notice from McKay: “The banjo dominates the other instruments. . . . And Banjo’s face shows that he feels that his instrument is first . . . the banjo is preeminently the musical instrument of the American Negro.” Yet Goosey, the “yellow” exponent of the philosophy of uplift, a thoughtful and at times philosophic character who can be thought of as a representative of the W. E. B. DuBois-Alain Locke school of thought, counters that the banjo is a symbol of Dixie, of bondage, of slavery; and he advocates blacks’ playing the violin, the piano. He and Taloufa refuse to play “any of that black-face coon stuff,” he says, to which Banjo replies that he likes the instrument and sees “saxophone-jazzing” as “the money stuff today.” His liking for the banjo is clearly the effect of his being a “child of the Cotton Belt.” His enthusiasm for the ukulele and mandolin likewise reveals an attachment to the old days and ways of the South, but wherever he goes in Marseilles he finds that though people are amused by the banjo, they are more often entertained by the piano. The beachboys are therefore clearly identified with a musical tradition and technology that have been superseded, and when Banjo and Ray set off together at the end of the story, they do so as itinerant workers rather than as poets or troubadours, regardless of their spiritual state of mind and predilections. Ray is an unsuccessful writer; Banjo is an unsuccessful musician; the arts are merely accompaniments to their lives.


(The entire section is 660 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Lincoln Agrippa Daily

Lincoln Agrippa Daily (Banjo), a black vagabond from the South who has skipped the ship that took him to Marseilles. He is a wastrel, a womanizer, a dreamer, and a loafer whose improvidence leads him to depend for his survival on instinctive actions and chance encounters. He is essentially trusting and basically generous. He is philosophical when he is tricked out of his banjo, which he values above all. He is seldom sober, though wine affords him decreasing pleasure. His charismatic personality allows him to become the leader of the small band that he organizes from the polyglot beach boys of the port. He deprecates black people who attempt to “pass” as white; he stresses racial pride, being influenced by Ray, with whom he decides to continue his vagabondage in Europe rather than return to the West Indies as a crewman on a tramp steamer. His pervasive melancholy is muted by Latnah, who cares for him after a hospitalization; in fact, she is the instrument of his metamorphosis. He is the cohesive element of his group.


Ray, a would-be writer and an educated West Indian beach boy. A drifter who has absconded from his family responsi-bilities to follow his own interests and whims, he regards happiness as the highest good and difference as the greatest charm of life. Moderate in his views (except for being rather strident in his antiwhite sentiments), he is dependable insofar as his immediate colleagues are concerned. He rediscovers his African roots and is proud of belonging to a race that has been “weighed and tested.” Finding life in the Ditch (the Marseilles black slums) palling, he opts for an itinerant working life.


Latnah, an Earth Mother type of lover, a prostitute who offers succor to Banjo and his colleagues. She was born in Aden of a Sudanese or Abyssinian mother and an unknown father; she is “not young and far from old” and has enviable physical attributes, though she is small. Her complexion is olive-toned, she runs like a gazelle, and she is as graceful as a serpent. She is caring, energetic, and sensual, and when she swims nude in the ocean, her beauty excites her companions, for she is lovely, limber, and sinewy. She regards...

(The entire section is 923 words.)