The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Francie Coffin is the first-person narrator of her novel, and the most interesting character in it. On one hand, she is like any twelve-or thirteen-year-old girl, full of dreams, curiosity, and misinformation. She spends a lot of time thinking about boys and resisting sexual advances (from adults as well as from boys) and learning with her girlfriends, Sukie and Maude, about the outside world. (Sukie’s sister China Doll, for example, is a prostitute who is friendly to the girls; Francie, though, observes her beaten up by her pimp, whom China Doll will kill by the end of the novel.) She watches as a neighborhood friend throws his grandmother’s cat off the tenement roof; later, a man tries to rape her in the apartment’s dim hallway.

Francie is bright, enterprising, and a survivor: She knows how to hide her father’s numbers receipts so that the police cannot find them when they search the Coffins’ apartment. She sells grocery bags to shoppers who frequent an open Harlem market in order to earn spending money.

In the end, she has achieved her initiation: She has had her first menstrual period, and she has survived all the sexual abuse around her. More important for her emotional growth, she kisses her mother’s cheek in church one morning, thus symbolically forgiving her weaknesses, and she challenges her father for his. She has become a young adult.

Many of her best qualities actually come from her parents, who are loving...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Francie Coffin

Francie Coffin, the twelve-year-old narrator of this novel of initiation, who witnesses the disintegration of her Harlem family over the course of a year. She has or finds the skills to survive in this world of poverty, violence, and sexual abuse. Francie is bright, loyal, and enterprising.

Henrietta Coffin

Henrietta Coffin, Francie’s mother, the person who holds the Coffin family together. She goes to work part-time, later full-time, for a white woman, applies for welfare against the wishes of her husband, and somehow manages to save her shrinking family.

James Adam Coffin

James Adam Coffin, Francie’s “beautiful” father, who is a numbers runner in his Harlem neighborhood. He can barely support his family in the bottom of the Depression, even working as a janitor in exchange for rent and with occasional piano jobs. In the end, the pressures of his family get to him, and he leaves to move in with Mrs. Mackey.

James Junior

James Junior, Francie’s older brother, fifteen years old. He is impatient with the pace of his life, joins the Ebony Earls, a youth gang, and drops out of school to work for Alfred, a Harlem pimp. Later, he lives with Belle, a prostitute.


Sterling, Francie’s fourteen-year-old brother, who graduates from junior high school. He also is impatient with his family’s poverty, and he leaves school to go to work for an undertaker. Sterling watches out for his younger sister and becomes the father figure to the family by the novel’s end.

Sukie Maceo

Sukie Maceo, Francie’s best friend, a girl with much anger that comes out in fights with Francie. Sukie’s sister is China Doll, a prostitute. By the novel’s close, Francie realizes that Sukie is headed for the same awful end.

Maude Caldwell

Maude Caldwell, another good friend of Francie. She and the other members of her West Indian family live next door to the Coffins.

Aunt Hazel

Aunt Hazel, Henrietta Coffin’s sister, a successful single domestic worker who is always able and willing to lend money to Francie’s struggling family.