The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Wade Williams

Wade Williams, the protagonist, a virile, attractive, light-skinned African American male who is “thirty-eight and never married yet never free.” His life is bound up in his family and his neighborhood, and his natural intelligence and intermittent attempts at personal freedom are hampered by the conditioning of those two forces.

“Big Willie” Williams

“Big Willie” Williams, Wade’s father, a physically powerful, half-white man who lives with a bullet in his heart for one year after he is shot in a card game. It is his unfinished business, his pledge to avenge himself against the Southern whites who forced him to seek shelter in the North, that keeps Big Willie going.

Evelyn Williams

Evelyn Williams, the family matriarch. Saved by her husband from a life of labor in the cotton fields of the American South, “Mumma” reluctantly shares Big Willie’s exile in the North. Hers is a life of fear, complaint, and Christian hypocrisy.

Faith Williams

Faith Williams, Wade’s sister, whose devotion to her brother is nearly absolute. They share “every joy, every grief.” Faith is so much a part of Wade that her eventual death at his hands signals the ultimate disintegration of his personality.

Willie Earl Williams

Willie Earl Williams, the eldest of the three Williams siblings, a “natural-born...

(The entire section is 484 words.)