Although it is told from the limited-third-person point of view, the narrative is not Wade’s alone. In some ways, the novel provides a group portrait. It chronicles the shaping of a family by forces both within and without.
Everything begins with the parents. The child of a white father and a black mother, Big Willie faces the general dilemma of all those individuals of mixed blood—a basic sense of displacement. His role as outcast manifests itself in mindless sexual activity and violence, behavior toward which Wade is also predisposed. Big Willie spits in the eye of Miss Suzie, a white woman who fancied him; Wade spits in the face of a bigoted white mother outside the Bronx high school to which he hoped to gain admission. Big Willie kills other black men in brawls and gambling disputes; Wade also becomes inured to killing. The most significant inheritance from father to son, however, is Big Willie’s contention that his family is “the barrier between him and his self-respect”; because of them, he fled the South rather than face the “crackers” who wanted his blood. For Wade, family responsibility, however misplaced and misinterpreted, stands as a bar to his own fulfillment as a person.
Wade also learns from his mother, whose life is dominated by fear and the establishment of self-imposed geographical and psychological boundaries. After the family’s hasty departure from the South and especially following the death of Big Willie, Mumma tells her children not to venture out of the neighborhood and into areas of the city where white people live; Harlem becomes a ghetto determined as much by personal restrictions as by external forces.
Mumma blames her husband and his devilish ways for the...
(The entire section is 709 words.)